The music historian ANTHONY BARNETT does nothing halfway, and his enterprises are never predictable. He is a scholar — a term I do not use casually – on the subject of Jazz violin who has published extensive bio-discographies of Eddie South and Stuff Smith. He has also done remarkable research on less famous players (Harry Lookofsky, Ginger Smock), and published a journal devoted to violin improvisation. But Barnett does not restrict himself to print: his AB Fable CDs are full of marvels: airshots of Stuff Smith leading a band of Fats Waller alumni; homemade 78s of Ray Nance, Ben Webster, Jimmie Blanton, and Sonny Greer jamming; a 1966 home recording of Rex Stewart and Stuff Smith chatting and playing. Scratchy one-of-a-kind acetates are restored carefully and annotated superbly. And all of his research is presented in lively, witty, and sharp-edged prose. I would expect no less from a poet who has also been a percussionist with Don Cherry and John Tchicai.
Barnett’s newest project is unusual even for him, and its lengthy title doesn’t even begin to explain it: LISTENING FOR HENRY CROWDER: A MONOGRAPH ON HIS ALMOST LOST MUSIC with the poems and music of Henry-Music (Allardyce Book / AB Fable Recording, 2007, paper, 128 pages, with CD). I had never heard of Crowder or his music, but that is the point. The most superficial way to explain Crowder as a fit subject for Barnett’s investigations is that Crowder (1890-1955), a Jazz pianist, singer, and bandleader, recorded with Eddie South’s Alabamians in 1927-28. The “almost lost” of Barnett’s title first becomes comprehensible when we learn that all discographies prior to 2000 incorrectly stated that Antonio Spaulding was the pianist on these Victor sessions, unwittingly erasing Crowder in his two most accessible musical appearances.
But this is not simply a book about “finding” Crowder, a Jazz legend; readers should not hope to discover a homegrown Tatum, for Crowder was a capable player and improviser on the basis of the limited evidence we possess. But his pianistic talents are only a small part of his portrait and of this book. No other study justifiably intertwines Ezra Pound and the singer Bee Palmer (“The Shimmy Queen”), Jelly Roll Morton and Nancy Cunard, Samuel Beckett and Sidney Bechet (a felicitous although unlikely pairing). Crowder, the book reveals, was more than a little-known African-American musician and sideman whose band Morton fronted for a 1927 tour. He and Cunard had a seven-year relationship, with Crowder the inspiration for and a contributor to her 1934 Negro: An Anthology. Henry-Music, a tantalizing part of Barnett’s title, was a 1930 folio of poems by Cunard, Richard Aldington, Beckett, and others, with musical settings by Crowder. He is thus a tangential but intriguing figure – someone who visited Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital — in the cross-continental modernist culture of the period.
Barnett’s book contains everything knowable at this distance about Crowder: a forty-page biographical profile, an itinerary of the places he played, press clippings, many photographs, reproductions of letters, record labels, drawings, articles written by and pertaining to Crowder, the poems and musical settings in Henry-Music, a discography of recordings and piano rolls and more. Crowder was, it should be said, a fine prose writer: his “Hitting Back,” published in Negro, should be far better known. And – sensibly and graciously – the book has its own CD, broad in scope but exceedingly relevant, containing not only the thirteen 78 sides on which Crowder plays and sings, but the half-dozen 1926 piano rolls he made (restored and played on modern equipment), new recordings of Crowder’s compositions – sung beautifully by Allan Harris, and four sides by orchestras with whom Crowder was associated although he did not play on these sessions.
Here, I can imagine readers muttering their version of poet Philip Larkin’s Law of Reissues, which (paraphrased) is “If you haven’t heard of this musician or these recordings before, he or they can’t be worth your interest,” which is amusing but reductionist and illogical. Crowder himself is not the sole subject of Barnett’s book, although his life, alternating between highly illuminated and shadowy, is. It isn’t one of those pretentious books about My Search for Some Famous Recluse where the author’s ego becomes the subject. This book and the accompanying CD provoke philosophical stirrings on the chord changes of “What can and cannot be known about anyone’s life?” followed by “How can anyone assemble – properly and doing justice to the subject – the posthumous fragments of evidence anyone will leave behind – to make some valid overview of what has been lived?” This book may not be Barnett’s Citizen Kane, but it awakened some of the same concerns and speculations. Because his research is so scrupulous and diligent, his delight in fact over conjecture so enlivening, I would like to see this book in universities – not just on the library shelves – because it is an essential text for anyone interested in the culture of the last century and its implications. I am also certain that readers who would profess no interest in Crowder or Cunard will delight in its perceptive, stubborn, inquiring ways.
(Copyright 2008 Cadence Magazine: www.cadencemagazine.com.)