Tag Archives: Joyce Carol Oates


If you come up to me, face to face, and suggest something about me — in the sweetest tone of voice — that I know to be untrue, or something that hurts my feelings, I can respond in several ways.  “You were misinformed.”  “That just isn’t the case.”  “Why would you say something like that?” “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way,” and a dozen others.

If you write something about me that is unkind, offensive, biased, or false, I can respond in the same ways . . . or, if I am furious or wounded, I can hire an attorney to put sharp-edged words on paper to make you stop.  “Libel” and “slander” become part of the conversation, as does the all-purpose phrase “legal action.”

But the dead have no such recourse.

Here’s a true story.  Two years ago, someone I had never before encountered wrote to me with some anecdotes he thought I would like to print on JAZZ LIVES.  One of them concerned a musician I will call Charles Atlas.  I knew that Charles occasionally took a drink, but my correspondent told a tale of alcohol making him act foolishly.  I will spare you the details.

Reading this tale of a grown man’s stupidity, I felt wounded.  Could one of my heroes have behaved like this?  But almost immediately that feeling of shock was followed by protectiveness.  I wasn’t about to bring shame to Charles, nor was I going to participate in publicizing stories — true or not — that would encourage readers to laugh at him, to think he was less than heroic.

In the 1980s, Joyce Carol Oates coined the term “pathography” for the modern biographical study that emphasizes the subject’s flaws: “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”  Although such books — and the gloating self-righteousness the reader is encouraged to indulge in — are fascinating in the same way a tabloid newspaper, seen at the supermarket checkout is — their appeal is essentially repellent.

So that when I read a recent news story that refers to Louis Armstrong as a lower-case “lothario,” I am appalled, not only by the weird archaism, but at the mix of prurience and disrespect.  “Hey, that’s LOUIS ARMSTRONG you are talking about, Buster!” I want to say.

Some readers might think that all journalistic exploration is justified.  After all, to know the whole person do we not need to know his or her faults?  Perhaps. But is it crucial to our understanding of Ben Webster’s music to know that he had a violent side?  And if we insist on knowing this, how large a shadow should it cast on his life’s work?  Is Ruby Braff’s legendary irascibility more memorable than his music?  I think not.  If this sounds as if I am a hero-worshipping nineteenth-century biographer, I confess to leaning in that direction.  Human beings are complex and not all mysteries are meant to be unraveled.

Privacy counts.  Twenty years ago, I would have taken the position that the private life of a public individual was fair game.  But I have shifted that position so that when the elderly widow of a famous artist talked about her desire to burn certain private letters, I thought she had the right idea.  You can come visit me; I will speak candidly to you, but you cannot follow me into the bathroom.

And privacy is such a fragile concept in this century: type in anyone’s name and Google downwards.  The chance of finding that name followed by “hot nude photos” is not small.

If we love and respect someone while he or she is on the planet, should those feelings of affection and reverence cease when the person has made the transition to another existence?

But disrespect and unkindness to the dead are not solely the purview of people who (consciously or not) want to pull down the great figures because they are so imposing, because they make ordinary mortals seem so tiny.  The dead can be treated unkindly by those who feel great love for their idols.

People in love with the great artists can also crush and deform them in a choking embrace — an embrace turned off-balance by an ideological notion.  Someone who has labored to write a book on Kid MacIntosh must be careful not to distort or invent evidence to make the Kid a victim, perhaps.  The distorting impulse is subtle, and it comes out of love, “How could someone like the Kid have been less than a superstar?  It must have been his manager / his wife / discrimination / exploitation,” etc.  But love can obstruct our clear sight as much as any other emotion.  The chronicler who thinks (s)he owns the subject is mistaken.  The Kid was there before the book began and will remain long after the book has been remaindered.

We should treat the dead kindly.  Someday we all will be dead, and perhaps we will hope for the same posthumous kindness.

May your happiness increase.


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.