I’m a very tough audience when it comes to jazz history books. Many of them, understandably, are pastiches of familiar evidence with big helpings of speculation mixed in. Nice enough for people new to the subject, but give me first-hand information rather than paraphrases of what has already been published.
In addition, most jazz literature seems star-struck, fixated on the forty or fifty BIG NAMES. That’s splendid: books about Louis, Lester, Ben, Hawkins, Roy, Red, and others are treasures. But since the musicians themselves didn’t always get the attention they merited, much jazz biography is brilliant posthumous research. If someone were to turn up pages by Walter or Hot Lips (I couldn’t resist) they would be priceless. And the people who never get to report on what they saw, felt, heard, experienced are likely to have the best stories to tell. This brings us to Peter Vacher’s new book, SWINGIN’ ON CENTRAL AVENUE: AFRICAN AMERICAN JAZZ IN LOS ANGELES (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 331+ pages, many photographs).
It is an irresistible book, and I speak as someone who finds many books — after decades of reading — utterly resistible.
Peter Vacher (much like the recently-departed John Chilton, although Peter is still very much alive) is one of those rare multi-talented writers: a splendid unaffected prose stylist, a very diligent researcher and “connecter,” someone with an eye for what’s true and what’s intriguing. In this case, he offers us oral histories and historical research into the lives and music of sixteen musicians — his research done over more than two decades. The musicians profiled are Andrew Blakeney, Gideon Honore, George Orendorff, “Monk” McFay, Floyd Turnham, Betty Hall Jones, “Red Mack” Morris, Caughey Roberts, Chester Lane, Monte Easter, Billy Hadnott, Norman Bowden, John “Streamline” Ewing, Chuck Thomas, Jesse Sailes, “Red” Minor William Robinson.
I knew of perhaps one-half of those musicians: Blakeney had played with Kid Ory; Honore with Jimmie Noone; Orendorff with Les Hite and Louis; “Red Mack” with Lee and Lester Young’s band; Caughey Roberts had been replaced in the early Basie band by Earle Warren; Billy Hadnott was on famous JATP recordings as well as with Nat Cole; Norman Bowden had recorded with Zutty Singleton; “Streamline” Ewing had played with Hines, McShann, Horace Henderson.
Because of the “star-system” in jazz, many might assume that these interviews with people who — apparently — were on the fringes of the big time would be narrow and not terribly interesting. To assume this would be a huge error. For one thing, these sixteen people hadn’t been interviewed much, if at all, so their reminiscences are fresh and eager, full of good stories. Not one page in Vacher’s book has the stale, “Must we go through this again?” quality of the recitals the stars have given so often they take on an inescapable sleepiness (both in the speaker and the reader). Although many older musicians expressed themselves through their instruments, sometimes their narratives are enthusiastic but closed: “Big Boy was a terror when he got into that whiskey, but he sure could blow.” Not here. And Vacher’s interludes are brief, lively, and the very antithesis of narcissism: he shines the light with great skill and affection on his subjects.
And the stories are amazing. Andy Blakeney was in Chicago when Louis joined King Oliver; he played in a Doc Cooke band. Streamline Ewing was asked to join the Basie band; he heard Charlie Parker before Bird had made records. Speaking of Bird, he stayed with Billy Hadnott and his wife — and it’s a sad story — before the Hadnotts were compelled to ask him to leave. Ewing also mentions seeing both Mutt Carey and Nat Cole at the union — consider that pairing! Norman Bowden talks of rehearsing with Jelly Roll Morton, “the most sophisticated man I ever met in my life,” in 1940. We hear of Benny Goodman sitting in with Mutt’s band in 1925; the book offers the first substantial sketches of drummer Cuba Austin, of bandleaders Reb Spikes, Sonny Clay, the pianist Lady Will Carr. We learn — in just a sentence — that the short-lived and extremely talented pianist Margaret “Countess” Johnson was Lester Young’s “heartbeat.”That Eddie Nicholson was Billie Holiday’s drug supplier. There are extended stories about a young Charlie Christian, about Lester, about the Basie band at the Reno Club in 1935, about Louis, marijuana, Charles Mingus, Buck Clayton in Shanghai, Lionel Hampton in 1936 . . . And some musicians, like Kid Ory and Christian, pop up in different contexts, so one has the advantage of seeing them as if they were characters in a Faulkner novel, from many angles.
I deplore the kind of advertising assertion that suggests, “If you don’t buy / read / eat ____________, your life will be joyless, devoid of meaning.” But I found myself thinking, “Every jazz fancier I know would find something delightfully memorable in these pages.”
And there’s more. Extraordinary photographs, many from the subjects’ personal hoards. Interludes of fact taken from contemporary music magazines. And, should you think this to be simply a collection of oral histories of little-known musicians retelling their careers, the book presents so much more — as in race and racism from the Twenties onwards. Not all the stories are grim, but they are all revealing. I offer only one example — in Billy Hadnott’s section, Vacher includes this comment from DOWN BEAT, March 15, 1944, where Frankie Laine and a four-piece “mixed group” are praised for their music, then the reporter notes, “Despite their excellent air shots the group has found difficulty in club bookings because of the racial angle involved in the mixed group. Setup includes two colored and three ofays, and it will be interesting to find if this group can break through the Jim Crowism so strong out here.” That quotation — both in subject and style — is worth a good deal of study, and it reminds us that there were two unions at the time in Los Angeles.
Such fascinating evidence spills out of Vacher’s book — because his subjects haven’t simply played or lived locally, and they are people one would otherwise know only as names in discographies or on record labels.
The book is entertaining, powerful, and eye-opening. Peter Vacher has surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal. Now I’m going back to read more. As a postscript, I opened the book at random and found Chester Lane’s story about working with Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings in El Dorado, Arkansas, circa 1928, with Louis Jordan . . . and the band is taken over by one Wilson, who owns Wilson’s Tell-‘Em-‘Bout-Me Cafe. I’ll stop there, but you will see why such real-life details make the book a deep pleasure.
May your happiness increase!