Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Magic Bullet

This is the third and final installment of the story I started telling earlier this week. Actually, I'm repeating the story here from the beginning, so if you want to skip ahead to the conclusion, just scroll down to the boldface portion. Otherwise, here is the story in full...

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 My sister and her husband were visiting from out of town for his 30th Anniversary Medical Shool Reunion, and we were going out for breakfast…Peter and Cathy, myself, and my father. Peter was telling my father about the incredible coincidence we had experienced the night before when he and I had gone down the lounge at his hotel for a drink. Peter and I are both musicians; in fact, although he is two years younger than me, you could say he was my mentor and biggest influence when we were in university. We also share a mathematical bent, so music theory is a frequent topic of conversation for us. That night Peter had asked me if I had ever really thought about how diminished chords are used in popular music. You might  be surprised what an animated conversation two fifty-something-year-old guys can get into on that kind of topic; suffice to say it wasn’t long before we were hammering out imaginary piano chord progressions on the barroom table, arms waving and feet pounding in rhythm, shouting things like “minor seven flat five! minor seven flat five! That’s when a guy came over to the table. No, he wasn’t the concierge, come to ask us to please control ourselves…he was, as he introduced himself, a musician from out of town, here all alone, and he couldn’t help notice two fellow musicians having such a lively conversation about…music. Naturally we asked him to join us.

His name was Eric. “Where are you from?” New York. “What do you play?” Saxophone. Peter was suddenly very interseted. “Tenor or alto?” Tenor. “What did you say your name was?” Eric Alexander. 

Peter’s jaw dropped. “You’re the Eric Alexander? One of the best saxophone players in the world?” 

The stranger allowed as to how he was indeed. “This is unbelievable”, Peter said. He then explained that he had been planning to phone Eric Alexander that very week. Peter had left the medical profession in the early 90’s after his music software business, which had began as a hobby, suddenly took off. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that since his initial offering in 1987 of a relatively straightforward auto-accompaniment program which generated arrangements based on chord charts, Peter has almost single-handedly redefined the territory of artificial intellignence with regard to computer-generated music. One of his most interesting innovations has been the idea of having a computer take hours of human-generated jazz improvization and, using complex algorithms, chop those tracks into discrete segments (“licks”) to be re-arranged over new chord patterns. The results have been surprisingly musical and spontaneous; as Peter sees it, it works because it mimics as closely as possible the process whereby real musicians generate lead solos.

To this end he has been hiring world-class musicians on a whole range or instruments…piano, guitar, clarinet, pedal steel, you name it…to generate those hours of improvisations. And as he explained to us at the table, there was only one instrument remaining on his “to-do” list…you guessed it, the tenor saxophone. And who was he thinking of hiring? That was exactly the question over which he had conferred with his colleagues back home that very week, and they had short-listed three names: Sonny Rollins, Joe Lovano, and Eric Alexander. And Peter had already decided that it was Eric whom he would approaching first, at the earliest opportunity. Well, it seemed that opportunity had come just a little earlier than expected.

It turned out that we were not yet done with coincidences. Eric for his part could hardly believe he was sitting at the same table with Peter Gannon, the inventor of the original “Band-in-a-Box”. Of course he had heard of Peter! He counted off for us this renowned soloist or that one of his acquaintance who used “the Box” as a back-up band to practise with at home. You can imagine how Peter was kvelling (as I was too, if there is such a thing as kvelling vicariously)! And not the least surprising was the way in which Eric leapt with alacrity into the discussion of diminished chords, analyzing with enthusiasm and intelligence their application in this jazz standard and that one. It was hours before the evening finally broke up.

As Peter finished telling the story, our breakfast was arriving. “I guess we’ve all experienced our little coincidences,” I offered, “but that one surely takes the cake”.

“I’m not so sure.” My father had spoken up. “I think I have a better one.”

And then he began his story. It seems that during his years in the Schreyer government in the 1970’s, he had had the opportunity to do a certain amount of world travelling. In particular, as Minister of Mines and Resources, he had been sent to a conference in Argentina on Water Resources (a topic on which I have previously written in this very column), where he made a point of looking up the Israeli delegation. As it happened, he quickly hit it off with a colleague of his own age whom he ended up taking to dinner. That colleague turned out to be one Shaul Arlosoroff.

A lifelong friendship ensued. On a subsequent trip to Asia some years later, my father made a point of visiting Arlosoroff in Singapore, where he had been posted on an overseas assignment. During that visit, he had also met Arlosoroff’s Asian housekeeper, who told him she was planning to move to Canada in the future. My father gave her his card, so she could call him up if she ever made it to Winnipeg.

Fast forward five years. Arlosoroff was in North America, and he had arranged a stopover in Winnipeg to visit my father. They were in the basement playing pool when the conversation turned to his Malaysian housekeeper. Whatever had happened to her? Had she ever made it to Canada? Arlosoroff’s face darkened. In fact, she had. He believed she had gone to Toronto, but he had lost touch with her. He was in fact concerned that something bad might have happened.

 At that moment, my mother came down the stairs carrying the phone. (No…I must correct myself. This was still back in the prehistoric days when all telephones were conneceted to the wall by a physical cord.) There was a woman on the phone, and she was calling for Shaul. “But I didn’t give anyone your number,” he protested. “Who knows that I am here?”

It turned out the caller wasn’t exactly looking for Shaul. She had in fact called for my father, hoping to ask him Shaul’s phone number, which she had lost. She was none other than the Malaysian housekeeper, alive and well, and calling long distance from Toronto. And she had called us in Winnipeg on the very day, the one day in ten thousand, when Shaul happened to be in our house…and almost at the very moment when she herself was the topic of conversation!
The waitress came around to fill our coffees. “You know,” I said, “that’s an incredible story. But if Arlosoroff were here and we asked him to tell about his most amazing coincidence, he might tell a different story.”

My father yielded the floor to me, and I continued. Some of my readers by now are surely wondering if my father’s friend had any connection to the Arlosoroff. Indeed he had. Shaul was none other than the son of Chaim Arlosoroff, the Zionist leader whose murder in 1933 on a Tel Aviv beachfront was no less traumatic for Yishuv in its day than Rabin’s assasination would be sixty years later. I called Arlosoroff’s death a “murder” rather than an assasination, in deference to the verdict of the investigative commision appointed by Menachem Begin when he was Prime Minister, whose findings “conveniently” whitewashed the alleged involvement of the Revisionist movement in Arlosoroff’s death. If you want to know the real story of what happened, I strongly recommend the Wikipedia article on the life of Arlosoroff. I was amazed to learn what a powerful voice he was for cooperation with the Arabs, and the critical role he played in the controversial negotiations with Nazi Germany to facilitate the emigration of refugees to Palestine. (Both of these initiatives were bitterly opposed by the Revisionists.)

Three Revisionist members were in fact put on trial, and one of them, Abraham Stavsky, was convicted. His conviction was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court because there was only one witness to identify him (Arlosoroff’s wife) and not two as required by Turkish Law, then still in force under the terms of the Mandate. Stavsky went free, but the controversy did not die.

Fast forward fifteen years and six million lives. The new Jewish state was fighting for its survival against the invading armies of five Arab states. In the first three weeks of fighting, the Jews have miraculously held on, and in fact even slightly expanded the territory under their control, in particularly having just opened a vital link to the beseiged City of Jerusalem only hours before the imposition of a UN-brokered truce. Now both sides are desperately re-arming for the second round of fighting. The Revisionist movement has bought a rusty old freighter in Europe and filled it with munitions. It is called the Altalena and it is off the coast of Palestine, having slipped past the UN-sanctioned British naval blockade. Menachem Begin is on board.

Begin is determined to use the arms to bolster his own forces, but Ben Gurion is adamantly opposed to an army-within-an-army. He agrees to commit 20% of the munitions to Betar brigades fighting in Jerusalem, but it Begin wants more, and Ben Gurion refuses to budge. The entire Jewish world is shocked as Ben Gurion orders the Altalena to be taken by force. In the ensuing battle, sixteen Irgun fighters and three Haganah soldiers are killed. The ship is sunk and the arms are lost. Among the dead is Abraham Stavsky. You can read this on Wikipedia. But there is one more small detail which you will not find on the internet: of the Haganah brigade which was ordered to fire on the ship, one of its member was a young soldier named Shaul Arlosoroff. Obviously no one will ever know whose bullet killed who in a pitched battle; but you will surely appreciate that one particular soldier from that brigade has never been able to stop wondering if the bullet which found Stavsky wasn’t his.

The waitress was clearing the table and refilling our coffees for the last time. Peter had been fascinated by the whole story. “Where was the murder trial held?” he asked. We told him it was under the British Mandatory authorities, so it was probably in Jerusalem. Peter remarked that an great-uncle on his mother’s side had been a British Judge. What was the name? Peter thought about it: “It was either a Plunkett or a McCormack”. I already knew that his mother’s family had just a bit more yichus than that of his father, a happy-go-lucky Dublin music hall entertainer from whom Peter and his brother, noted guitarist Oliver Gannon, had inherited their musical talent. I thought I remembered Peter mentioning a relative who had been a high government official in Hong Kong. “Is that the one you’re talking about?” I asked him? “No, you don’t understand,” Peter went on. “My uncle was a judge in Palestine.” The table fell silent.

If you look up Oliver Plunkett on Wikipedia, you will see that he was one of the judges in the trial of Abraham Stavsky.

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POSTSCRIPT: I sent this story to Arlosoroff in Israel, and he was gratified that people still took an interest these things; but perhaps he thought it was time to set the record straight. Indeed, the story of the "magic bullet" had been repeated many times in Israel in the years following the sinking of the Altalena. In fact, prior to the confrontation it was known that Stavsky was on board the Altalena; and therefore Arlosoroff's commander, perhaps not wanting to tempt fate, had ordered the young Chaim to stay in Tel Aviv when his unit was assigned to the beaches. And that's where he was when the Altalena went down. 

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