Tag Archives: Herbie Nichols

ENRAPTURE(D): KEN PEPLOWSKI, EHUD ASHERIE, MARTIN WIND, MATT WILSON

The works of art that move me the most combine and embody intelligence, warmth, playfulness, and love.  Ken Peplowski’s new CD, ENRAPTURE (Capri Records 74141), is a shining example of what I mean.

ENRAPTURE cover

Recorded slightly more than a year ago, this vivid and satisfying session is a portrait of a wonderful band — recorded as if at a gig but in splendid sound.  The band is a balanced, energetic, communal organism: four individuals who listen to and support each other — Ken on clarinet and tenor; Ehud Asherie, piano; Martin Wind, string bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

And the principles behind this CD are so simple, yet often neglected in this era of “projects” and “themes”.  I will let the writer of the elegant liner notes, Mr. Peplowski, explain: “[This CD is] my latest effort – a year or so of sifting through material, a year or so of playing with these great musicians, and very little time in the studio – we really wanted to approximate what we do in the clubs – this is us, in as close to a live setting as one could ask for in a recording environment – every song pretty much in one take – we weren’t going for a speed-recording record, we just like to capture the spontaneity and interplay of four people who enjoy making music together.”

If circumstances permitted there to be more working bands who could record sessions like this . . . but I digress.

Here’s a sonic sample — the title song of the session, composed by Herbie Nichols:

Even the casual listener will notice that this is a delightfully egalitarian melodic quartet: each player contributing an individual energy to the music, rather than a Star and a Rhythm Section.  Each of these players is obviously a Star but the prevailing atmosphere is a friendly communality — humility and eagerness mixed as a loving offering to the Music.

And what Music!  Although some “traditionalists” like to claim Peplowski as their own — after all, he’s recorded with tuba on the session — and then renounce him as a Dangerous Modernist, the truth is that he has a wide and delicious musical intelligence, one that embraces all kinds of music as long as it has a lively center.  So on this CD there are songs by Harry Warren, Bernard Hermann, Barry Manilow, Noel Coward, Ellington, Fats Waller, Lennon, Leslie Bricusse, and Peter Erskine.  There are touching ballads and ruminative introspections; there are quick, spiky ventures into apparently unknown territory; there is rollicking swing (as opposed to tributes to its fabled King — none of that here, please).

There is nothing self-conscious about the breadth of repertoire: it is a mark of an integrity that brushes away “styles and schools” in favor of deeply-felt but never pretentious creativity.  And although Peplowski can play his horns with incredible speed, vehemence, and precision, his is a mature sensibility that does not seek to impress listeners with flash.  Rather there is immense tenderness in his ballad playing, great intelligence and feeling throughout.  I stand in awe of Ehud’s solo and ensemble playing, and have listened to several tracks on this disc just to hear what chords he plays behind everyone else (wow, as we say); Martin’s bass playing is always tuneful, warm, and propulsive (catch him on WILLOW TREE); Matt is a splendidly melodic percussionist in the great tradition, one that extends past the expectations of jazz performance.  Together they are delicious.

If you want tangible reassurance that deep yet light-hearted beauty is being created and preserved in the name of Jazz (or Creative Improvised Music) as recently as last year, this is a CD to get — and savor and replay.  I’ve taken this long to write this review because I didn’t want to take the disc out of the car player.

It’s available at all the usual places, but I urge listeners to do the ancient act of purchasing the actual CD because Ken’s liner notes are wise and to the point, rather like their writer.

May your happiness increase!

BEAUTIFUL IMPROMPTUS: DAN LEVINSON, BOB HAVENS, KEITH INGHAM at the ALLEGHENY JAZZ PARTY (September 20, 2014)

In my deepest jazz self, I hold to what I would call the Condon aesthetic: that nothing beats a group of like-minded musicians assembling for a common purpose — creating swinging lyrical improvisations — on the spot, with no arrangements, nothing more formal than a mutually agreed-upon song, tempo, key, and perhaps someone volunteering to play lead in the first chorus.  After that, the players live utterly in the moment.  Sometimes this freedom makes for collisions, but more often it results in the kind of pleasure one lives for, the moments when the tight collars have been unbuttoned, the painfully fashionable shoes have been kicked off.

Last September, at the Allegheny Jazz Party (debuting with great success in Cleveland, Ohio) these impromptu delights happened many times in the three-day banquet of sounds.  But one session has remained in my mind as a high point of playful unfettered collective improvisation — a trio set led by Dan Levinson, clarinet and tenor, with two of The Singular Elders, Bob Havens, trombone; Keith Ingham, piano.  The combination of a reed instrument and trombone works beautifully but isn’t often attempted these days.  There were bebop precursors and swing ones, but the tonal ranges of the two instruments are delightfully complementary.  The trio of piano and two horns requires a certain orchestral approach to the piano, although I am sure that Monk or Herbie Nichols would have done splendidly here, too — but Keith is a full band in himself.

With pleasure, then —

(WHAT CAN I SAY, DEAR ) AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY:

SEPTEMBER SONG:

A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN:

Thank you, Messrs. Dan, Bob, and Keith.

And, although it’s only January, the 2015 Allegheny Jazz Party is a sure thing for September 10-13, with a delightful lineup (although there is the asterisk that indicates “All programs subject to change”: Duke Heitger, Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart, Andy Schumm, Harry Allen, Dan Block, Ken Peplowski, Scott Robinson, Bill Allred, Dan Barrett, Howard Alden, Marty Grosz, Andy Stein, Ehud Asherie, James Dapogny, Mike Greensill, Rossano Sportiello, Jon Burr, Nicki Parrott, Frank Tate, Ricky Malichi, Pete Siers, Hal Smith, Rebecca Kilgore, Wesla Whitfield, Faux Frenchmen.  To keep up to date with what’s happening at the AJP, visit here.

May your happiness increase!

JOURNEY TO UNMAPPED PLACES: “JAZZ LIVES: TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART” by JAAP VAN DE KLOMP

JazzLives Blog

Between 2005 and 2008, the Dutch photographer and jazz scholar Jaap van de Klomp began a series of soulful pilgrimages in honor of the men and women who had created the music he so loves.

The result is the lovely and often sad book of photographs, JAZZ LIVES, which takes its subtitle, TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART, from the words chiseled into Lester Young’s gravestone.

Yes, gravestone.

Every jazz lover knows the familiar photographs of our heroes and heroines: Billie Holiday with her dog; Louis Armstrong snappily dressed in London; Charlie Parker on the bandstand.  But where are our idols now?

The two hundred and more pages of JAZZ LIVES document where their mortal remains lie: with elaborate gravestones, unmarked plots of overgrown land, monuments proud and forlorn.  Jaap took his camera across the United States and Europe to capture these landscapes, resulting in a heartfelt pilgrimage to shrines of the dead. Each photograph is accompanied by a concise biography by Scott Yanow, and the book is organized by instruments once played.

The gravestones sometimes speak of posthumous reputation and fame: huge blocks of costly stone or unmarked areas of grass.  A monument for Ellington and empty space for Bud Powell.  An essay by Dan Morgenstern opens the book; one by the jazz musician and writer Bill Crow closes it. A simply written but evocative essay by the photographer himself explains something about his travels.

But the graves say so much — by presence and absence, reality and implication — about Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Serge Chaloff, Vic Dickenson, Andrew Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet, Django Reinhardt, Jack Teagarden, Britt Woodman, Al Grey, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, John Carter, Russell Procope, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Willie the Lion Smith, Gigi Gryce, Roland Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Wardell Gray, Stuff Smith, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Hank Mobley, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Herbie Nichols, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Milt Hinton, Jimmie Blanton, George Duvivier, Jo Jones, Zutty Singleton, Denzil Best, Billy Higgins, Sidney Catlett, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Ivie Anderson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Johnny Hartman, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn, Sun Ra, Bennie Moten, W. C. Handy, Tadd Dameron, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and others.

To give some sense of the breadth of his searching, the gravestones of trumpet players included in this book are: Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Hot Lips Page, Henry Red Allen, Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Lester Bowie.

Jaap, born in 1940, has been involved with the music and the musicians for more than half a century, including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Kenny Drew, and Kenny Clarke among others.

But he is not only a person of great feeling and a fine photographer.  Jaap is one of those rare souls who wants to share what he has done.  He wrote this to me, “The book which is sold out in the Netherlands by now will not be reprinted and has been proven to be physically too heavy for worldwide distribution. In this form I still hope to reach more jazz enthusiasts with a book which was a great pleasure to make.and which is still a very dear project to me.”

He has offered to make his book available as a digital download — for free — to anyone who emails him at info@jaapvandeklomp.nl  with JazzLives in the subject line.  The whole book is about 150 MB and it might take a few minutes to download.

This is generosity without hidden motive, and it is a beautiful work of art and devotion.

May your happiness increase!

GO, LITTLE BOOK! — “WAY DOWN THAT LONESOME ROAD: LONNIE JOHNSON IN TORONTO 1965-1970” by MARK MILLER

Mark Miller is the most consistently satisfying jazz writer today.

His books are full of new information, but it’s never oppressive heapings-up of research.  He is occasionally part of the text in subtle ways but never the subject.  His affection and interest in his subjects is palpable.  In an age of self-indulgent sprawling prose, he is superbly concise.

I have read books by Mark on people who are slightly outside my realm of interest — Valaida Snow and Herbie Nichols.  And I had a problem with each of these books, but not what you might expect.  I really wanted to stop everything else I was doing and read the book in one sitting.  Watching me ration myself with a new Miller book must be hilarious, like watching someone put the bag of potato chips on the highest shelf and then hunt down the stepladder.  None of his books has ever seemed too long.

And his new biography seems more subtle, more graceful, than its predecessors.  It’s a portrait of the blues / jazz guitarist / singer / composer Lonnie Johnson and the last five years of his life in Toronto.

I confess that my awareness of Lonnie Johnson was limited.  I knew and admired him primarily as an extra added attraction with Louis, with Ellington, for his wonderful soloing on the 1940 Decca CHICAGO JAZZ sessions with Johnny Dodds (hear him on NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES).  I had admired his guitar playing and singing, but once had had a copy of his Canadian CD, STOMPIN’ AT THE PENNY (with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers) and had let it go to a guitarist friend without undue regret.  So I didn’t approach this book already in love with its subject.  I did, however, anticipate superb reading ahead.  If anything, I underestimated what Miller can create.

First of all, in an era of hugely comprehensive biographies (pick your tomes as you will) one soon realizes that not every figure requires such coverage, nor is there necessarily always the requisite evidence to support six hundred pages.  Jazz biographers sometimes act as if they know no one will ever write a biography of Kid X again, so they cram their pages every available piece of data, including lists of gigs and travel details.

As a scholar, I admire the thoroughness, the diligence, and the scope of such information-gathering, and I know that the resulting book will be useful to future generations.  As a reader, I find the fact-avalanche daunting: I imagine a parade of appendices so that I could continue reading about the main drama.  And sometimes the lives of jazz musicians are only interesting because we are in love with the music that they make.  As a result, many of the most weighty jazz biographies — although I come to them with anticipation — feel heavy in my hands before their subject is 35.

Mark Miller writes books that look and feel like volumes of poetry, as if you could put such a book in a jacket pocket, smaller than an iPad.  (This book, by the way, is beautifully done by the Mercury Press and I found no misprints — something remarkable — and there are precious photographs I’d never even imagined.)  WAY DOWN THAT LONESOME ROAD is just over 150 pages of text, which would be several decent-sized chapters for one of our more expansive writers.  To be candid, this review is longer than many of Miller’s chapters.

It isn’t that Miller’s story is limited or short on interest.  In fact, even if you knew nothing of Johnson, a number of intriguing issues arise here: the drama of the last five years of the life of a performing artist; an African-American artist in a country he wasn’t born in; the politics of gigging, publicity, getting recognition, making money; what happens to a “former” star, and more.

Yet this isn’t a sad sad story.

Many jazz chronicles intentionally thrive on victimization: poor Bix, poor Bird, and more.  Miller clearly loves Lonnie Johnson (and saw him perform — once — at an epiphanic moment in 1970) and grieves for him, but this book is not an elegy for someone brutalized, nor an indictment of an ungrateful society.

None of the above.  Rather, in vignette-sized chapters of a few pages (each taking as long as a 78 side if you are a quick reader), Miller delineates the shape of Lonnie’s last years — how the “roamin’ rambler” arrived in his final city, Toronto.  Miller sketches in Johnson’s early and middle career for the first forty pages of the book.  In this section, Miller neatly balances his sense of the man — a mix of seriousness and mischief, of modesty and pride — his travels (Miller is particularly good on his feel for the overlapping worlds of jazz, blues, vaudeville, and recordings) and the music he produced, on and off records.

Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang, and Bessie Smith make appearances here, although Miller is not someone obsessed with chronicling every note recorded.  But when he does write about the music, he hears a great deal and reveals it to us.

It’s when Lonnie Johnson arrives in Toronto that the pace slows down in a very gratifying way.  For not only has Miller followed Lonnie’s trail through the newspapers and the jazz magazines of the time (the book is dedicated to the late John Norris, much-missed; Patrick Scott, a champion of Lonnie’s who could be vitriolic, also appears) but he has spoken to people who knew Lonnie, who sewed up a pair of his ripped trousers, who ate ice cream with him, who saw him perform, who loved him, who saw him sit on the floor and play with a pair of kittens.

Young blues guitarists and old colleagues (including Louis Armstrong) come in and out of the text; this book includes both Don Ewell and Lady Iris Mountbatten, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Jim Galloway.  I marvel at Miller’s gift for weaving reminiscence and data, impressionistic illustration and quotations, into an entrancing whole.  Many jazz books feel like the sweet necrology: their subject is dead, and all the people recalling the subject are dead, too.  Not so here: the book is full of sharply-realized affectionate stories told by very alive people.

It is one of those books that even when a reader is fascinated by what is happening on page 64, that same reader is also aware of the writer’s larger design.  In fact, several times, I felt strongly that Miller is demonstrating the subtle interweaving of strands of fact and feeling in the way a great modern novelist would do — except that he is playing fair with the information, inventing nothing but simply presenting what he’s  learned in fulfilling ways.

In addition to the mix of reminiscence and fact, there is also a good deal of subtly understated social history.  It is not the heavy-handed “historical context” that I find so irritating elsewhere.  Imagine a biography of Hot Mama Susie Saucepan that arrives at 1933 — at which point the writer feels compelled to explain all about the Depression, Repeal, the New Deal, who was on the radio, what was the popular car, film, hair style.  I am no cultural historian, but when books offer these nuggets of freeze-dried history, I skip forward — often after putting the book down for a brief irate interval.

Miller doesn’t do this, but he has a fine sensitive awareness for the flavor of the different neighborhoods, communities, and populations of Toronto — often as manifested in the different blues and jazz clubs that appear and die (including one Lonnie invented for himself).  One senses that Miller, who refuses to make the narrative all about himself, is writing from personal observation and experience.  (And when, by the way, Miller is part of the text — as an eighteen-year old blues fan at a 1970 concert where Lonnie sings two songs — it is a breathtaking experience.)

Although Lonnie Johnson didn’t leave a substantial narrative record — no jazz institute recorded an oral history; no young filmmaker created a documentary — he lives on in Miller’s book, a man and musician as complex as any of us: “He was a gentle soul, a charmer and a ladies’ man.  He could be too trusting, an easy mark, but he was also rather sly, feigning innocence and playing for sympathy when it served his purpose.  He looked out for himself first and foremost, but he could be generous towards others.  He was regarded with respect, great affection, and, occasionally, exasperation.”  So Miller synthesizes the reactions of the people who knew his subject.

And one gets a vivid portrait of Johnson in his brief spoken excerpts: the cheerful man who meets John McHugh (club owner) and Jim McHarg (musician) in Toronto and wants to know what “the chick situation” is; the aging man who is worried that he will be looked on as a relic, who asks musicologist Charles Keil before he will grant an interview, “Are you another one of those guys who wants to put crutches under my ass?”  But Johnson comes across as neither cynical nor predatory.  We are reminded by incident rather than any authorial sermonizing that there is no barrier between Johnson and his music.  He tells an interviewer, “I love to sing.  Some singers love payday.  They sing for payday.  I don’t.  I sing for you, for the people out there, for myself.”  The book is full of memorable little sentences that linger in the mind like the pungent notes of Johnson’s guitar.

My favorite is “Charlie, the canary sings,” but you’ll have to read the book to delight in that story.

Ultimately, Lonnie Johnson comes fully alive in these pages because of Miller’s love and skill.  A lesser writer would not have melded the very disparate elements with such grace; truly, it could have become a formulaic story of the Last Years of An Aging African-American Jazzman.  Miller is the literary equivalent of a Jimmy Rowles or a Joe Thomas: every word is in place.  His writing surprises us with its lilt, and the result seems beautifully inevitable.

The book is available through a variety of online sources: you might begin at here.

REMEMBER! HERBIE NICHOLS AND THE OLD DAYS

My friend, the clarinetist H. Grundoon Chumley (he’s Scottish – Malaysian, hence his beautiful and unusual name), called me up to tell me stories from the late Fifties onwards on Seventh Avenue South in New York City. 

You know that the pianist Herbie Nichols played in Dixieland bands.  One night, I popped into a club called the Riviera — across from Nick’s on Seventh Avenue — and there was a jazz band.  The clarinetist was someone I knew from school and he forced me to sit in.  To my amazement, I got through it.  After the set was over, Herbie said to me, “Man, you’re a real player.”  That really egged me on, encouraged me tremendously, so I stayed with the horn and enjoyed it.  It was much later through a book by A.B. Spellman that I discovered the esteem in which Herbie was held.  I do recall the band at the Riviera — a Dixieland band led by the trumpet player Al Bandini, a friend of Pee Wee Russell’s.  Tom Lord played baritone.  After Herbie died, Bandini got Eddie Wilcox (who had taken over the Jimmie Lunceford band after Lunceford passed) who became the house piano player at the Riviera.  Once in a while Bandini would call and I would go down there and play.  A lot of pros would come and sit in: in those days there were many places to sit in and famous people walked in.  I never forgot one night.  A chap in a sailor suit came in and said, “Can I sit in?” and took out his trombone.  He played a solo on SWEET GEORGIA BROWN and our jaws dropped: it was Bill Watrous.  Another trombonist was Benny Morton — a wonderful man.  Once Dick Dreiwitz got us a gig to play Central Plaza (this would have been around 1961) because we all knew Jack Crystal from the Commodore Music Shop.  At the end of the night, the two bands would get together to play THE SAINTS.  I looked over at the other band, and it was Willie “the Lion” Smith, Charlie Shavers, and Jo Jones, and I couldn’t stop shaking.  Then I felt an arm around my shoulders, and Benny Morton was saying to me, “Come on, man, relax.  Just play!”  And I did.

One other thing.  We used to go to the Metropole and see all the greats — Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Gene Krupa, and Roy Eldridge.  I was a friend of Jack Bradley and he called me up — around 1964 or so — to tell me that Louis was going to play one night there.  There was a line around the block.  But I’ve never heard a record that captured a live performance, and that night I thought the ceiling was going to fall down with the power and purity of Louis’s sound.

REMEMBER!

It’s very important to me that the musicians I love never get forgotten. 

I know that the man-and-woman-on-the-street in 2011 don’t recognize the names Joe Oliver or Herbie Nichols.  That might be inevitable, but I don’t want these figures and a thousand others to be forgotten even more than they are now.

So I am sending out a global cyber-request.  Send no money, clicks, tweets, proofs of purchase, or boxtops.

But if your Mom or Dad was a musician or singer of note, your Uncle or Aunt or Grandpa . . . would you get in touch with me and consider telling your stories? 

I would be delighted to use JAZZ LIVES to celebrate my artistic heroes and heroines.  We could do a telephone interview (to be transcribed and printed here); we could talk face-to-face; I could take photographs of memorabilia; I could even bring my videocamera if you don’t live more than ____ hours away from New York City.

I’m absolutely serious.  My email is swingyoucats@gmail.com

And I understand that there are many jazz-children who would regard this request with puzzlement or suspicion, if their experiences made them sad.  I was once given the telephone number of the daughter of a musician, then dead, whose name you would recognize.  I called her and asked if she would be willing to talk to me about her father, and she was very politely puzzled, “What would I say to you?” she asked.  And she asked if I could call her back some other time, which I took (perhaps correctly) as a very veiled “No, thank you.”  

I promise I am not looking to pry or to uncover traumas.  But I am a born hero-worshipper, and I think many of my readers are too. 

And — if you are reading this entry and thinking, “Well, I didn’t have the good fortune to be Henry “Red” Allen’s son, but I did see him play,” I would be delighted to hear or read and print that story too.

Consider this blog a collective memory bank: no minimum deposits, everything repaid with grateful interest.

BLANK PAGES AND SILENCES

Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
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