Tag Archives: Billy Tipton

THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND (December 2012 Edition)

If you’re going to hear jazz that was recorded before 1990, you might need to be friendly with those archaic objects — phonograph records.  It isn’t essential.  Modern friends (M. Figg and others) get their daily ration of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra through the invisible magic of digital download.  (How Sidney deParis, Ben Whitted, and Jabbo Smith feel about being mashed into an mp3 is something for the metaphysicians to explore).

But when the Beloved and I go a-thrifting, as we do regularly, she is a fine and generous spotter of records.  Often they are the most popular examples of the genre: supermarket classical, Andy Williams, easy listening, disco 12″.  But the person who passes by these stacks and heaps in a spirit of snobbery misses out on great things.  Of course, one needs reasonably flexible knees, a willingness to get mildly grubby, and perseverance . . . but sometimes the quest ends with something hotter than Mantovani.

Six dollars and tax — in two stores in Novato, California, on December 24 — was a small price to pay for these six discs.

Hank Jones Porgy

SWINGIN’ INTERPRETATIONS OF PORGY AND BESS (Capitol stereo): Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, “Alvin” Jones, with arrangements by Al Cohn.

SORTA-DIXIE (Capitol): Billy May (glowering under a straw boater) with soloists are Dick Cathcart, Moe Schneider, Eddie Miller, Matty Matlock.  The big band is also full of luminaries: Uan Rasey, Conrad Gozzo, Manny Klein, John Best, Skeets Herfurt, Murray McEachern.

SWEET GEORGIA BROWN (Tops): Billy Tipton Trio.  Wow, as we say.

TEDDY WILSON AND HIS TRIO PLAY GYPSY IN JAZZ (Columbia): liner notes by Jule Styne.

MUNDELL LOWE AND HIS ALL STARS: PORGY AND BESS (Camden stereo): Art Farmer, George Duvivier, Osie Johnson, Ed Shaughnessy, Tony Scott . . . and Ben Webster.

THE DIXIELAND BALL: THE L ANCERS with GEORGE CATES’ ALL STARS (Coral).  This one is a mystery.  I know that the Lancers recorded with Charlie Barnet and Les Brown; Cates arranged for some jazz-flavored sessions.  There is no personnel listed, which means that the music might be tepid, the All Stars undistinguished.  But I dream of an unacknowledged Abe Lincoln in there.  I couldn’t pass this one up — not only for its mysterious potential, but for the liner notes by Jane Bundy, which begin:

Born in sin and raised in controversy, Dixieland was the musical problem child of World War One–the rock and roll of its day.

Jane, you had me with “Born in sin.”  But enough of that.  So if you see a brightly-dressed man on his knees, reverently going through a stack of records in Northern California or elsewhere, you might be looking at me.

May your happiness increase.

“THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS,” by JUDITH SCHLESINGER

“Has JAZZ LIVES gone crazy?” some of you might ask.  No, even though the book I offer for your consideration might seem to some to have only a tenuous connection to jazz.

But Judith Schlesinger’s new book, THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS, is immensely relevant to the mythological accretions that jazz has had foisted on it for the last century.  And the book is also immensely lively and entertaining.

Any jazz listener might list those jazz musicians celebrated for the irresistible combination of deep creativity and — to some — inevitable mental illness.  Shall we begin with Charlie Parker?  Buddy Bolden.  Then add Leon Roppolo, Cassino Simpson, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.  A quick scan of “jazz musician” “mental illness” on Google brings up Charles Mingus, Billy Tipton, Rosemary Clooney, right there alongside Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh.  Let’s not even talk about Billie Holiday, shall we?

These creative artists make good copy, and their “mental instability” has been used as modern-day evidence that Plato was right: to be creative, one must be beyond the “normal” that many people demonstrate.  Schlesinger states it simply: “The mad genius is a beloved cultural artifact, a popular spectacle . . . . It provides the perfect container for every romantic fantasy about both madness and genius–and doesn’t have to be any more precise than that to be useful.  But a fact, it is not.  There is simply no good reason to believe that exceptionally creative people are more afflicted with psychopathology than anyone else.”

What fascinates Schlesinger is not so much arguing about biographical details: were Mozart’s scatological jokes evidence of a disordered mind?  But she is much more intrigued, and sometimes horrified, by the ways that modern “scientists” and “chroniclers” have distorted, invented, appropriated, and misread evidence to make it fit their portrait: Creative = Crazy.  And the misrepresentations are sometimes set in stone: Schlesinger has done all kinds of fascinating homework: her detective work about Beethoven’s “death mask” is a delight.

She is especially drawn to — and sympathetic to — jazz musicians and the burden of half-truth and complete fallacy attached to them, especially posthumously.  She proudly asserts that the creative people she admires are “heroic,” rather than “mentally disabled,” and — without making lists, points us towards the much more stable, well-adjusted figures in the music business who don’t get the press because their narratives can’t be forced into romantic myth.  Consider Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane — musicians too busy practicing their craft and having a good time in the process to be Mad Geniuses.

When it comes to the way in which jazz musicians are perceived by psychologists and therapists, the examples Schlesinger finds would be hilarious if they weren’t so appalling.  Did you know that Coltrane’s “excessive practicing” and search for “the perfect mouthpiece” were dead-on symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder?  So writes Gregory Wills.  Ask Arnold M. Ludwig’s opinion about Bix Beiderbecke and you get this: Bis had “mental problems” because he had trouble, late in life with his embouchure.

THE INSANITY HOAX shows off Schlesinger’s sharp eye and sharp wit, but she’s more than George Carlin riffing on the absurdities she has read about, observed, and experienced.  Although she has a free-swinging style, the book is no improvisation: it offers thirty-five pages of endnotes and bibliography.  No doubt it will irritate those — patients, academics, therapists, and practitioners — who see the DSM as a sacred book, those who take Kay Redfield Jamison’s simple equation (all great artists are or have been mentally ill to be such great artists) as true.  But it is intelligent, forthright, full of information, and a pleasure to read: one of those books I wished were longer.

You can find out more about the book here.