Tag Archives: Mark Miller

LILLIE DELK CHRISTIAN, CONTINUED

Here are Miss Christian’s recorded appearances (in brief), all in Chicago.

With Johnny St. Cyr (bj), c. March 5, 1926: SWEET MAN / SWEET GEORGIA BROWN

Add Jimmie Noone (cl), June 15, 1926: LONESOME AND SORRY / BABY O’MINE

With Albert Wynn’s Gut Bucket Five : Dolly Jones (cnt) Albert Wynn (tb) Barney Bigard (sop,ts) Jimmy Flowers (p) Rip Bassett (bj), June 25, 1926, WHEN

With Richard M. Jones’ Jazz Wizards : Artie Starks (cl) Richard M. Jones (p) Johnny St. Cyr (bj), May 6, 1927: IT ALL DEPENDS ON YOU / AIN’T SHE SWEET (possibly two takes)

With Noone, St. Cyr (g), December 12, 1927, MY BLUE HEAVEN / MISS ANNABELLE LEE

With Louis Armstrong And His Hot Four: Louis Armstrong (cnt,vcl) Jimmie Noone (cl) Earl Hines (p) Mancy Carr (g), June 26, 1928: YOU’RE A REAL SWEETHEART / TOO BUSY / WAS IT A DREAM? / LAST NIGHT I DREAMED YOU KISSED ME.  Same personnel, December 11. 1928: I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE / BABY.  Same, December 12, 1928: SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE / I MUST HAVE THAT MAN.

From the fine writer and researcher Mark Miller, who searched the pages of the Chicago Defender and came up with a 1964 (!) mention of “LIL CHRISTIAN” and three photographs.  But I’ll let Mark speak for himself:

The only variation of the three names that yields results (40 hits) is Lil Christian, a singer who continued to be active into the mid-1960s, and is identified in one 1964 item (see immediately below) as having recorded for OKeh. Must be her, right? Strangely, the items begin in the 1930s; nothing from the 20s.  Attached, in addition to that clipping, are three photos that appeared over the years in the Defender — for comparison with the one that you have. Her high cheek bones are the clue.   So, where to from here? The Defender items are mostly references to engagements in Chicago and on the west coast. I’ve not been comprehensive yet in checking everything, but it doesn’t look as though here’s much in terms of background. But, it’s a start.

The first photograph:

Another:

And finally:

And a more impressionistic meditation on Miss Christian is provided in the notes to a Document CD collecting many of her recordings — a small overview by Fred “Virgil” Turgis, made available to us by jazz scholar Randy Stehle:

Lillie Delk Christian is more interesting vocally and her material is far superior (I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Ain’t She Sweet, I Must Have That Man). That’s probably explains why the band gives a better performance. Noone (clarinet) and St Cyr (guitar) enlivens the December 12th session featuring “My Blue Heaven” and “Miss Annabelle Lee” with gutsy accompaniment and fine solos. Armstrong appears six months later for the June 1928 session. This session features the best, “Too Busy” an uptempo number with Armstrong scatting, and the worst of Christian, “Was It A Dream” a waltz that doesn’t really give the Hot Four the possibility to express themselves.

The last recordings lack a bit of swing in the vocal but is saved by a good rendition of “I Must Have That Man”.

This selection is a nice addition to anyone who’s interested in Satchmo’s early years and work as a back up band. And despite some flaws and, let’s say it, the fact she isn’t a great vocalist, Lillie Delk Christian’s sides have a certain charm and are appealing enough for a curious listener.

And for anyone who hasn’t seen it, here is invaluable first-hand information relayed to us by Hal Smith:

I have a copy of an interview with St. Cyr where he said that Lillie Delk was his LANDLADY. He also said that she used to sing just to entertain the boarders.

Once when St. Cyr was offered a recording session and was asked to bring a vocalist, he asked Ms. Christian to join him. The A&R man liked her voice and hired her to do a second session. (First one was LDC, Jimmie Noone and St Cyr on banjo. On the second, St. Cyr played guitar. The Quartet sides were recorded later).

St. Cyr said that Lillie’s husband, Charlie, was a gambler and was often away from home. Apparently, he had little use for the boarders who asked LDC to sing, and never even offered a tip. When he found out that St. Cyr had gotten two paid record dates for her, he said, “You’re the only one who has ever done ANYTHING for Lil!” Obviously the other boarders had a “handful of ‘gimme’ and a mouthful of ‘much obliged’.”

All of this adds much evidence to our portrait of Miss Christian, but it also adds to the mystery and makes the gaps in her story so much larger.  It would have made some sense to assume that she was local talent — a strong-voiced Chicago singer, utilized by OKeh Records for two years in Chicago.  She could read lyrics, had a powerful delivery — qualities that would endear to the influential music publishers, who saw vocal recordings as ways to sell sheet music.  And it would also make some logical sense that her career would come to a halt in 1929, at least as far as recordings were concerned.  Louis and his friends went off to New York; the Great Depression hit with the stock market crash, which nearly stopped record sales.  It would be a pleasant invention to assume that Miss Christian went back to collecting rents and making sure the hallways were tidy.  But the Defender has her singing through the Thirties, and she is back — a known quantity — in 1964.  In the ideal world, one of my readers would have gone to that performance and asked her a few questions about the good old days.

A little knowledge might indeed be a dangerous thing!  Thanks to all the generous readers (Mark, Hal, Randy, and Sally Fee) who have added both information and intrigue!

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.

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
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE

Two biographies of jazz musicians have recently gotten much well-deserved media attention: Robin G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk, Terry Teachout’s Louis Armstrong book. 

The Mercury Press has just published jazz scholar Mark Miller’s biography of pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.  It’s a small paperback, 224 pages, without accompanying fanfare. 

But HERBIE NICHOLS: A JAZZIST’S LIFE is, in its own quiet way, equal and perhaps superior to the larger competition.  It could fascinate a reader who had never heard Nichols on record or in person: Miller is that fine a writer and researcher. 

At this point, “full disclosure” is essential: I have admired Miller’s books before; my praise of his Valaida Snow biography is on the back cover here; I also tried to help him speak to New York musicians who might have played alongside Nichols, among them Leroy “Sam” Parkins and Joe Muranyi.  But if I had received a copy of this book with its author’s name erased, I would have been mightily impressed. 

But more about that later.  Who was Herbie Nichols?  “Dead at 44 of leukemia” is one answer.  “Brilliantly original but underacknowledged in his lifetime.”  “Peer of Monk, not a disciple.”  “Inimitable pianist and composer.”  “He could work with Danny Barker and Roswell Rudd and please them both.” 

Nichols rarely made his living playing the music he had created.  The paying gigs were with rhythm and blues bands or playing for cabarets, chorus lines, and shows, and most often “Dixieland.”  In fact, I first heard him on records with Rex Stewart and Joe Thomas.  (Nichols’ last record was the Atlantic MAINSTREAM session.) 

But Nichols knew a wide variety of music, and didn’t bring his own ideology to the gig, even though the jazz critics were busily pitting “Dixieland” against “modern.”  He was a fine stride pianist, choosing Jelly Roll Morton’s THE PEARLS as his feature when he played with a traditional band. 

But he retained his identity, and the players who worked with Nichols understood that he was going his own way in the traditional ensembles of the time, not always easily.  Dixieland gigs proliferated, even though writers might now see the Fifties as the era of cool jazz or hard bop.  He worked in bands led by drummer Al Bandini (a friend of Pee Wee Russell) at the Greenwich Village club The Riviera, which may still be active, although without music, on Seventh Avenue South.  Buell Neidlinger recalled what I hope wasn’t a typical scene: “I can’t tell you the number of times I trudged over there with my bass just to get a chance to play with Herbie, even with Al there — just to make Herbie feel better.  Al was nasty to Herbie.  Herbie’d be playing one of his tunes and Al would say, ‘Let’s stop that shit now!  Right in the middle of the tune!  Let’s stop that shit now.  Let’s play When the Saints Go Marching In.‘ He’d say that real loud and the audience would scream, ‘Yeah!  Go, man, go, go, go!” 

Nichols’ brief life, the scant recognition he got, and such scenes might encourage a writer to depict him as a victim.  One imagines the Down Beat headline: JAZZ MODERNIST FORCED TO PLAY “ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.”  Intrigued by Nichols the man, Miller avoids the conventional portrait of the suffering jazzman, and shows us that Nichols — refiined, intellectual, chess-player, poet, and painter — was not self-destructive, an alcoholic, an addict.  African-American, he was not victimized by racism — no more than any man of his race in those decades.   

Rather, Miller is sympathetic without being idolatrous, candidly describing the missed chances, the system of jazz-stardom that put Thelonious Monk on the cover of TIME but had Nichols playing the piano for female impersonators.  Nichols is a particularly challenging subject for a biography because the evidence that exists nearly forty-five years after his death is slim. 

However, readers who are intrigued by famous names and the people a working musician might encounter will be delighted by the players Nichols worked with or knew: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Sidney Bechet, Dick Rath, Ed Polcer, Conrad Janis, Wilbur deParis, Illinois Jacquet, John Kirby, Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd, Sheila Jordan, Dave Frishberg, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Art Blakey.  We find him on a Turkish cruise ship playing traditional jazz with Steve Swallow.  A Nichols melody caught Billie Holiday’s ear and was retitled, with lyrics, LADY SINGS THE BLUES.  He helps a ten-year old Phil Schaap negotiate the New York subway system. 

Miller knits together all these incidents, bits of hearsay and anecdotage without making his book seem like a banquet of crumbs.  The biography moves chronologically, but Miller isn’t tied to the calendar (some jazz books read as if the author wanted to follow the subject gig by gig, month by month); Miller is both expert and free, so the book moves sideways when the material needs it, without losing the thread.  The biography is compact (Miller considers that not every artist needs a five-hundred page monograph) but it is both dense and quickly-paced. 

And in the essential small things, Miller is splendid: he has a fine emotional intelligence that allows him to be fond of Nichols (as everyone except Bandini was, apparently) without idealizing him.  Although the evidence is often sketchy, Miller doesn’t hypothesize excessively; he avoids psychoanalyzing his subject; he doesn’t get irritated by Nichols, nor does he pad the biography by quoting large excerpts from Nichols’ prose.  His musical analysis is pointed but not over-technical; Miller captures the flavor and sensibility of Nichols playing, composing, and imagination.

Another writer might have made himself the subject of the book: “Look how much detective work I had to do to find out this shred of information about that neglected pianist — I forget his name.”  Someone might have shaped the facts of his subject’s life to fit a particular ideology.  Because Miller illuminates Nichols and gently stays out of the way, his subject’s personality shines through, even when the evidence is most thin.  I began the book with great eagerness because I admire Miller’s writing, his perspective, and his research — but very soon I was forcing myself to read it more slowly, because I did not want it to end.  That may be the best tribute a reader can pay — to Nichols and to his chronicler.       

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 

DICK TWARDZIK’S RECORDED LIVES

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.

JAZZ PAGES: HIGH HAT, TRUMPET AND RHYTHM

Many biographers are diligent researchers; a few are graceful writers.  Mark Miller is both in the fashion of John Chilton and Anthony Barnett.  His new book remained in my thoughts long after I had finished it.  It asks important questions without ever being weighty. Its central one may be this: When does “reinventing oneself,” an activity cherished in our time, become morally suspect?  It is one of those rare biographies that, while honoring its subject, eventually becomes more intriguing than the person it sets out to examine.  Here’s what I wrote for CODA — published in their most recent issue, now available.  (If you don’t know CODA, you should: it’s an honest jazz journal that has kept itself afloat for fifty years now.  Visit their website: www.coda1958.com.)  

 valaida2

HIGH HAT, TRUMPET AND RHYTHM: The Life of Valaida Snow, by Mark Miller.  The Mercury Press, Toronto, 2007.  187 pages, photos, discography, bibliography ($19.95)

 

Mark Miller has a well-deserved reputation as a fine jazz historian.  His writing, understated and elegant, grows out of a thoughtful analysis of evidence, written and aural.  And he is a first-rate scholar, energetically unearthing fascinating information in newspaper clippings, oral histories, arcane historical research, gracefully weaving the details into his narrative.  He is best known for his large-scale studies of Canadian jazz history, but his latest book is a compact biography of Valaida Snow (1904-56), the African-American singer, trumpet player, bandleader, and dancer, its title her own musical self-advertisement.  With characteristic diligence, Miller traces his subject’s private life, her travels, the reviews she received, and her repertoire in and out of the recording studio.  The book also includes a detailed discography, bibliography, and several photographs of Valaida that were new to me.

 

Although little-known today, Valaida was a remarkably accomplished figure.  Her records reveal that she could sing “hot” or be more melodramatic than Ethel Waters at her most histrionic.  On trumpet, she emulated Louis Armstrong with some success.  She trained the girls in the chorus, arranged for the bands she led, conducted the orchestra in Rhapsody in Blue.  Starting as a child prodigy in vaudeville, she impressed audiences and her peers (Armstrong himself, Earl Hines, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Svend Asmussen, Clora Bryant, and Sarah McLawler) for a half-century.  Valaida toured Europe and performed in Shanghai, both for long periods, perhaps unwittingly removing herself from the thriving American jazz scene.  As an African-American woman singing and playing jazz as early as 1922, she certainly deserved a book-length study before now.          

 

But Valaida’s case is a complicated one for a biographer, not only because jazz musicians of this period were chronically under-documented.  Establishing an accurate record of her life and work is difficult because she created new stories about herself as the mood took her, dramatizing herself as a victim to receive substantial press coverage.  In retrospect, her fabrications seem the acts of a child spinning fantastic tales to get attention.  Unlike many biographers, while Miller is tracing his subject’s deceptions, he does not fume or moralize.  In his introduction, he even apologizes for being a “spoilsport” who debunks the stories of Valaida’s life others have taken as true.  Yet his uncovering of her largest lie is the book’s dramatic center.  Returning home after her 1936-42 European stay, she explained to credulous American reporters that she had been interned in a German concentration camp.  With each retelling, her account grew more horrible as she invented stories of being whipped and starved.  For a 1945 engagement, her publicity included the phrases: “Out of A Nazi Horror Camp” and “Two Years in A Nazi Concentration Camp.”  Miller’s examination of Valaida’s itineraries proves that she was never interned.  Readers with any historical sensibility will find these pages painfully compelling. 

 

Miller does not allow this history to distract him from Valaida’s art.  He presents her as a multi-talented jazzwoman when such individuals were rare, a vibrant musician and stage personality.  Wisely, he does not make claims for her as an innovator, and his evaluation of her sixty-odd records is even-handed.  He finds some performances “elegant,” others “forced.”  His chronicle of her final decade, when she, like many musicians of her generation, attempted to appeal to changing audiences with new material, is restrained and brief.  When I finished this book, her story raised questions that continue to reverberate.  Would she have succeeded had she stayed at home?  Why was she so compelled to lie?  Did she know that she was doing it?  Miller’s thoughtful analysis has made for a book that I found more rewarding than its subject’s recorded legacy.  The “Valaida” he has brought to life – gifted and inexplicable – might be the heedless protagonist of a novel Fitzgerald never wrote. 

 

 

“ANOTHER ROAD POST FROM LOX COUNTRY”

I can’t take credit for the witty title, invented by Marc Myers, Mister Jazz Wax (www.jazzwax.com).  More about his site’s latest treasures later.  “Lox country” refers to Nova Scotia, from whence this posting comes.   

I could happily discourse about Montreal bagels — reminiscent of those of my youth.  Thin, dense, chewy, although the hole in the middle seems much too large.  The Montreal bagel company runs six shops in that city, all open twenty-four hours.  My kind of metropolis! 

If I chose to be more grim, I could describe my becoming an all-you-can-bite mosquito buffet, but I will forego such grotesqueries. 

My text for today is a jazz book purchased in a Halifax shop, SUCH MELODIOUS RACKET: THE LOST HISTORY OF JAZZ IN CANADA, 1914-1949, by Mark Miller (Mercury Press, 1997) tracing that subject from the Creole Band’s 1914 tour to Oscar Peterson’s 1949 Carnegie Hall debut.  A perceptive historian, Miller is a diligent researcher of newspapers and oral histories who doesn’t get bogged down in details, and a sharp-eyed writer with no particular ideological position.  Since the first half of the book takes him only up to the early Twenties, much of his research seems social history — because the musical evidence is so limited and the records are not always convincing evidence of what jazz did get played.   

The book is full of fascinating snippets of information about American performers visiting Canada: Freddie Keppard, the Six Brown Brothers, Jelly Roll Morton, James “Slap Rags” White, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Mamie Smith, Wilbur Sweatman, Hollis Peavy and his Jazz Bandits (featuring a young Eddie Condon), Lloyd and Cecil Scott, Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells, the Casa Loma Orchestra, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Alphonso Trent, Stuff Smith, J.C. Higginbotham, Billie Holiday, Louis Metcalfe, even Sonny Rollins.  As a sidelight, it contains the only portrait photograph I have ever seen of pianist Dave Bowman (1914-1964), born to Canadian parents in Buffalo, New York — a beautifully subtle player, reminiscent of Jess Stacy, who often appeared with Condon, Hackett, Bud Freeman, the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, and George Wettling. 

MiIller’s book is most interesting in his thorough overview of Canadian jazz orchestras and soloists who escaped the attention of American historians: the Original Winnipeg Jazz Babies, Shirley K. Oliver, Andy Tipaldi and his Melody Kings, the Canadian Ambassadors, Trump Davidson, Bert Niosi (“Canada’s King of Swing”), Sandy De Santis (“The Benny Goodman of Canada”), Irving Laing, Al McLeod (“The White Tatum”), and better-known Canadians: Kenny Kersey, Al Lucas, Buster Harding, George Auld, Maynard Ferguson, and Louis Hooper.  Equally intriguing are passages drawn from interviews with Black players about racism in Montreal and elsewhere.   

My only regret is that this book did not come with an accompanying CD.  Is there one or a comparable anthology?  Can any Canadian reader enlighten me in this?

Back to JazzWax for a moment, to conclude.  Marc has embarked on a series of interviews with George Wein, impresario and pianist.  I have always been prejudiced against Wein as a player of limited gifts whose accompaniments held back Ruby Braff, PeeWee Russell, and others — but jazz would have been much poorer if he had become the doctor his parents wanted.  And Marc has offered pictures of Wein with two of my heroes.  In the first, the trumpeter to Wein’s left is Frankie Newton (the bassist Joe Palermino); in the second, taken by Robert Parent, the recognizable constellation of stars at Storyville, 1950, is Sidney Catlett and Hoagy Carmichael.  These two photographs make me feel much more generous towards Wein, for we are indeed known by the company we keep.