I’ve been reading an advance copy of Nat Hentoff’s latest book — a collection of his Jazz Times columns, called AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL: SIXTY YEARS ON THE JAZZ SCENE (University of California Press), which will be published next month.
In a chapter devoted to Thelonious Monk, Hentoff presents an interview done at Monk’s home in 1956 which contains this short passage: “Charlie Parker? I met him in Vic Dickenson’s room where he was visiting one day. Charlie wasn’t well known uptown around this time.”
It pleases me to imagine a jazz universe where Monk, Vic, and Bird hang out in each other’s rooms. Some of the jazz ideologues, busily dividing the music into “schools” to be arranged in chronological order, have relegated players such as Vic to a kind of Dixieland-limbo. You won’t find his name in Robin G. Kelley’s exhaustive biography of Monk, by the way.
The musicians I know are remarkably open-minded about their associates and associations. “Can (s)he play?” is the question, stated or implied. Frank Chace told me that when he was a young man he listened to all the jazz records he could find — “modern” as well as “traditional,” thinking that it was his responsibility as a musician to hear and learn from as much as he could.
Jazz didn’t necessarily have “a star system” until it began to be publicized. Rankings and polls were a way to sell magazines. And the “star” mentality has a particularly exclusionary turn — which jazz listeners and writers of all persuasions are prone to. It’s delightful to celebrate Duke, Louis, Bird, Bix — but what about the worthy players who aren’t spoken of? Some musicians are made much of for reasons that have little to do with their music — their obscurity or the tragedy of their short lives. But many remain in the shadows as if the jazz pantheon was limited rather than spacious.
Admiring Art Tatum shouldn’t mean that Nat Jaffe has to be pushed aside or ignored; where did Dicky Wells and Benny Morton get to?
The night sky has millions of stars. Discover or re-discover someone worthy who’s been ignored or passed by.