Tag Archives: audience

THEY WERE BOILING WITH MUSIC: “AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960,” by DAVE GELLY

I enjoyed reading writer / musician Dave Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960 (published by Equinox) all the way through. I am a difficult audience for most books of jazz history that propose to cover a period of the music in a larger context (as opposed to a biography or autobiography).  Most times I find such books engaging chronological collages at best that never capture a larger world. Gelly’s quick-moving book has many good stories in it, covering those intense years in 167 pages, but his tales are all wisely connected.

His writing is also a pleasure: the book is not a series of quotations knitted together. One hears his voice: witty but not cruel, stylish but not self-absorbed. Here is part of the book’s opening chapter, an autobiographical fragment from which the book’s title comes:

I think there were five of us, all aged about fourteen, gathered in the ‘games room’ of a substantial family villa on the leafy southern fringes of London. We were equipped with musical instruments — battered cornet, decrepit clarinet, miscellaneous bits of a drum kit — and were doing out best to emulate our heroes, Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. We had been at it for some time when the door burst open to reveal our unwitting host, the cornetist’s father. ‘Will you kindly stop making that unholy row?’ he demanded, in a voice more weary than irate, and withdrew.

The 1950s, as we are often reminded, was an age of deference. Accordingly, we shut up at once, abashed but not entirely surprised. By any standards, ‘an unholy row’ was a pretty fair description of our efforts, but even if we had been competent musicians, even if we had been Humph and his Band themselves, I wouldn’t mind betting that, as far as the cornetist’s father was concerned, it would still have been an unholy row. The whole thing was offensive to ears attuned to the BBC Midland Light Orchestra or the swing-and-water piano of Charlie Kunz. 

I could have gone on reproducing Gelly’s prose happily, but this brief bit (and he is rarely so autobiographical as the book proceeds) will do to convey his accuracy, charm, and subtlety.

I began taking notes on my reading early on, and find that I have too many of them to even hint at here. Gelly is understandably fascinated by the great individualists in British jazz of the period — famous (Humphrey Lyttelton, Sandy Brown, John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott) and less so (my new hero Spike Mackintosh, George Siprac) but the book is not simply a series of portraits.

Gelly, a fine cultural historian, is curious about artistic movements, not necessarily those as defined by the journalists of the time, but as manifested in groups, recordings, and seismic shifts of taste and commerce. Sometimes these movements are given names: “trad,” “skiffle,” “blues,” “rock,” other times they are only apparent in hindsight.  Much of this might be familiar, even subliminally, to listeners and collectors who know the period, but where Gelly is invaluable is in his awareness of redefinitions within audiences.

What happens to an art form that is — of necessity — enacted in public in front of audiences — when those audiences change, develop, grow older? That, I think, is Gelly’s larger question, one which transcends the names of the music, the players, the clubs, the measures of popularity.  Even if you weren’t deeply involved in British jazz of the period, the question not easily answered.  His thoughtful inquiry makes this book well worth reading, with no hint of the classroom, no pages of statistics, no Authorities beyond the musicians and listeners who were there on the scene.

But I must backtrack and write that when I was only a few pages in, I suddenly had a small stammer of anxiety: “What if the only reason I am enjoying this book so is because of my essential US ignorance of the UK scene? What would an UK reader who knew this as native culture and experience think?” And a few days later (as I was happily reading) the answer appeared in the shape of Peter Vacher’s enthusiastic review for thejazzbreakfast. Here is an excerpt:

gelly cover[Gelly] is, and has been for many years, the jazz correspondent of the Observer newspaper, has written perceptive biographies of his heroes, Stan Getz and Lester Young (the latter also published by Equinox) and of even greater moment plays jazz tenor saxophone professionally and well. Born in 1938, Gelly embraced jazz and began to play during the very period which the book covers. So his is a commentary informed as much by first-hand knowledge as it is by his extensive research.

The subtitle suggests something more than a strictly chronological account of jazz in Britain during the cited decade and a half and that is what Gelly delivers here. He’s good at capturing the mores of the times, as Britain moved from a war-time economy to the first awakening of the ‘never-had-it-so-good 1960s’.

This was when jazz found an audience among the young, newly-liberated from the stifling conventions that had marked their parents’ lives, sometimes to their seniors’ despair, hence the title of the book. He’s even-handed about styles, understanding the sincerity of the early revivalists and tracing the rise and rise of traditional jazz and skiffle before moving over to consider the passionate espousal of the modern style promoted by the collective known as Club Eleven and the more aware dance band players of the day.

He rightly emphasises the role played by the open-minded Humphrey Lyttelton and John Dankworth, two men who largely shook off their early American influences as they sought to produce distinctive music of their own. There’s social history here but it’s British jazz history too, neatly caught and clearly expressed. No fuss, no over-elaboration, all appropriate quotations included . . . . 

Peter is typically correct; it was a relief to know that I book I was so enjoying had much to offer readers who knew the terrain by heart.

Early on in the book, Gelly chronicles a number of what he calls “the Armstrong moment” — that instantaneous conversion to jazz experienced by listeners and players.  (The late US pianist Larry Eanet wrote of the moment when some records by Louis and Earl Hines “hit” him “like Cupid’s arrow.”)

AN UNHOLY ROW gave me a literary version of “the Armstrong moment.”  I am now a Gelly convert, and want to read his other books.  I predict you will, too.

May your happiness increase!

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THE ARTIST, THE AUDIENCE: CHICAGO 1948

This picture just turned up on an NPR blogpost about the contemporary guise of the “hipster” as opposed to “hep cat” and people who were genuinely “hip.” I have my own — perhaps acerbic — thoughts on the current phenomenon of hipsterdom as practiced by comfortably affluent urban young men, but I will not inflict them on you.  (Here is the original post.)

Rather, I offer this portrait of someone I admire: Mister Strong, surrounded by fans, presumably after playing a set at Chicago’s Blue Note in 1948 (photograph by Edward S. Kitch for the Associated Press):

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My first reaction to this photo was, “Goodness, he looks furious,” but I was wrong.

What I see here now is the absolute intent focus on a task — in this case, making sure that he is in touch with the people who have come to see and hear him create music. “Playing for the people” didn’t stop with the final notes of WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH; these fans must be honored.  And those last notes have sounded so close to this picture that he still has trumpet and handkerchief at the ready — no time to go back to the dressing room.

The fans are equally intent: what is this, for them, but approaching a deity at close range and going home with something he has touched?  In 1948, young men and women still dressed to go out; perhaps they are all too young to have suits, but they know something about “dressing up,” and their clothing is anything but ironic.

And, although I am in a wholly life-enhancing relationship, I would like to time-travel back to 1948 — not only to hear the music, but to ask the diminutive young woman who is peering in at the scene if she will go with me for an ice-cream soda sometime. Or to a movie.

Louis, COME BACK! This world needs you so.

Thoughts on a snowy New York morning.

May your happiness increase!

A BOWL OF CHERRIES?

A true story in parable’s clothing follows.

As a child — aside from my refusal to eat peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches — I was happily omnivorous.  But I had gotten it into my head that I didn’t like ripe cherries.  It could have been my reaction to a pie made with canned filling, but I turned away from the real fruit for years.  Then, someone said, “You don’t like cherries?  Try one of these!”  A rapturous experience.  But while I was savoring the fruit, I thought to myself, “There’s twenty years that you could have been enjoying this experience, and you didn’t, because of some irrational prejudice that stuck.”

This story came to mind yesterday.

Earlier this year I was at a jazz party (its name doesn’t matter) whose stylistic range sat easily between the Wolverines and Buck Clayton — call it “small band swing,” “Condon style,” “Mainstream.”  Delightful in all its variations.

But one of the sets, as an experiment (the musicians got to suggest their own thematic ideas) was a tribute to Bill Evans.  I had only heard Evans’ works for piano trio, for the most part, but when a small group of musicians I admire took the stage, I soon settled into the adventurousness of the music, as improvised lines crossed in midair, echoed, crackled and resounded.  The set was thoroughly uplifting.

Seated near me was someone — a semipro musician whom I’ve come to respect, a perceptive listener, someone devoted to the music in many ways.  Sandy [an invented name] looked at me when the set concluded, with a serious facial expression, and said, “Well?”  I replied, “I thought it was marvelous.”  Sandy frowned.  “Well, I don’t understand it.  And I don’t like it!

Not wanting to seem too didactic, I said quietly, “Forty years ago if I had heard that coming out of the radio, I might have turned away in annoyance.  But if you listen closely to it, all sorts of interesting and lovely things are going on.”  “Well, I don’t like it.”  End of discussion.

Later in that same weekend, someone saw me videoing and we got into conversation.  This person planned to visit Manhattan; I offered to send information about places to go, people to hear.  Again, after expressions of gratitude, there was the same ominous facial expression.  “I don’t like any of that progressive stuff.”  Another door closed somewhere.  I said only, “New York is full of musicians you might not have heard of who play the music you like to hear.”

Do you think if I had told these stern people my story of the cherries they would have seen its relevance?

I am not proposing that all art should be embraced equally.  People who say “I like everything!” always make me wonder if they really understand what they enthusiastically espouse.  But arteriosclerosis of its audience’s sensibilities can kill off an art form.

May your happiness increase.

“THE CAUSE OF HAPPINESS”: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS

Ricky Riccardi’s new book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon), will be published in a week, and it has already gotten a glowing review in the Washington Post, with NPR and The New York Times coverage to come.  (You can read the reviews and Ricky’s interview in JAZZ TIMES by clicking here):

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2011/06/more-news-and-reviews.html

Full disclosure: my name crops up in the acknowledgments, and I admired Ricky’s work long before this book came out.  But I would think this book was magical even if I’d never met its author.

On its surface, this biography depicts the last quarter-century of Louis Armstrong’s life — his years of global popularity as a beloved figure, the years of HELLO, DOLLY! and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.

But the real story in this book is the gap between public perception and essential reality.  “To be great is to be misunderstood,” Emerson wrote, and it rings true here.  Artists cannot defend themselves against those who choose to interpret their work.  There is often a huge gap between what artists create, how the “experts” and “critics” perceive it, and how the art is represented to the world.

There have been many books about Louis — the best of them have been Terry Teachout’s POPS, and LOUIS by Max Jones and John Chilton.  (I am passing over the other biographies, marred by their distance from the subject or by personal rancors.)

But Ricky’s book deeply and effectively faces the complex question of what it is to be a working artist in the modern world.  An artist working in the public world — not a painter or a poet in a studio, but a “performer” on television, on records, onstage.

Louis lived to make music, and to “lay it on the public.”  A musician needs a community, both on and off stage.  Louis was no recluse; he didn’t scorn his audiences.  He spent his days and nights, consciously and subconsciously, living for what would come out of his horn, how he would sing.

This was his quest, his joy, and his “hustle,” what he did for a living.  He didn’t demand to be taken seriously as An Artist, but he did know that he was creating masterpieces; he was proud of his art and the pleasure it brought and continues to bring.

Thus, when he began to be sneered at (and that’s not too strong a word) as an Uncle Tom, an “entertainer,” someone who had sold out, had lost his creativity, had turned his back on “the truth,” even “a good-natured buffoon,” these cruel misinterpretations turned Emerson’s words into knives.

Another artist might have turned his back on his critics and spent his last quarter-century in wounded seclusion.  Louis worked harder; he toured the world; he became “Ambassador Satch,” he created astonishing beauties.  The audiences understood this in deep spiritual ways, even if they had never read Gunther Schuller.

But it took this book — the new material in it and Ricky’s affectionate, dogged diligence — to bring Louis, complete and complicated, to life once again.  And here I want to move slightly to the book itself — and its author.

Ricky Riccardi is, first off, a fine writer.  Not fussy, not academic, but someone whose vigorous, human speaking voice resonates through these pages.  So the book is a pleasure to read: I rationed the pages I allowed myself each night so that it wouldn’t end too soon, as I knew it had to.  He has so steeped himself in the life of the man he is celebrating (and it is a celebratory book!) that his easy assurance illuminates every page.  But the reader never feels intimidated by an impending avalanche of facts and dates and itineraries.

This book places the living Louis Armstrong in front of us, seen anew — the man who had a very intricate relationship with his manager, Joe Glaser, but was in charge of that relationship, not its victim.  There is an astonishing long letter from Louis to Glaser on the subject of marijuana — a revelation not only in the tale it tells, but in Louis’s angry eloquence.

Ricky has delved more deeply into Louis’s private tapes than any biographer before him, thus the book is full of new insights rather than being a synthetic assemblage of what other people have written.  I was surprised and delighted (dee-lighted, really) on every page.  And while this biography is no uncritical fan letter, its affection comes through from start to finish — a fitting celebration of Louis, who created and felt “the love and warmth of a million people.”

As a working jazz musician, Ricky also understands much more about the music than many writers who have been on the scene longer.  Even though you don’t need to be a musicologist to read this book, and there is not one intimidating transcribed solo (just lovely photographs), the book never feels distant from Louis’s art.

Louis Armstrong lived “in the cause of happiness.”  Although he knew his art was unique, he wore his achievements lightly, “I’m not lookin’ to be on no high pedestal.  [The people who hear me] get their soul lifted because they got the same soul I have the moment I hit a note.”

More than any other biography of Louis Armstrong, Ricky’s book vibrates with those truths.  Even if you are someone who appreciates Louis Armstrong only casually, you will find in this book a deep, rewarding, honest portrait of a man, an artist, his century.

It’s an extraordinary biography and a wonderful book.  And it brings to same joy that Louis did.