March 9: A merchant and musician is born; Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes is making history

March 9: A merchant and musician is born;  Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes is making history
March 9: A merchant and musician is born;  Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes is making history


Amerigo Vespucci was born—1451

As almost everyone no doubt knows, North America and South America are named after a guy named Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian merchant with, one assumes, a disregard for misfortune. I say this because in the late 13th and early 14th century, Amerigo went off on voyages of discovery when he probably could have just stayed home and done the merchant thing instead of sailing into the unknown…probably looking for a quick buck.

The problem is that Amerigo did his globetrotting so long ago that no one is 100 percent sure how many voyages he navigated. There seems to have been some underhanded letter writing at the time, among other things. I can’t make heads or tails of it, so if you’re interested, research it yourself.

Historians seem relatively content to say that he definitely made two voyages – one in 1499-1500 that took him from Spain to the mouth of the Amazon River and back, and one in 1502 that took him from Portugal to perhaps Guanabara Bay , which is the bay of Rio de Janeiro. However, Rio was not what it is today, so he did not stay long, returning to Lisbon in mid-1502.

So, yes, two continents are named after him, but who actually made the name? This somewhat dubious honor appears to reflect a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemuller, who first used the name on a map in 1507. Martin’s collaborator, Mattias Ringman, explained it this way: “I see no reason why anyone can properly reject a name derived from that of Amerigo, the discoverer, a man of shrewd genius. A suitable form would be Amerige, meaning Land of Amerigo, or America, since Europe and Asia have received female names.” Hmm…

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I don’t know if Martin and Mattias rate Amerigo too highly, or if I’m being too hard on a dead guy who can’t answer for himself. “America” ​​is a perfectly fine name, and we’re used to it, so let’s leave it at that. Amerigo Vesupcci died in 1512. Of malaria. No surprise there.

‘Free jazz’ saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s birthday —1930

Ornette Colman, one of the great jazz innovators, was born on this day in 1930. He began his career as an alto, and sometimes tenor, saxophonist in Texas R&B bands at the age of 14. Although later in life he expanded his musical skills for violin and trumpet as well.

For many, Ornette is the face of “free jazz”, the form of jazz that seems least informed by form. To all but the most die-hard jazz lovers, it sounds like musicians coming together and then each going in a different direction all at once. Or solo artists who try to go in all directions at once, all alone. But that’s a boneheaded way of looking at it. Especially when it comes to Ornette Coleman.

Growing up in Fort Worth, Coleman was steeped in blues and R&B, but eventually wanted to break out of what he felt were restrictive chord progressions and harmonies. Moving to LA in the early 1950s, the self-taught musician studied harmony and music theory books while working as an elevator operator.

His experimental performances of what he came to call “harmondics” appealed only to a relatively handful of listeners and musicians. Still, he continued to pursue the music that was in his head, eventually supported by bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins.

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In 1958, this groundbreaking quartet recorded the first of what was essentially a three-album mission statement—Something elsepublished in 1959, The shape of jazz to comealso ’59, and The change of the century1960. The music on these albums is challenging, and contains a lot of relaxed tempo and improvisation with many tonal edges, but the four musicians are obviously going in the same direction on each composition, with a lot of bravura unison playing and stop-time group performance.

Here is my favorite Ornette Coleman recording. It’s his composition, “Ramblin,” from The change of the century LP. I think of it as ‘Ornette Coleman meets Aaron Copland’ – and it’s a real joy.

Also included, just to make sure everyone is happy – a bluegrass version of the song by fiddler Richard Greene, bassist Buell Neidlinger, mandolinist Andy Statman and guitarist Tony Rice.

Bertha Knight Landes was elected Seattle mayor in 1926

Mrs. Knight Landes came up in this column last week, as one of the people who initially cut the cord on the then-new Paramount Theater in 1928. As I said, she was Seattle’s mayor—the first woman ever to be mayor of a major. American city, and the only female mayor of Seattle until the election of Jenny Durkan in 2017.

Born Bertha Knight in Massachusetts, she and her husband, Henry Landes, moved to Seattle when Henry got a job teaching at the University of Washington. Bertha apparently dove right into community activities. In 1922, she and the rather memorably named Kathryn Miracle became the first women to serve on the city council.

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In 1926 – just 6 years after women had gained the right to vote in America – she ran for mayor and won. As Seattle Times art critic Moira McDonald wrote in a 2022 article:

“Although her time in office was short, Landes—who hated being called ‘mayor’—was praised for an efficient, scandal-free administration, and was endorsed by The Seattle Times for re-election. She never ran for office again, but spoke and wrote extensively about women’s ‘natural sphere’ in politics, encouraging others to follow in her footsteps and demanding equal treatment for all elected officials.”

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