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.