Tag Archives: biography

A BEAUTIFULLY REALIZED BOOK: “BEING PREZ” by DAVE GELLY

In the decades after his death in 1959, Lester Young has been the subject of many published pages, both research and memoir, by Frank Buchmann-Moller, Lewis Porter, Douglas Henry Daniels, Whitney Balliett — as well as anecdotes that continue to crop up even now (even on Facebook).

One would think that there was no need for more writing on the subject, especially since Lester’s life seems to fall in to clearly discernable and well-documented acts in his own play: his childhood experiences in the Young family band; early exposure to Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer; professional gigs with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and then his glorious time in the Count Basie orchestra; small group work with Billie Holiday; his attempts to lead his own small groups; his unhappy time in the United States military; increasing fame balanced against ill-health and a feeling of being overwhelmed by people copying him; his brief final decline and early death.

Would another book on Lester would be superfluous, or it would provide the same stories with new prose connecting them?

BEING PREZ

I write this to draw my readers to one of the best books on a jazz artist I have ever read — Dave Gelly’s BEING PREZ -(Oxford University Press) – which, although published in 2007, I have only read in the last few months.  (I came to it because I was so very impressed with Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW — a book I commend to anyone interested in the delicate, shifting relationships between music and its audiences.)

There are some writers I read with difficulty because their prose is efficient but graceless ways; others are so ornate that meaning gets submerged. I can tolerate either or both if the chosen subject is appealing.

But Gelly is that rare creation: a subtle writer, not in love with the sound of his own rhetorical flourishes, whose work is a pleasure to read for its own sake.  Add that he is writing about one of my heroes: this book couldn’t be better.  In fact, when I first received a copy of this slim volume — slightly over 170 pages — I put myself on a reader’s diet, putting the book out of sight after each chapter so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly, wouldn’t get to Lester’s sad end too fast.

Gelly handles the facts with grace, but his is not simply a compact retelling of what Buchmann-Moller and Daniels have done more expansively. His book is thoroughly adult in his emotional relation to his subject.  He clearly loves Lester, but can at points step back and gently say that a career choice was not something that served Prez well.  So his admiration and adoration are fair and moderated by kindness.  When some writers depict a subject who has, let us say, cut his life short by alcohol or drugs, there is a constant soundtrack of quiet parental disapproval.  The word SHOULD hangs over the book.  “Oh, if _____ had only done this, he would be with us today,” as if the writer is trying to hide his annoyance that the subject didn’t live longer, record more, give us more pleasure.

Gelly never treats Lester like a bad child; his recital of the facts of Lester’s life is empathic.  It is that sensitivity to what this most sensitive man must have felt that makes BEING PREZ especially poignant and wise.  Gelly does not psychoanalyze, but he has great psychological acuity, offered lightly.  He does, for instance, see Lester’s character being formed in childhood by his being taken away from his beloved mother, Lizetta (who outlived him) and his often tense relationships with his severe father, Billy Young.  BEING PREZ quietly offers these factors to make Lester’s behavior, once viewed as inexplicable, completely logical: a man who cannot tolerate conflict and confrontation instead chooses avoidance — he runs away and disappears. (Gelly is just as wise when it comes to influential figures in Lester’s life, such as Count Basie.)

Gelly is old-fashioned in his love of his subject (he does not seek to make Lester small, ever) but he is also that most ancient creation, a moralist.  I mean that as a great compliment: someone who knows that there are right and wrong actions, each with its own set of consequences.  Consider this, on Lester’s abduction as a child:

Much has been written about the estimable personal qualities of Willis Handy Young — his unwavering devotion to study and self-advancement, his grim determination to succeed against the odds, his considerable musical gifts, his talent for administration and his dignified conduct under the barely tolerable yoke of Southern racism. But among all these splendid qualities at least one attribute was plainly missing — a tender heart. To take a child away from its mother by means of a trick is a wicked thing to do.  When that child is a shy, sensitive little boy with a deep mutual attachment to his mother, it is unforgivable. According to Irma, Lester wept bitterly for a long time afterwards. No doubt Lizetta wept, too.

That passage — on page four — so struck me that I sought out the Beloved to read it to her.  “Wicked” is not a word we use often in this century, but a biographer with righteous indignation, a moral sense, and a tender heart is a rare artist indeed.

BEING PREZ also has one great and endearing advantage over any other book on Lester: Gelly is a professional jazz musician whose instrument is the tenor saxophone.  And he is humanely articulate about that instrument and what it requires.  We aren’t barraged by a Schuller-styled musicological analysis of what Lester is doing (did you hear his implied Db diminished thirteenth over the grace note in the last beat of bar 127?) which makes those who aren’t grounded in music theory turn pale and opt for a newspaper instead, but Gelly conveys certain information about the mechanics of what Lester does better than anyone else I’ve ever read, without intimidating or overwhelming the reader.  His musical analyses are brief but convincing, and his explanations of how Lester got certain sounds make what was once completely mysterious clear.

Finally, Gelly does a superb job of balancing his narrative between the two selves: Lester the quiet, tender man who often wants simply to play among congenial souls and then to be left alone in solitude, and Lester the musician who amazes and continues to amaze.  Gelly’s aims in this book are noble yet simple — free from a particular ideological slant.  He says in his introduction that he took on this book because Lester was always fragmented in this way, and that he wanted to do what he could to bring this elusive, enigmatic man to light.  He’s succeeded.

Gelly is not combative, but he is somewhat impatient with the teetering myths of Lester’s life — for one, that Lester was so broken by his army experience that he couldn’t create (many recordings give the lie to that) and that he was so downtrodden by his imitators that he despaired.

Other biographies of Lester have their own delights: first-hand testimony from musicians who played alongside Lester, or extensive data on Lester’s childhood. But BEING PREZ is as beautifully and completely realized as any long solo Lester ever created, and I wait with eagerness for whatever Gelly will write in future.

Lester once told pianist Horace Silver (he spoke of himself in the third person), “I just don’t feel like nobody likes old Prez.”  BEING PREZ, had he known of it, would have made him feel better.  “Bells!” indeed.

And here’s Prez (in a 1944 masterpiece justly celebrated in this book).  He’s never left town:

May your happiness increase! 

QUIETLY ACCOMPLISHED: CHRIS BARBER’S “JAZZ ME BLUES”

The biographies of jazz musicians often follow a predictable path, from Mother at the organ or Dad’s 78s, precocious talent, hours of rigorous training, encounters with older professionals, early gigs, and then success.  If the musician is stable and fortunate, the narrative quiets down to a series of gigs and concerts; if the subject is tragic, the pages darken: alcohol, drugs, abusive relationships, auto accident, major illness, premature death.

The jazz eminences who have written autobiographies (excepting Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, although I am sure some readers will add to that list) have been the more fortunate ones, and their books depict elders looking back on friendships and triumphs.  Often the narrator is justly proud, and his / her singular personality is a strong consistent presence.

Trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber, born in 1930, continues to have a wonderful career — one that began with “traditional jazz” and stretched the definition to include different music incorporated into his own.  He’s played and recorded for more than sixty years with British jazz legends Ben Cohen, Ottilie Patterson, Ken Colyer, Acker Bilk, Pat Halcox, Lonnie Donegan, Monty Sunshine, Bruce Turner, Ian Wheeler, Beryl Bryden; with American stars Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Ed Hall, Ray Nance, Albert Nicholas, Joe Darensbourg, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cecil Scott, Don Frye, Floyd Casey, Ed Allen, Sidney deParis, Hank Duncan, Wild Bill Davis, Russell Procope, Dr. John, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lewis and George Lewis, Clarence Williams, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Sam Theard, Jack Teagarden, Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band . . .so the reader who opens a Barber autobiography hopes for good stories.

But this long list of names isn’t all there is to JAZZ ME BLUES (written with the very capable help of Alyn Shipton . . . Barber says in his acknowledgments that they first talked about this book in 1982) — published this year by Equinox in their Popular Music History series.

Barber follows the usual chronological path from his early encounter with jazz to becoming an international eminence. However, it took me about thirty-five pages (the book is 172 long) to settle in to JAZZ ME BLUES because of his distinctive personality.

He isn’t forceful or self-absorbed, telling us of the wonderful thing he did next. Barber comes across as a quietly modest man who has no need for us to admire him. Chronicling his life, he is so placidly matter-of-fact that it might take readers by surprise. But once we do, the absence of self-congratulation is refreshing, as if we were introduced to a very talented person who had been brought up to think self-praise was vulgar.

An interval for music.  First, STEAMBOAT BILL and HIGH SOCIETY from the Fifties:

GOIN’ HOME BLUES from 2013:

Aside from its subject’s remarkably modest approach to his own life, JAZZ ME BLUES has two great pleasures.  One is Barber’s unwillingness to stay neatly in the style that had brought him success. Beginning in the Sixties, his band takes on different shadings while not abandoning the music he loves: he brings in electric guitarist John Slaughter, altoist Joe Harriott, organist Brian Auger; he works and records with blues and gospel legends; he plays extended compositions. Again, since Barber speaks about these events with polite restraint, one must estimate the emotional effect of being booed by British traditionalist fans who wanted “their” music to stay the same. Barber is not making changes to woo a larger audience or to stay in the public eye, but because he is genuinely interested in adding other flavorings to a familiar dish. He is a determined seeker, and he grows more intriguing in his quests.

The other pleasure I alluded to at the start, delightful first-hand anecdotes. Readers deprived of their own contact with their heroes always want to know what the great men and women were like, and JAZZ ME BLUES — although never mean-spirited in its quick sketches — is a banquet here. Not only do we hear about Sonny Boy Williamson and Zutty Singleton (the latter saying he is most happy in a band without a piano because pianists all “lose time”) but about Van Morrison, George Harrison (who likes the 1930 BARNACLE BILL THE SAILOR) and colleagues Lennon and McCartney; we read of Howlin’ Wolf saying grace quietly and sweetly before a meal. Trumpeter Ed Allen tells Barber that he always used to learn the songs for Clarence Williams record dates in the taxi on the way to the studio.

And Barber has been in the right place at the right time. When he comes to America, he sits in at Condon’s. After an uneventful beginning, “. . . suddenly the rhythm section started to swing. I looked round and Eddie had picked up his guitar and joined in. From then on, with him there, every tempo was just right, and everything swung. His presence was subtle, but it made the world of difference. I knew what a fine player he could be, as, when the band had appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957. I’d gone along to their late night concert. The thing that sticks in my memory from that night was Eddie taking a half-chorus solo on a tune in the ballad medley. It was just perfect, and with the tuning of his four-string tenor guitar it had a very distinctive sound. It reminded me of Carmen Mastren, who was a true virtuoso.”

JAZZ ME BLUES is an engaging portrait of a continuing life in jazz (with rare photographs, a selective discography, and an index). It is available in North America exclusively through ISD ($34.95 hardcover): ISD, 70 Enterprise Drive, Suite 2, Bristol, CT 00610: orders@isdistribution.com.

May your happiness increase!

“TO MY LIFE LONG BUDDY”

HORN OF PLENTY by Robert Goffin is more enthusiastic than accurate or correct — not on the same level as Louis’ own autobiography or contemporary works (Max Jones, Terry Teachout, Ricky Riccardi).  But here‘s a memorable copy I found on eBay, autographed by its subject to his pal Wild Bill Davison:

TO MY LIFE LONG BUDDY WILD BILL DAVIDSON

The handwriting is authentic, as are the sentiments.

May your happiness increase!

THE JAZZ BOOKSHELF: “JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ” and “MR. B”

A quarter-century ago, in actual bookstores, I could find shelves devoted to books on jazz.  That reassuring sight still exists (I saw it in the Strand in New York last week) but the great era of print publishing is, understandably, over. Thus it’s always a pleasure to encounter new books on jazz, and the two below are quite different but will both reward readers.

Jazz-Beat-review--195x300

JAZZ BEAT: NOTES ON CLASSIC JAZZ, by Lew Shaw (AZtold Publishing) is a very amiable collection of profiles written by an admiring, long-time fan and former sportswriter.

What makes these brief affectionate portraits different from the norm is that all (except one) the musicians in this book are living.  Not all of them are stars, but they have devoted followings — from the youthful Jonathan “Jazz” Russell, Pete and Will Anderson, Josh Duffee, Michael Kaeshammer, Ben Polcer, Molly Ryan, Bria Skonberg, Andy Schumm, Stephanie Trick, to the veterans Bill Allred, Jim Cullum, Bob Draga, Yve Evans, Chet Jeager, Flip Oakes, Bucky Pizzarelli, Richard Simon, Mike Vax, Pat Yankee, and Ed Polcer — the book’s inspiration, whose picture is on the cover.

Shaw also profiles other regulars on the festival circuit, Tom Rigney, the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, the Natural Gas Jazz Band, the New Black Eagles, Igor’s Jazz Cowboys.

His emphasis is on musicians exploring older jazz forms and repertoire, but the book is happily free from ideological bickering (with one exception, and the words aren’t the author’s*.  The book is comfortable and easy: I sense that the musicians are delighted to find someone sympathetic, interested, willing to get the facts right for publication.

I was pleased to find a number of my jazz friends and heroes profiled, among them Clint Baker, Kevin Dorn, Banu Gibson, Nicki Parrott, Carl Sonny Leyland, Randy Reinhart, Hal Smith, Rossano Sportiello, and the late Mat Domber.  I know I’ve left several people off this list, but readers will have fun seeing some of their favorites here.

Shaw’s method is simple: he establishes the musician’s place in the world of contemporary traditional jazz, constructs a brief biography — a story rather than a collection of dates and a listing of names and places.  Some comments from a writer or blogger offer different insights (I’m even quoted here a few times) and the musician speaks for him or herself.  The result is a fast-moving collection of short pieces (somewhere between journalistic features and extensive liner notes) that capture their subjects’ personalities in only a few pages.

Shaw is frankly admiring — from a literate fan’s perspective.  For instance (I picked this at random), the opening of his piece on Bob Draga: “Clarinetist Bob Draga is considered the consummate entertainer, having mastered the art of pleasing an audience with musical talent, classy appearance and entertaining repartee.”  That’s Bob, to the life.

One particularly moving episode in this book is the profile of drummer Joe Ascione — and his life with multiple sclerosis since 1997.  If Shaw had done nothing but allow Joe to speak for himself, JAZZ BEAT would still be well worth reading. Many fans come up to musicians at gigs, concerts, and festivals, and ask questions; it is reassuring to see that Lew Shaw has willingly shared his energies and research with us.  The 211-page book is nicely produced with many black-and-white photographs, and copies can be ordered here.

*Chet Jaeger, of the Night Blooming Jazzmen, told Shaw about playing in a Disneyland marching band when Dizzy Gillespie was also performing there, and his reaction: “I decided I would attend and try to learn something about modern jazz, but I gave up after a few numbers.  I always say that when I hit a bad note, everyone knows it’s a bad note. When Miles Davis hits a bad note, people will say, ‘Isn’t that creative.'”

MISTER B

Cary Ginell, author of a fine book on the Jazz Man Record Shop (reviewed here) and a rewarding biography of Cannonball Adderley (here) has produced another first-rate book in the same series: MR. B: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BILLY ECKSTINE (Hal Leonard, 228+ pages).  Ginell may turn out to be this generation’s model for jazz biography, for he doesn’t indulge in pathobiography (chronicling every time his subject is supposed to have left no tip for a waitperson or some other example of bad behavior) and he isn’t a secret Destroyer (appearing to write admiringly of the subject then deflating the Hero(ine) chapter after chapter).

His books are tidy, graceful, compact affairs — full of stories but never digressive, sticking to chronology but never mechanical.

Eckstine has been treated gingerly by the jazz community: yes, he was Earl Hines’ band vocalist, bringing the blues to a larger audience with JELLY, JELLY, then someone given credit for his “legendary” band featuring Dizzy, Bird, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, and others . . . but once Eckstine comes to even greater prominence as an African-American balladeer (think of I APOLOGIZE), the jazz audience loses interest and the naughty word “commercialism” enters the dialogue.

Ginell doesn’t over-compensate, and he — unlike Mister B — doesn’t apologize, but he makes a serious case for Eckstine being one of the important figures in the slow struggle for White Americans to respect people of color.

One of Eckstine’s sons remembered, “Until the day he died, whenever he ordered a sandwich, he always separated the two pieces of bread and gently ran his fingers over the meat, because on a number of occasions while touring the South, they would send the band boy. . . to pick up food from a white restaurant. When they got the sandwiches, they would discover finely ground glass, or vermin feces mixed in with the tuna, chicken, egg, or potato salad.”  We also learn about the repercussions of a LIFE magazine photograph where Eckstine was captured amidst young White female fans — a horrifying example of racist attitudes in 1950. Stories such as that are invaluable, and make a book both readable and memorable, no matter who its subject might be.

The band business was difficult even when the enemy wasn’t trying to poison you so directly; Ed Eckstein also recalled that the critic Leonard Feather subtly attacked his father’s band because Eckstine refused to record Feather’s compositions.  Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie created a parody — sung to the tune STORMY WEATHER, with these lyrics:

I know why, we can’t get a gig on Friday night, / Leonard Feather / Keeps on makin’ it hard for me to keep this band together, / Talkin’ shit about us all the time . . .  

We learn about the relationship between June Eckstine and the promising young Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard; we learn of Eckstine’s close friendship with Dr. King, his devotion to his fans, his generosities.  And as for Eckstine’s apparent “selling-out,” he had this to say, “Some creeps said I ‘forsook’ jazz in order to be commercial. So I saw one of these creeps, a jazz critic, and I said, ‘What are you, mad at me because I want to take care of my family?  Is that what pisses you off? You want me to end up in a goddamn hotel room with a bottle of gin in my pocket and a needle in my arm, and let them discover me laying there? Then I’ll be immortal, I guess, to you . . . It ain’t going to work that way with me, man. I want to take care of my family and give them the things that I think they deserve.'”

And we learn that Eckstine’s last word was “Basie,” which should go some distance in supporting his deep feeling for jazz.

It’s an admirable book.  Although nearly everyone who worked with Eckstine is dead, Ginell has had the cooperation of the singer’s family and friends; he has done thorough research without allowing minutiae to overwhelm the narrative, and the book moves along at a fine 4 / 4 pace.  With rare photographs, as well.

Ginell’s work — and this series in general — is very fine, and these books fill needed spaces in jazz history.  Who’s next?

May your happiness increase!

“THE CAUSE OF HAPPINESS” IN PAPERBACK

Are you looking to begin your holiday shopping early?  Of course, you can shower your friends and family with gift cards, but I propose a more satisfying gifts for the people on your list who might need a portable reminder of how deep happiness goes and how it can be attained.  They don’t need to love jazz; they need to be open to love.

My suggestion?  Ricky Riccardi’s enduring book WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS. Click here for the essential details.

It is a great human story of an artist, joyous and courageous, bringing light to hundreds of thousands of people.  You don’t need to be a jazz fan to admire the story and the book.

Here’s what I wrote in 2011, when the book first came out.  It still seems true to me today.

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):

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 the same joy that Louis did.

P.S.  Ricky also maintains a wonderful Louis Armstrong blog, with music and video. Here is his most recent posting — full of delights from Louis in Scandinavia, 1933.

May your happiness increase!

“A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL: THE LIFE OF LORENZ HART,” by GARY MARMORSTEIN

The biographer’s chosen task is either difficult or impossible.  Any competent researcher can amass a proliferation of facts, beginning with the subject’s grandparents and concluding with the coroner’s report.  The more public the biographical subject, the easier the task, apparently.

But although readers want to know the facts of the subject’s many lives — creative, philosophical, emotional, quotidian — the questions we want answered are deeper.  I think we ultimately want to know what it felt like to be the person under scrutiny; why did he behave as he did; what choices did he make; what drove him?  And since most of us are puzzles even to ourselves, the answers to these questions are often beyond our reach.

These speculations are the result of my reading A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL: THE LIFE OF LORENZ HART, by Gary Marmorstein (Simon and Schuster), just published.  Marmorstein does several things very well.  For one, he has taken stock of everything written about Hart — a fourteen-page bibliography and hundreds of endnotes.  He is admirably diligent and more thorough than the two Hart biographies that proceeded this book.

The book moves along at a swift pace, although Marmorstein has chosen often to show that he is as clever as his subject, as witty, as colloquial — often adopting his own version of Thirties slang, where a man gets punched in “the kisser” and a failing business goes “flooey.”  I wish his editor had told the author that referring to the troubles Richard Rodgers had with his collaborator as “Hart-aches” was not wise.  That same editor might have limited Marmorstein’s usage of “must,” as in “Larry must have reacted with a jolt” when watching the sound film THE JAZZ SINGER when there is no evidence to support the speculation.

To his credit, Marmorstein is more candid than his predecessors, although he does not dwell on scandal-mongering.  He is fair to Hart’s collaborator, Richard Rodgers, who on one hand tried to protect Hart from himself and on the other, referred to him as “the shrimp” while Hart was alive and “that little fag” twenty years after Hart’s death.  And where there is room for speculation, Marmorstein painstakingly balances opposing narratives.  In these things, A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL seems ideal.

But Hart would not have been an easy subject under the best of circumstances, and the facts and myths of his brief life lend themselves to mythologizing.  One such encapsulation of Hart’s hectic, creative, unhappy life is as (in Marmorstein’s coinage) the “lovelorn dwarf.”  Hart was short, under five feet, and although he made and permitted jokes about his height, it was apparently not something he accepted, and it added to his perception of himself as irredeemably physically unattractive.

Hart was a gay man in a profession where homosexuality was more common, but he seems not to have had long-term emotional attachments  He kept no diary and had a habit of disappearing — at night and other times.  Biographers before Marmorstein have speculated where Larry Hart got to, and with whom . . . but all the people who might have told us stories are dead.  Commendably, Marmorstein shuns ancient homophobic formulations, suggesting that Hart drank himself to death because his sexual preference made him miserable, or that Hart chose to be gay because he was unattractive to women.

Any book about Hart also must record his alcoholism, which ultimately contributed to his early death.  But Hart was also incredibly creative — not just in terms of writing new lyrics for show after show, but being someone who could go off with an envelope and pencil and create two new choruses of lyrics while others were taking a break.  (Hart’s creativity makes the author’s choice of title somewhat strange, ill-fitting.)

I was eager to read A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL in hopes that it would be a satisfying synthesis.  What would its author make of the combination of Hart’s creativity and unhappiness?  What was it like to be a man in public view who thought of himself as unattractive?  What was it like to be a gay man who wrote memorable paeans in praise of heterosexual romance, to be sung in public by men to women and vice versa?  What might this book tell us about Hart’s apparently self-destructive behavior?  Having recently read and admired Michael P. Zirpolo’s MR. TRUMPET, his biography of the alcoholic genius Bunny Berigan, dead at 33, where Zirpolo successfully puts forth plausible explanations of Berigan’s drinking, gently and ruefully, I hoped that Marmorstein would do the same and more.

Alas, the book ultimately is only a collection of engaging anecdotes in chronological sequence.  One can learn what the Hart’s housekeeper and cook, Big Mary Campbell, said to Josephine Baker.  One can read how Hart would not let anyone else pick up the check.  One could buy Hart an overcoat in the boys’ department of Wanamaker’s.  We learn the name of the nurse who might have been at his deathbed.

Famous loyalties — Hart for Vivienne Segal — and emnities — Rodgers and Hart versus George M. Cohan — are entertainingly delineated here.  And the book rolls on, page after page, year after year, show after show, from Hart’s lyrics in summer camp to his final words on his deathbed, “What have I lived for?”  But the reader, closing this well-documented book, may feel that Hart, elusive in life, took his secrets with him.

Ultimately, Mary Cleere Haran’s rendition of THIS FUNNY WORLD sums up Hart far better for me — searching, wise, grieving — than Marmorstein’s book:

May your happiness increase.

JAZZ WORTH READING: “NORMAN GRANZ: THE MAN WHO USED JAZZ FOR JUSTICE,” by TAD HERSHORN

Three singular personalities have been responsible for much of what we now take for granted in jazz in the last hundred years in recordings and public performance: John Hammond, George Wein, and Norman Granz.

Hammond wrote his own somewhat mythic autobiography and was the subject of a tepid posthumous biography.  Wein, the only member of the trio still with us, has an expansive autobiography.  Granz, who died in 2001, discouraged efforts to write his story until journalist and jazz scholar Tad Hershorn entered his life.  And Hershorn’s biography of Granz is a substantial accomplishment.

A book on Granz as record producer (for fifty years) would have been intriguing in itself, for even though Granz alternated between being controlling and negligent, he recorded Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Holiday, Young, Webster, Tatum, Parker, Gillespie, O’Day, Getz, Hampton, Wilson, Konitz, Hawkins, Eldridge, Rich, Peterson, Ellington, Basie . . . The sessions are uneven, but the energy animating them is undeniable, and the successes are memorable.  Imagine a jazz cosmos without JATP, Norgran, Clef, Verve, Pablo.

Another book might have chronicled Granz the concert promoter — the inventor of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the model for many concerts to come after its inception in the early Forties.  (Who else would have Louis, Ella, and Tatum on the same bill?)

And there might have been another book concerning Granz as friend-of and sometimes enemy-of: his relations with Picasso, with Sinatra, Ellington, Peterson, Fitzgerald, among others, are intriguing windows into his character and theirs, providing both inspiring and acrimonious anecdotes.

But the narrative Hershorn chose to tie these stories together is Granz’s vehement, unwavering vision of jazz as a racially integrated music played in public for integrated audiences.  Younger (or more idealistic) readers may be startled by the historical information that emerges in the first fifteen years of Granz’s years as a concert promoter: yes, there were drinking fountains for “colored” and “white,” as well as restaurants that did not serve anyone appropriately light-skinned.  Granz, who often appears to be someone indifferent to social grace, an abrasive, self-righteous and self-absorbed figure, comes through as a heroic figure who made it possible for “mixed” audiences to sit together and to hear American music (a struggle, I must point out, that he didn’t originate — although he continued it valiantly).

Hershorn’s book is the result of fifteen years of work on the subject, including a number of in-person interviews of an ailing (although still acerbic) Granz.  The book is thoroughly researched — some forty pages of footnotes, a chronology, an extensive bibliography, rare photographs.  The book has no competition, and he has spoken with people who knew Granz — from publicist Virginia Wicks to Peterson to Quincy Jones and Nat Hentoff — so this book has a freshness many other jazz biographies lack because the important sources are long dead.

But Granz — energetic, willful, moving quickly — is a difficult subject because he is always in motion.  Occasionally Hershorn’s chronological organization (with extended considerations of important musicians and friends) seems like an airport walkway, efficient but constraining.  At times the mere data seems overwhelming: during the JATP period, we learn about every concert tour — the players, itinerary, gross receipts.  A biographer should fall in love with the material, and is writing both for the contemporary audience and for future generations who may use the book as an invaluable research tool.  But some of this material might have profitably been placed in an appendix, unless it was needed for the dramatic arc of the story.

Granz’a extended career and long active life — I would not have wished it otherwise — also pose problems for a biographer properly intent on showing him an unacknowledged civil rights pioneer.  Once Granz can be sure that the local police won’t attempt to plant drugs on his musicians; once they can stay at the best hotels; once there is no restriction on who can sit where in the audience, much of the air goes out of the book.  Once the battle has been won, Granz can go on being a wealthy businessman, an art collector, friends with Picasso, playing tennis.  To be fair, this diminuendo is often the inevitable pattern of biographies: when the book is focused on its subject’s struggle towards a goal, what happens to the biography once that goal is achieved?

But overall the book is a fine one.  Hershorn has managed his relationship to his subject with great grace.  Some biographers loathe their subject and crow over errors of judgment,  meanness of spirit.  Others adore their subjects and make excuses for bad behavior.  Hershorn is careful, accurate, and fair, permitting us to applaud what Granz made possible even if we find the man unpleasant.  Hershorn is also a clear writer, although too fond of casual cliche — “the red carpet treatment,” “made no bones about it,” “wined and dined” — for me, but this will not bother others.  And in an era where large, detailed books are becoming more and more rare, to have published this one is a remarkable accomplishment.

If occasionally the reader tires of Granz, the book can be put aside for a day.  Or one might listen to a half-hour of Pres and Teddy, Ben Webster with strings, Billie Holiday with Jimmy Rowles, or one of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks.  For those masterpieces, one would forgive Granz anything.

“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.

THIS WONDERFUL WORLD

I have just finished reading the galleys of Ricky Riccardi’s WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon).  I am a very severe critic of biographies — where odd things happen.

Sometimes the writer gets so caught up in him / herself that the book becomes self-referential, an unintentional autobiography, the writer gazing lovingly in the mirror.  Some biographies end up rancorously, with the writer deciding that after all the Great Man or Woman was really rotten.  And some biographies are unoriginal compilations of what everyone else has written.

I was ready to love Ricky’s book because I love both the subject and am very fond of the author, but I was not prepared for how superb it is.

It is full of original research, new first-hand tales and evidence on every page.  It is beautifully written, casual without being flippant.  It is splendidly annotated but never academic.  It is full of light and joy without being idolatrously adoring.

As I write this, I am surrounded by biographies of Louise Bogan and of Henry “Red” Allen, of Frank O’Connor and Pee Wee Russell.  Riccardi has written a book worthy of the best ones on my shelves or on yours.

It won’t be officially published until late June, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from ordering it.  It made me laugh a good deal; it made me think; it made me cry.  And the energy and soul of Louis shines through every page.

http://www.amazon.com/What-Wonderful-World-Magic-Armstrongs/dp/0307378446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1299530493&sr=1-1

WHAT WOULD LOUIS DO?  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS: CLICK HERE!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

KENNY DAVERN: JUST FOUR BARS

Readers accustomed to novels may find most jazz biographies only intermittently satisfying.  Lives, of course, cannot be arranged into dramatic arcs worthy of Trollope or Faulkner — but, just the same, the chronicle of the life and music of your favorite musician often has all its drama in the beginning: attempts to find a personal style, to become proficient, to be recognized. 

Once the musician is reasonably successful, the narrative might become a listing of gigs, concerts, recordings.  Some musicians aid a biographer (unintentionally) by having dramatic or melodramatic lives — drug use, illness, marital and economic strife — but a comfortable musician with a spouse, family, regular income and housing, might offer a biographer a challenge.

It’s a pleasure to write that Edward N. Meyer’s biiography of Kenny Davern’s life and music, JUST FOUR BARS, published by Scarecrow Press and available through Amazon, is a triumphant book on all its many levels. 

Meyer, best-known in the field for his bio-discography of Dick Wellstood, GIANT STRIDES, was the logical one to write about Davern, and although Davern said at first he did not want a biography, he eventually told his wife that Meyer would be his choice. 

Meyer’s coverage of the facts of Davern’s musical life couldn’t be better.  With diligent accuracy, he chronicles appearances, recordings, gigs satisfying and frustrating, the bands Davern led and was part of for more than fifty years. 

If a reader might weary momentarily of the data from Davern’s date book, it should be said that the biographer is writing for two audiences at once — people like me who saw Davern and for whom he is a living presence still, and the Future — those readers for whom it will be crucial to have all this data properly arranged and assessed in one place.  The result is satisfying throughout, especially because Meyer interviewed Davern — making one wish that Davern had written more on his own, for his voice is salty, witty, and precise.  Also invaluable are the voices of Davern’s friends and colleagues: Marty Grosz, Greg Cohen, Dave Frishberg, Warren Vache, James Chirillo.    

Where Meyer is even more fascinating is in what he has uncovered of Davern the private man: the child (the painful twists and turns of his childhood are too complicated to be retold here, but they would have ruined a more fragile person), his development as an adult, husband, father, grandfather. 

In his conversations with everyone who knew Davern on and off the stand — including candid passages from his wife and children — Meyer has shown us the man we didn’t know.  And that man is an enthralling study, because the public Kenny was often comically irascible in ways that felt dangerous to onlookers.  But the private man was erudite, deeply-interested in a variety of subjects, generous, and introspective — genuinely lovable and deeply loved. 

The record of Davern’s musical life is equally detailed and rewarding.  We read of his musical apprenticeship with big bands (which he hated), with Jack Teagarden, Phil Napoleon, musical maturity alongside Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood, Dick Hyman, and his later quartets and quintets.  And through it all we see a man always striving for something beyond the heights he had already scaled — subtlety, emotional connection, mastery of the horn and the idiom.  His life’s goal, he said, was to be recognized in “just four bars.”  And he did just that, and more. 

Meyer’s biography of Kenny Davern is wide-ranging, analytical as well as enlightening, generous to its subject as well as to readers, now and in the future.  It made me want to revisit my Davern collection, and it brought up memories of seeing the great man plain — for which I am grateful.

THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE: ARTIE SHAW by TOM NOLAN

 

It was easier to be a biographer in the nineteenth century.  The job description was clear: write a lengthy volume chronicling an honored subject from birth to death.  Admire the accomplishments; ignore the failings.  Say little of the great man’s private life, and make whatever information you present fit the admiring portrait.  Burnish the publish ideal of the hero. 

But the twentieth century brought us pathobiography, with the subject anatomized (sometimes gleefully) as a corpse to be dissected.  And many biographies now fixate on the subject’s offensive behavior rather than in his work.  In some books the palpable rancor of the biographer becomes the focal point.

Artie Shaw, who would have been a hundred this year, would seem a spectacularly difficult subject for a biography.  For one thing, Shaw’s music was beautifully analyzed and documented by Vladimir Simosko in 2000.  Shaw has been pictured as an unimaginably boorish husband (or ex-husband) by his ex-wives.  His last recordings were made more than fifty years ago, even though he lived on until the very end of 2004.

But biographer Tom Nolan proves himself valiantly up to the task in THREE CHORDS FOR BEAUTY’S SAKE: THE LIFE OF ARTIE SHAW (Norton, 2010).  It’s not simply the first-hand research, the careful investigation of the facts, the easy, approachable prose style.  Throughout the book, Nolan understands the scope and idiosyncratic shapes of Shaw’s life and art.   

But before we get into serious issues, I must say that a biography of Shaw (who knew many people and slept with many others) should also have some good gossip.  Nolan offers some wonderful anecdotes:

Billie Holiday advising a seven or eight-year old boy on proper deportment: “You better be good– or I’m gonna put a stamp on your forehead and mail you away!”  (The eight-year old boy took her very seriously and grew up to be a judge.)

Nolan lets us know Shaw’s recollection of what it was like to be in bed next to the gorgeous Lee Wiley in 1938: “In bed, she would say things like, ‘You are lying next to the greatest ass in New York.'”

Then there’s the tale of Judy Garland’s early and continuing love of Shaw.

But these are sidelights to the fascinating story of Shaw’s rise from obscurity to international success, his digust with that success, and his rejection of it — not once, but several times.  Although Nolan has left the musical and musicological analysis of Shaw’s playing and his overall artistic conception to others, what comes through is a full portrait of an artist — not simply a player, an improviser, a bandleader — but someone deeply concerned with the music he was making and might make.  Music, mind you — not just pop hits, not simply playing a good solo or having a successful band, but music

But what also comes through is that Shaw, perhaps because of the focused self-absorption needed for this quest, was a seriously unpleasant person.  Erudite, brilliant, witty, sophisticated, and all that.  But. 

Some will say that arists can be forgiven nearly everything because of what they give us, and that has a certain validity.  But Shaw seems time and again so obsessed with his own self-justifying, harsh truth-telling that it’s hard to tell where accuracy stops and cruelty begins.  As much as I admire Shaw’s music and his integrity, I find myself recoiling from the man who characterized Johnny Mercer as having  “a little faggotry in him,” to say nothing of the saga of Shaw’s failed marriages.  Nolan is fair and balanced, not taking the testimony of ex-wives and lovers at face value . . . but Shaw, in the end, comes across as an ungenerous narcissist. 

Here, for instance, is his portrait of Billie Holiday later in life: “Then she got hooked — she went to jail — all that shit.  I went to visit her, she was no longer the girl I knew.  She was no longer — anybody.  She was a — whiner.  She had some guy, livin’ off her and — it was no fun.  It was not fun being with her.  So it goes.”

But finding Shaw repellent did not make me put the book down.  In fact, I continued to read with terrible fascination: “What awful thing will he do or say next?”  It is a real tribute to Nolan’s ability as a writer and shaper of narrative that the reader is able to admire and dislike Shaw at once.  Nolan does not ignore Shaw’s failings, but he doesn’t gloat.  The portrait is thorough, providing a deep study of a man both complicated and coarse, creating beauty through his clarinet and creating turmoil through his actions. 

Even if you have only the vaguest idea of Artie Shaw, this biography is a fascinating study of the difficult relations between the artist and the audience, between the creative mind and the demands of the marketplace. 

And it sent me back to listen to Shaw’s music, which is, after all, what he should be remembered for.  To read a piece by Nolan about Artie Shaw, here’s an article about the recording “Summit Ridge Drive” published in the January 8, 2010 Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704398304574598343861876358.html

HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE

Two biographies of jazz musicians have recently gotten much well-deserved media attention: Robin G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk, Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong book. 

The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.  It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare. 

But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition.  It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher. 

At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi.  But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed. 

But more about that later.  Who was Herbie Nichols?  “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer.  “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.”  “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.”  “Inimitable pianist and composer.”  “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.” 

Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created.  The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.”  In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas.  (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.) 

But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.”  He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band. 

But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily.  Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop.  He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South.  Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better.  Al was nasty to Herbie.  Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now!  Right in the middle of the tune!  Let’s stop that shit now.  Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah!  Go, man, go, go, go!” 

Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim.  One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.”  Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict.  African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.   

Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators.  Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim. 

However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey.  We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow.  A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES.  He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system. 

Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs.  The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread.  The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced. 

And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him.  Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose.  His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.

Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.”  Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology.  Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin.  I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end.  That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.       

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 

MONK, KNOWN AT LAST

I’m only up to page 138 — which is the year 1948 — in Robin D.G. Kelley’s monumental THELONIOUS MONK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL (Free Press, 2009, 588 pages) but I had to write something about this book now rather than waiting sedately until I finish it.  Kelley doesn’t need my enthusiasm, judging by the reviews and media coverage, but his book is seriously worthwhile.monk

It’s clearly the product of fourteen-plus years of research, and the result is thorough without being overwhelming.  Writing about Monk isn’t easy: previous studies have tended to overemphasize his “weirdness,” his apparent reclusiveness, his tendency towards gnomic utterances — as if saying, “Both the man and his music come from the same unreachable, inexplicable sources.”  But Kelley went to the most logical sources — the Monk family and friends — so that the portrait we get is not of someone strange and threatening, but the loving husband and parent.  This may seem a terrible cliche by now, but it’s a relief from those books that equate Genius with Madness or at least with Cruelties.  I find those equations wearisome.  Although Kelley doesn’t invent scenes of Monk going to Home Depot or being a secret suburbanite, it is reassuring to find that in some deep ways, he made sense — if not always to the prying world outside, at least to those who loved him.  (This demythologizing is welcome.) 

Kelley has also had the benefit of being able to speak at length with Monk’s manager, Harry Colomby, so that the book becomes far more than the record of a musician’s life — which often follows a predictable trajectory: early encounters with the music, youthful influences, first success, and then a boring chronicle of gigs and concerts.  About twenty percent of the anecdotes are familiar, but the rest are new and often greatly revealing.  Kelley, a jazz pianist himself, gets under the surface of Monk’s music without being overly technical.

He also grapples with two other issues: the role of the media in the Forties (often the role of people who earnestly wanted to make sure Monk received wide coverage) in making Monk “the High Priest of Bebop,” thus peculiar — because peculiarity brings people to clubs more than benign normality.  He has also faces the larger — and painful — question of Monk’s mental illness, or bipolar disorder, or chemical imbalance . . . call it what you will — honestly rather than speculatively.  I haven’t yet read enough of the book to see how he takes on the unanswerable question, “If Monk had been medicated early, if he had been a compliant patient, if more had been known, would he have been happier?  And would we have those astonishing records?”

Reviewers have to complain about something so that readers know they are attempting to be objective, so I have two Official Complaints.  Kelley doesn’t mention that Louis Armstrong made influential records of JUST A GIGOLO and BYE AND BYE — material that receives some emphasis in the text.  And, perhaps in his desire to be unbuttoned, friendly rather than academic, Kelly is occasionally a bit too casual, too slangy for me.  Monk may have called it “reefer,” and Bessie Smith did, but Kelley’s hipness rings false. 

But I am a seriously finicky reader . . . and if these are the only things I could find to complain about, it has to be a beautifully written and carefully documented book.  Thrilling, even, in its diligence, intelligence, and compassion.

HIS GRIEF, HIS ART: BEN WEBSTER, 1970

I’ve been listening to a new double-CD set of Ben Webster recordings assembled in honor of his hundredth birthday, titled THE BRUTE AND THE BEAUTIFUL (Storyville 103 8407).  Most of the music in this set comes from Webster’s last years in Europe.  Depending on the musicians accompanying Ben and his own health, the results are either lovely or uneven.  Occasionally a boppish rhythm section intrudes, or sweet symphonic orchestrations threaten to drown everything.  But two recordings in this set done with Teddy Wilson are irreplaceable — one, a version of STARDUST done in Copenhagen in 1969, is yearning and intense.  (The video of this performance, once available on YouTube, apparently has been removed, which is a pity.)

But the more dramatic OLD FOLKS (Hugo Rasmussen, bass; Ole Streenberg, drums) from May 1970, is still accessible.  It is also very deep music.

Webster is casually, almost sloppily dressed, his great bulk protruding in front of him.  Because he had broken an ankle in a fall eight months before, he is seated.  The performance begins with a small display of will, as Ben refuses to play the song at the medium-tempo jog Wilson chose.  Instead, Ben snaps his fingers insistently, slowing the tempo to a ballad, a lament.

Teddy Wilson also has the sheet music in front of him and gazes at it intently, his lips moving silently.  During the last twenty-five years of his career, Wilson stuck to his own familiar repertoire, medleys of songs associated with Waller, Goodman, Gershwin, Basie, and so on, so this is unusual.  The unfmiliarity of OLD FOLKS accounts for the atypical mistake he makes at the end of his second chorus.  Viewers will notice the difficulty or pain evident in his right hand as he pauses between phrases to turn his wrist inwards, perhaps the inevitable result of so much muscular exertion at the piano night after night.  Watching these two men play, one is aware of their age, their occasional struggles; hearing them is a different matter.

This performance is Webster’s, although Wilson’s accompaniment is gentle, supportive, and simple.  Ben’s first chorus is apparently close to the melody, with some tender arpeggios and pauses, but playing melody in this fashion is anything but simple, something only learned through forty years of devotion and practice.  The song comes alive.  Ben’s sound, his tone, his phrase-ending vibratos, full of air, are the very opposite of uninflected playing.  In the middle of the bridge, Ben removes the mouthpiece from his lips, shakes his head in exasperation (with himself or with his instrument?) but does not stop or give in.

To me, the polite applause that greets the end of his chorus is inadequate response, suggesting that the audience does not entirely grasp what they have just heard, but that might do them an injustice.  Teddy’s  chorus is a mixture of embellishments and his patented arpeggios.  Midway through it, though, the camera pulls back and we see Ben nodding silently, “Yes, I know,” empathic, hearing Wilson’s playing.  They had known and worked with each other as early as 1935, so there may havebeen the kinship of people who have shared the same experiences over time.  Ben told the British interviewer Henry Whiston in 1971 that he had leased a “beautiful piano” for his home, “I got that piano so that Teddy Wilson could have a piano to play on.”

(While Wilson is concluding his seond chorus, the camera pans to a handsome African-American of this same generation, dressed in a pink shirt, the trumpeter Bill Coleman, another long-term expatriate.)

Then we see that Webster has been crying: a tear is spilling out of his eye.  And he nods again, sadly agreeing with what Wilson has been saying without words, before picking up his horn a few beats later.

When I first saw this performance perhaps twenty years ago, I was unaware of any context, and thought perhaps that Ben had been moved to tears by the beauty of Wilson’s solo, which I still believe.  Was he also thinking of his peers — the American jazz musicians who knew and lived the music he loved — the men and women he had left behind to come to Europe?  The friends he had lost, the musicians he might never play with again?  Johan van der Keuken, who knew Ben well in Scandinavia, has spoken of the “essential loneliness” that “became more heavy” for him as he remained there.

But I read in Frank Buchmann-Moller’s excellent biography of Webster, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, that Ben had learned of the death of Johnny Hodges only a short time before this broadcast.  Although Ben might very well be weeping over Wilson’s solo, its beauty and its larger implications, his grief takes on a new dimension.

The fine tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo said of Ben, “He was 100 percent honest.  Everything came from the heart; there was no acting involved.  He wasn’t very good at sweeping things under the carpet.”

Ben had sat in the reed section of the Ellington band for almost four years, hearing Johnny Hodges every night and marveling.  He had come to the band a fully developed soloist, but he learned so much about the subtleties of technique and emotion, about singing from Hodges.  A year before this performance, Coleman Hawkins had died — an event that had upset Ben greatly.  Hodges’s sudden death — a heart attack in the dentist’s chair — was even more devastating.  Ben told Whiston, “It was . . . like if you hit me in the head with a sledgehammer.  It knocked me down.  I really didn’t know what to do.”

I do not think that Ben chose OLD FOLKS as a tribute to Hodges: that song, that piece of Americana, had been part of his repertoire since 1969, and an Ellington ballad such as I GOT IT BAD or SOPHISTICATED LADY would have been more predictable.  But OLD FOLKS was Ben’s idea rather than Wilson’s, the evidence suggested by Wilson’s unfamiliarity.

However it came to be part of this performance, OLD FOLKS is an integral part of the emotions we and the musicians come to feel.  Written by Willard Robison and performed by Mildred Bailey, among others, it is an affectionate, sly, sentimental portrait of a grandfatherly character whose habits are rustic, who tells “tall tales” that everyone knows are doubtful . . . yet he is beloved.  The lyrics emphasize his age; someday “Old Folks” will be dead and everyone will grieve.

Was Ben Webster weeping not only for the deaths of Hawkins and Hodges, Sid Catlett and Jimmy Blanton, but for an entire generation of his friends, artistic colleagues?  For the inevitability of their deaths, all the Old Folks of jazz?  Was he even wondering how long he would live?  Perhaps.

But his tears do not disable him.  He does not, in Yeats’s words, “break up his lines to weep.”  It all had to be saved for the music — a professional musician, a grown man, he had his job to do, whether or not tears were spilling out of his eyes.  And so he continues playing OLD FOLKS, hesitantly, but with such feeling.  It almost makes me weep, watching it: Ben’s slow pace, his patient, sorrowful exploration of its lines.

But it took me twenty years to realize that ben’s closing solo is a musical evocation of the weeping he would not surrender to.  His eyes dry up; he gains control of himself.  But he weeps through his horn.  What are his brief, irregular phrases, separated by gulps of air, but sobs and gasps?  His loss, his tenacity, his art — inseparable.  Watch closely: here is Ben Webster, a man, majestic and infirm at once, someone who would die in two years, racked by emotions, playing as beautifully as any musician ever did.  Without ever being didactic, this performance has so much to say to us, to teach us.

Two postscripts.

One: this clip has detestable advertisements crawling along the bottom of the frame.  But a reasonably nimble viewer can find the X and make the ads vanish.  I know that jazz needs financial support, but the ads seem a repellent intrusion here.

Two, much happier: the quotations here come from Buchmann-Moller’s biography of Ben, published in 2006 by the University of Michigan Press.  Buchmann-Moller is also the author of two indispensable books on Lester Young’s life and music, their titles taken from Lester’s own defining expressions: YOU JUST FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE, and YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!  His work is accurate, compassionate, and fair — worthy of the great John Chilton.

DICK TWARDZIK’S RECORDED LIVES

twardzik-coverBecause of Sam Parkins’ recollection, posted earlier on this blog, of his short-lived Boston friend, pianist Richard Twardzik (1931-1955), I obtained a copy of BOUNCIN’ WITH BARTOK: THE INCOMPLETE WORKS OF RICHARD TWARDZIK (Mercury Press, 2008) by Jack Chambers.  I have been reading it with fascination for the last few weeks.  It is a phenomenal book.

But first, some comments on the Art of Biography.  Perhaps from the start, biographies were glowing public records of the lives of Famous Men Who Had Done Something.  The accomplishments were heroic, the biographer admiring, even adoring.  If the subject had been a bad husband, an ungenerous employer, unpleasant in private, it was not the biographer’s task to record these moments.

When this began to change I cannot pinpoint, but slowly — perhaps with the rise of journalistic muckraking and a public eager for backstairs gossip — the biography began to tell all, lingering over the subject’s revealed flaws.  The biographer pretended to look abashed, then told tales.  Joyce Carol Oates dubbed this “pathobiography,” books savagely dissecting their subjects in the name of objectivity and completeness.  In some of these works, rancor prevails; the biographer seems to hate the subject.

Jazz, that young art, is particularly prone to such sea-changes in its reportage.  Consider the shifts in less than a century in the chronicles of Louis, Duke, and Benny — ending with recent books that state that Louis ran out of creative energy somewhere around 1929, that Ellington stole his most famous compositions from his sidemen, and that the King of Swing picked his nose.  And Charlie Parker?  The books on Bird are worth a book in themselves.

My model for a jazz biographer is the inestimable John Chilton, who loves his heroic figures but has no trouble saying plainly when they are off form in their music or their personal relations.  Right behind him is the jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett, whose book LISTENING FOR HENRY CROWDER is remarkable.  And parallel to them is Mark Miller, whose book on Valaida Snow was also published by The Mercury Press.  (Miller has a great deal of energy and is finishing a biography of pianist Herbie Nichols, a book I look forward to.)

Much of this philosophical strife I refer to above comes from our puzzlement with the Great Artist who seems to be A Bad Man or at least seriously flawed.  Twardzik doesn’t entirely fit, but he seems to have been immature, half-formed, self-absorbed in everything but his music.  Dick’s music astonished those who heard it, and the evidence in his short discography suggests that he was clearly original, clearly going someplace new.  Happily, the small discography is slowly growing larger with new concert recordings made with Chet Baker in the last months of Twardzik’s life, practice tapes, live radio broadcasts from Boston.

Perhaps it will seem odd that I am less interested in Twardzik’s music than in his life, more interested in his biography than either.  It brings up what is, to me, one of the great questions: what can we know about anyone, particularly when that person has died?  What are the tensions between any gathering of evidence and the person it might attempt to portray?  In this spirit, I was thrilled by Barnett’s book on Crowder, although I did not find Crowder an enthralling subject.

Biographer Jack Chambers has to his credit an academic career in linguistics and a well-regarded Miles Davis biography; although he never met Twardzik, he was intrigued by the pianist’s recordings when he was a high school student in 1956.  So this book is the result of a half-century of fascination, and it is admirably thorough, with color plates of Dick’s father’s paintings, reproductions of Twardzik’s handwriting, his one remaining manuscript, his self-caricature, envelopes, photographs, and more.  It is, by definition, an “authorized biography,” drawing its strength from the four cartons of personal effects Dick’s family had saved.  Those cartons are an irreplaceable treasure, but they must also have been somewhat of a burden, carrying with them the family’s wish that their doomed young man be treated fairly, generously.  And Chambers, while recording everything, is more than fair.  Twardzik must have been, at times, an irritating young man — even before he became addicted to heroin — and Chambers occasionally seems in part a fine, careful journalist, offering all the facts, in part resembling an indulgent uncle, sure that his beloved nephew had good reasons to act that way.  Watching Chambers negotiate such delicate issues, one hairpin turn after another, is one of the delights of the book.  At times, the thoroughness is just this side of wearying — but Chambers is compelled to include what is relevant alongside what might be relevant, knowing that there will probably never be another biography of Twardzik.

And he has done his job so well that perhaps there never needs to be another one.  From the personal narrative that begins the book — his own involvement with Twardzik’s music — to his study of the family, Dick’s parents seen close up, Dick’s childhood, early musical involvements, intersections with people as diverse as Herb Pomeroy, Serge Chaloff, and Lionel Hampton (the latter particularly fascinating), with Charlie Parker, Rudy Van Gelder, Bob Zieff, and Chet Baker — this book is meticulous in its techniques and results.  Interviews give way to newspaper clippings which give way to personal letters and pay stubs — all the way up to the hotel room where the 24-year old Twardzik is found dead with a needle in his arm.  Ironically, the last thirty-six days of Twardzik’s life are examined most closely because so much detail exists, and Chambers does not stop there, offering sad, grueling examinations of what happened after, including a reproduction of the form listing the dead man’s effects.

Chambers is also a capable writer, and occasionally he gets it in a sentence.  My favorite is his description of the place where Twardzik played a summer gig in 1951:

The atmosphere of the West Yarmouth hall is captured in a set of grainy black and white snapshots that were found among Twardzik’s effects.  The high ceiling gives some idea of the size of the room.  The bandstand appears to be pushed up against a booth, and similar vinyl-covered booths may have ringed the room.  The tables had Formica tops, like common kitchen tables of the day.  The main feature of the decor appears to be indestructibility.

I would give a great deal to have written that last sentence.

The book is carefully done, with what must be the best discography of Twardzik to date, although it would not surprise me if its appearance caused some new discoveries to appear, suddenly.  I hope that the broadcast with tenorist Sam Margolis is issued someday: Margolis, Ruby Braff’s Boston pal, was a fine player in the Lester-Bud Freeman school, someone I was fortunate enough to see and talk with in the early Seventies.

Even if you don’t know Twardzik’s music, this book is essential reading.  We should all be so lovingly and carefully remembered.