I’ve been reading an advance copy of Nat Hentoff’s latest book — a collection of his Jazz Times columns, called AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL: SIXTY YEARS ON THE JAZZ SCENE (University of California Press), which will be published next month. 

In a chapter devoted to Thelonious Monk, Hentoff presents an interview done at Monk’s home in 1956 which contains this short passage: “Charlie Parker?  I met him in Vic Dickenson’s room where he was visiting one day.  Charlie wasn’t well known uptown around this time.”

It pleases me to imagine a jazz universe where Monk, Vic, and Bird hang out in each other’s rooms.  Some of the jazz ideologues, busily dividing the music into “schools” to be arranged in chronological order, have relegated players such as Vic to a kind of Dixieland-limbo.  You won’t find his name in Robin G. Kelley’s exhaustive biography of Monk, by the way. 

The musicians I know are remarkably open-minded about their associates and associations.  “Can (s)he play?” is the question, stated or implied.  Frank Chace told me that when he was a young man he listened to all the jazz records he could find — “modern” as well as “traditional,” thinking that it was his responsibility as a musician to hear and learn from as much as he could. 

Jazz didn’t necessarily have “a star system” until it began to be publicized.  Rankings and polls were a way to sell magazines.  And the “star” mentality has a particularly exclusionary turn — which jazz listeners and writers of all persuasions are prone to.  It’s delightful to celebrate Duke, Louis, Bird, Bix — but what about the worthy players who aren’t spoken of?  Some musicians are made much of for reasons that have little to do with their music — their obscurity or the tragedy of their short lives.  But many remain in the shadows as if the jazz pantheon was limited rather than spacious. 

Admiring Art Tatum shouldn’t mean that Nat Jaffe has to be pushed aside or ignored; where did Dicky Wells and Benny Morton get to? 

The night sky has millions of stars.  Discover or re-discover someone worthy who’s been ignored or passed by.

9 responses to “STARS IN THE JAZZ SKY

  1. Pingback: STARS IN THE JAZZ SKY

  2. leslie westbrook

    As the daughter of a jazz pianist – who played with the lighthouse all-stars, at the monterey jazz and playboy jazz festivals, worked/played with gil mele, bob whitlock, gary peacock, june christy and many others (and made one obscure album on revelation called this is their time, oh yes) i hear you. the night is filled with a thousand stars…many unsung, unnoticed or known as “a musician’s musician” I am looking forward to reading this book – and buying it for my pop for father’s day if it’s out by then!

  3. Stompy Jones

    Well said, Michael.

  4. Howard McGhee

    yeah, man!

  5. Love your playing, Maggie – – – !

  6. Howard McGhee

    Why thanks, Mikey!

  7. Right on the money!

  8. Rob Rothberg

    You said it, Michael. Words to live by!

  9. These great men didn’t give a damn to which “school” they belonged to. Bird quoted Pops’ introduction to “West End Blues” note for note in his solo on “Cheryl” at Carnegie Hall, on Christmas, 1949.

    There was a radio announcer who stupidly screamed over Charlie’s improvisation, babbling something like “Sometimes the new school does borrow from the old.”

    There is only one “school”, in my opinion: The school of sound, of good music, and of good taste.

    Bird: “If it’s good, it will be heard.”

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