Because many life-changes are marked by chronological milestones: first tooth, first day of school, first love, first job — we see life as a series of such events. Most biographies of jazz musicians follow a familiar dramatic arc: childhood musical epiphany, practice and finding a sound, success, public life, and sometimes a drama or several. Documentation of these events depends on first-and-secondhand accounts, surviving friends, paper trails, and the like, even though too much detail is a proven soporific.
Charting a life as if the reader could move from one bead to the next on a narrative string doesn’t work when beads are missing and the string has frayed and broken. Such a book, however, while offering an incomplete record, may be much more lifelike, more enthralling. This is the case with Anthony Barnett’s new book — the only book on the subject — tracing the dots and lines and spaces that form what we know of the life of the violinist / clarinetist Juice Wilson, 1904-72.
Barnett’s previous work and publications — primarily on violinists Eddie South and Stuff Smith — are frankly astonishing. He is an indefatigable researcher, but his books are never indiscriminate upendings-of-the-wastebasket onto the reader. He loves what in other hands might seem trivial, but always finds a relevant place in the narrative. He isn’t burdened by ideology (although he is irked when other writers have gotten it wrong) and he doesn’t fabricate. Barnett is also a poet, and that sometimes eerie sensitivity to nuance raises the texture of his work far above anything else in jazz literature. And he’s been researching Wilson for thirty years.
So, if you’re in a hurry: this little book, delightfully ornamented with photographs and more, is a gem. Buy it here. (You’ll notice that this post does not contain the usual YouTube clips — because they are suspect for many reasons. Barnett will supply links — clean, speed-corrected, and so on — to purchasers.)
Incidentally, the book is beautifully done: a pleasure to see as well as to read.
But let us return. Barnett calls himself the editor of this “dossier” on Juice, which is both modest and accurate, and the whole title of this dense little book is FALLEN FROM THE MOON: ROBERT EDWARD JUICE WILSON — HIS LIFE ON EARTH: A DOSSIER. That evocative beginning comes from someone who saw the subject at close range, Antoni Tendes, “He gave the impression of a man who had fallen from the moon.”
With rare exceptions (Bolden, Florence Mills) a jazz musician has a discography, a collection of recordings for succeeding generations to analyze. Juice Wilson was a member of the 1929 Noble Sissle orchestra, a fourteen-piece ensemble including Buster Bailey and Rudy Jackson. Juice solos on two titles recorded in England: KANSAS CITY KITTY and MIRANDA. And that’s it. Barnett’s book offers transcriptions, for those who want to try these things at home.
A flattened map — like a bus route — of Wilson’s life might look like this, although mine is intentionally monochrome and one-dimensional:
Born in St. Louis, 1904. Playing with Jimmy Wade in Chicago in 1916, with Freddie Keppard (alongside Eddie South) in 1918. Working with bands in Toledo, Ohio, and Buffalo, New York, alongside Jimmy Harrison, Budd Johnson, J. C. Higginbotham. In New York City, 1928-29, working with Lloyd Scott’s big band, alongside Frank Newton, Dicky Wells, Bill Coleman, other jobs with Luckey Roberts and James P. Johnson. Left for Paris with Noble Sissle, played in England, then work with Edwin Swayzee, Leon Abbey, in Switzerland and elsewhere. Arrived in Malta, late 1937, played at the “Cairo Bar” for five years, but stranded in Malta until the end of the war, remained there until 1954. Gave up violin in 1950; postwar gigging on saxophone. Returned to Chicago in 1963. Died there in 1972.
That’s a thrilling life in music, with gaps more numerous than the spatters of evidence: newspaper reports and clippings, photographs, letters to and from Juice, reminiscences. What Barnett does with those precious bits and pieces is as fascinating as the bits and pieces themselves. I have intentionally not quoted from the book to keep readers’ appetites whetted for the stories. And photographs: Juice seems to have avoided opportunities to be recorded, but he delighted in posing for photographs, and he is delightful to the eye.
It’s a fascinating book, for its subject, its editor, and its balance between what can be known and what remains unseen. Here you can see Barnett’s complete works — as of now — learn how to purchase this book and those on Eddie South and Stuff Smith . . . since Barnett is immensely thorough, there is also a brief errata section with material received too late for publication and corrections.
An afterthought. Certain stories and novels first read forty years ago have stayed with me, and passages bubble up to the surface when the stimulus is strong. While I was writing this essay, I kept thinking of these lines from the first paragraph of Melville’s Bartelby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street — where the narrator speaks of a former employee, now dead, who remains mysterious:
I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.
Substitute “Juice Wilson” for “Bartelby” and you enter the world of this book.
May your happiness increase!