Tag Archives: JAZZ WAX

JUST FOUR BARS

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

The nominees for the 2018 Jazz Journalists’ Awards were just announced, and my blog, JAZZ LIVES, is one of the four blogs nominated for Blog of the Year. Very gratifying, and thanks to everyone who pushed this labor-and-love-intensive blog into the public eye once again. I’m pleased to be in the company of DO THE MATH, JAZZ WAX, and RIFFTIDES as well.

Here is the link, so you can see all the eminent musicians and journalists as well.

Whether JAZZ LIVES wins an award or not, I couldn’t have done it without you. In fact, I wouldn’t have done it without you.  The decade I’ve spent on this blog has been exceedingly rewarding.  Each one of you — musician, commenter, researcher — has increased my happiness.

The soundtrack du jour, inspired by last night’s conversation with Ricky Riccardi — this choice is so Ricky and I won’t fight over Louis’ version:

May your happiness increase!

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“WHY JAZZ HAPPENED,” by MARC MYERS

WHY JAZZ HAPPENED

WHY JAZZ HAPPENED (University of California Press), the new book by Marc Myers, whom many know for his blog JAZZ WAX, his liner notes, his articles in The Wall Street Journal, is a great accomplishment.

I have written here before how disappointing I find much that is written about jazz — a tepid stew of theorizing, of ideological scraps, an inedible pottage of what everyone else has said.  Readers like myself long for some bracing first-hand research, new points of view that illuminate rather than divide.

WHY JAZZ HAPPENED does all the right things.  For one, it moves away from the star system: Louis begat Bird who begat Miles who begat Trane.  It leaves behind the understandable (but sometimes worn-out) historical cliches; it takes jazz beyond the sound of the recordings: too many “jazz books” sound greatly as if the writer had decided to create “reaction” papers to every track X played in chronological sequence . . . an audio diary of one’s iPod.

I knew Marc was capable of arresting writing from reading JAZZ WAX, and I also was eager to read the book-in-the-making he was creating from his candid, searching interviews with jazz players otherwise ignored.  But he has done much more than assemble a pastiche of voices telling their sweet or odd stories.  He has written a social history of jazz, measuring the effects of non-musical forces on the music.

He has chosen to examine the period 1942-72 (which he feels is the music’s “golden era of improvisation, individualism and recording freedom”) through an analytical lens that is both microscopic and panoramic.  His premise is “approaching jazz history from the outside in,” which means a clear-eyed historical reading of the factors outside the studio and the clubs that shaped the music we adore, the way we hear it, the way it developed.

Thus: the long-playing record; suburbanization in California and the G.I. Bill; the role of concert promoters and disc jockeys; ASCAP and BMI, the role of the “British Invasion”; the connections between late Sixties jazz and racial tension.  If any of this sounds like a cultural anthropologist’s work, I assure you it is far from academic (although the book’s research is beautifully documented.)

The book is consistently lively because Marc, like the best investigator, is deeply curious and not easily satisfied with the pat answers previous works have (sometimes) offered.  And his curiosity has taken him to contemporary reporting . . . but most often it has taken him to the primary sources, for which relief much thanks.

Rather than assuming what the battle over 78, 33, and 45 rpm record technologies was like, he has spoken at length to George Avakian.  Other figures who pop up to add their irreplaceable, salty or affectionate stories to this study are Dave Pell, Creed Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Rudy Van Gelder, Burt Bachrach, Lou Donaldson, Chico Hamilton, and three dozen more.

Faithful readers of Marc’s JAZZ WAX have delighted in these interviews, but one of the pleasures of this book is the beautifully organic way the material is handled: it never feels like pastiche, and the balance between fact, interpretation, and a quick-moving narrative is delightful.

My only regret is that this book begins — because of Marc’s perspective, which I would not deny him — in 1942.  I can only imagine the much larger-scale book he might have written which would have spoken of Prohibition, of the Great Northern Migration, bobbed hair, of the role of Thirties radio . . . and on.

But to his credit, WHY JAZZ HAPPENED has a true feeling for jazz as a seamless whole, so that Louis Armstrong appears alongside Joseph Jarman in the pages of the index, and the book begins and ends with a truly moving episode devoted to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  My hope is that other writers genuinely devoted to an accurate analysis of how and why this music happened — for the world of an art’s development is much larger than a survey of the individual musicians’ idiosyncracies and a list of record dates — will use WHY JAZZ HAPPENED as a flexible, energetic model and write their own books that look back to Marc’s.  Because he is neither didactic nor over-emphatic, I can even envision books based on his model that say, “No, these are MY ten events or forces that made jazz what it is.”

For its ingenuity, subtlety, surprises, and depth, WHY JAZZ HAPPENED deserves to be ranked along the best recent studies of jazz — Randy Sandke’s WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET and Ricky Riccardi’s THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG.

Visit here to see Marc speaking about WHY JAZZ HAPPENED in a multi-part video interview.  It won’t satiate your desire for the book.  I suggest you go here for the next logical step . . . your own copy.

May your happiness increase.

BOB WILLOUGHBY’S REMARKABLE PORTRAITS

Because they give themselves to what they are creating, jazz musicians make splendid photographic subjects.

Bob Willoughby, who died in 2009, wasn’t the first to capture their intensity, lack of self-consciousness, and energy on camera.  But his beautiful volume of photographs and recollections, JAZZ: BODY AND SOUL, shows on every page that his work is superbly moving.  (Evans Mitchell, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound.)

Since musicians — in the act of creation — aren’t standing still, some photographs begin to look like versions of poses we have already seen a thousand times before: the horn player, face distended, sweating, looking like a runner just before crossing the finish line; the intimate relationship between the singer and the vertical microphone; the drummer, moving so quickly that the sticks blur.  Other photographs entrance us because they are the only visual evidence we have that an otherwise obscure musician was ever seen.

Willoughby’s work goes well beyond these formulas, although some of his images have been reproduced so widely that they are now the way that we mentally identify the subject.  But even his most famous pictures have something to offer us, a half-century after they were created.

The book is divided into two sections: one of Wlloughby’s West Coast photographs from 1950 to — Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee.  Particularly absorbing is a series of dramatic photographs catching the emotional interplay between saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and a crowd in hysterical rapture.  Willoughby photographed Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Buck Clayton, Martha Tilton and friends during the recording sessions for the soundtrack of THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY.  An extended photo-essay on Frank Sinatra tells us more than any biography.

The second section of the book offers photographs Willoughby created in Germany in 1992 and 1994 — fascinating portraits of Lee Konitz, Marcus Roberts, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, John Lewis, Mulligan much transformed by the years, and many others.

Having purchased many volumes of photographs of jazz musicians, I tend to look at the book with fascination immediately after their purchase . . . but not often after.  Willoughby’s book has proven itself an exception.  In tne month that I have had a copy, I have come back to it over and over, drawn by what his eye captured — tantalizing wordless dramas that open deeper each time I stare into the pages.

And the appeal of the book is wider than the allure of the musicians portrayed there.  Without being precious or coy, Willoughby created small paintings full of feeling, emotion coming through the lovely blacks, greys, and whites.  He was a master of seeing, of shaping line and angle, shape and focus.  I look at these portraits and I can feel Louis’ happiness, imagine the words passing between Bing and Frank on the set of CAN-CAN, hear Billie’s voice.  In addition, Willoughby’s photos are idiosyncratic master classes for photographers: what to emphasize, what to leave out. . . all the more remarkable because he captured his subjects in the moment.

Marc Myers, of JAZZ WAX, knew and spoke with Willoughby, and the essays Marc has created about the man and his work are rewarding (with photographs that will astonish): read more here and here.   The book’s website — with even more beautiful pictures — can be found here.  Willoughby’s photographs reward the eye.

May your happiness increase.