For the second time this season, a jazz book has so astonished me that I want to write about it before I take the time to read it at the leisurely pace it deserves. This book is published in a limited edition of 500 copies, so I hope that someone might be moved sufficiently to order a copy before they are all gone. TRAVELING BLUES: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF TOMMY LADNIER, byBo Lindstrom and Dan Vernhettes, is a lively yet scholarly study of the life and music of the short-lived trumpeter. Many jazz books are enthusiastic but lopsided; books that collect beautiful photographs sometimes have minimal or unsatisfying text; scholarly books are often not appealing to the eye. This book strikes sparks in every way: the diligent research that has gone into it, the expansive prose; the wonderful illustrations. I have been reluctant to put it down. Each page offers surprises.
Tommy Ladnier isn’t widely known: he has been dead seventy years. The fame he deserved never came, even though he had enthusiastic champions in Mezz Mezzrow, Hughes Panassie, and Sidney Bechet. But a brief list of the people Ladnier played alongside will testify to his talent: Bechet, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Noone, Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams, Sam Wooding, Doc Cheatham, Noble Sissle, Chick Webb, James P. Johnson, Teddy Bunn, Walter Page, Jo Jones. He was known as a “sensational” trumpeter in Chicago in 1921: he appeared in Carnegie Hall in 1938.
The reasons he is so little known have nothing to do with the quality of his art. Ladnier did not enjoy the high-pressure urban scene, and he occasionally retreated from it (in 1934-8, when he could have been playing more often in the city, he he lived upstate); he also spent a good deal of his playing career in Europe (including a sojourn in Russia) before it was fashionable. And in a period when hot trumpet playing was fashioned in splendidly extravagant Louis-fashion, someone like Ladnier — quieter, even pensive, choosing to stay in the middle register — might have been overlooked. (At times, he makes me think of a New Orleans version of Joe Thomas, Shorty Baker, or Tony Fruscella.)
I first came to Ladnier’s music indirectly, by way of his most enthusiastic colleague, reedman, pot-supplier, and proseltyzer Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who saw Tommy as someone with pure jazz instincts. Mezzrow idolized Tommy as a quiet prophet of soulful New Orleans jazz, music not corrupted by the evil influence of big-band swing. My youthful purchase of the RCA Victor record THE PANASSIE SESSIONS (circa 1967) was motivated by my reading of Mezzrow’s autobiography, REALLY THE BLUES. But Mezzrow played and improvised so poorly, never stopping for a moment, that I could hardly hear Ladnier properly.
Eventually I heard the 1932 New Orleans Feetwarmers session, where Ladnier and Bechet were effectively the front line, and too-brief live performances from John Hammond’s 1938 FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING concert where Ladnier, Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, Walter Page, and Jo Jones roared through WEARY BLUES. Finally, I understood what it was that others admired so in Ladnier’s work. A terse, nearly laconic player, he placed his notes and phrases perfectly. His solos never overwhelm; his forthright earnestness is convincing; he doesn’t care to shout and swagger, but he is intense.
As is this book. Other scholars might have rearranged the easily accessible evidence: the recollections of Mezzrow, Bechet, and Panassie, written admiringly of Ladnier’s recording career, and left it at that. Some writers might have brought melodrama to the facts of Ladnier’s life — his ambitious wife jeopardized a number of opportunities for him (one possible drama). Ladnier died of a heart attack at 39, and could perhaps have been saved (another drama). One could cast him as a victim of a variety of forces and people including the recording supervisor Eli Oberstein. But the authors avoid these inviting errors.
They succeed not only in examining every scrap of evidence they could find — their research has been cautious, comprehensive, and lengthy — about Ladnier as a musician, born in Louisiana, migrating to Chicago, taking on the life of a jazz player in the Twenties and Thirties, dying in Harlem.
But there’s more. These scholars are also thoughtful historians who delight in placing the subject of their loving scrutiny in a larger context. “What did it mean?” I can hear them asking. So that their inquiry broadens beyond the simple chronological tracing of Ladnier’s life. When we learn (through a beautiful reproduction of Ladnier’s draft card) that he worked for the Armour meat-packing company — so justly excoriated in Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE — we can read about Armour and what it meant to Chicago and Chicagoans. What did it mean to be an African-American musician traveling overseas in the Twenties? The appropriate footnotes are easily accessible on each page. The book also concludes with a detailed discography — noting not only the labels and issues, but on which performances Ladnier has a solo, a break, accompaniment, and the like.
And the book is also visually quite beautiful. A large-format book (the size of a 12″ record, appropriately) it is generously illustrated in color, with fine reproductions, nicely varied. I was happily reminded of a beautifully-designed history or biology textbook, where the book designers had sought to set up harmonious vibrations between print and illustrations. Indeed, one could spend an afternoon immersed in the illustrations: maps, a handwritten letter from Ladnier, record labels, photographs of individual players and of bands. One illustration I particularly prize is an advertising handbill for a dinner-dance, “A Night At Sea,” to be held at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights, New York, on January 22, 1939. In part, the music was provided by “Milton ‘Mez’ Mezzrow and his Bluebird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier.” Even better: heading the bill were Henny Youngman and Molly Picon. Without this book, I would never have known.
The music? Well, the authors have taken care of that, too. As part of the complete Ladnier experience, they have created a CD containing all 189 of Tommy’s recordings in mp3 format. I don’t entirely understand the technology, but the CD is certainly the ideal companion to the book — containing the equivalent of eight CDs of music.
I urge you to visit http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html and see for yourself. In this era of deeply discounted books, the initial price of this one might seem serious, but its beauty, thoroughness, and devotion make it a masterpiece.
As a coda: the noted jazz scholar and collector of rare photographs Frank Driggs wrote an introduction to the book. Here’s its closing paragraph: “This remarkable book is loaded with details on the lives of Tommy Ladnier and most of the people he played with. There are hundreds of illustrations, photos of people I’ve never even seen before and I’ve seen most of the photos of jazz musicians over the last fifty years. The depth of research is I believe unparalleled. God bless these two fanatics who have devoted so much of their time and energy to bring this work of love to fruition.”
My sentiments exactly!