Many memoirs have, at their center, trauma: abuse, addiction, imprisonment, death, disease, or more. And many jazz books these days are indigestible: deadened by theoretical labyrinths or limited by the author’s narrow range or by inaccuracies. Thus it’s a tremendous pleasure to celebrate trumpeter Clive Wilson‘s memoir, gentle, humane, and full of good stories. It’s available from the usual online sources, and a good overview is here.
The facts first: Clive (you’ll understand why I do not call him by the more formal “Wilson”) heard traditional jazz in England in his youth — George Lewis, Kid Ory, Henry “Red” Allen and others — and was inspired to take up the trumpet. Although he studied physics in college, he was emotionally connected to jazz, and he gigged at home with New Orleans-style bands before making the leap to visit in New Orleans in 1964. There he met local musicians, and eventually settled in the city he now calls home. The cover shows a youthful Clive next to Punch Miller . . . which says a great deal.
At this point, some aural evidence would be fitting: Clive and the Shotgun Jazz Band in 2014, playing WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, alongside Marla Dixon, Twerk Thomson, and Tommy Sancton:
What makes this book so appealing is almost subliminal. I love first-hand jazz experiences and anecdotes, and for me the three brief encounters Clive has with Henry “Red” Allen — the gradual incline from eager young fan to being seen as a musician — are worth the price of the book. And the book is generously fleshed out by detailed gracious portraits of many New Orleans luminaries: Dick Allen, Dave “Fat Man” Williams, Barbara Reid, Punch Miller, Raymond Burke, Slow Drag, George Guesnon, Kid Howard, Kid Sheik, Kid Thomas (keep the Kids together!), Lewis James, Peter Bocage, De De Pierce, Herb Hall, Teddy Buckner (gently but decisively winning a nonverbal argument in music with a vindictive Leonard Feather), Buster Holmes, Harold Dejan, Percy Humphrey, Emilie Barnes, Manuel Manetta, and more. There are brief glimpses of Louis Armstrong in New York and California and an actual Clayton “Sunshine” Duerr sighting — someone who was only a name in a discography. (Between 1933 and 1936, Duerr played guitar in three New York sessions, alongside Benny Carter, Floyd O’Brien, Teddy Wilson, Pops Foster, Frank Froeba, Joe Marsala, Jack Purvis, Bunny Berigan, and Eddie Dougherty: someone should have recorded his recollections!)
Thus the book is full of close-ups, and since Clive is and was a practicing musician rather than simply a fan, the stories have substance — not only watching Harold Dejan in a street parade, but playing in one. And Clive has a wonderful ear for the way people speak, which he shares with love rather than condescension. Two examples: when he arrives at the New Orleans bus station — fifty dollars in his pocket — he hears two men arguing. One says to the other: “Now tell me this. What I did you that made you do that to me?!” That’s memorable: I’ve been trying to work it into conversation since I read it. Then there’s Tom Albert’s memory of hearing the Bolden band c. 1904: “I stood there with my mouth open so long, it got full of dirt!”
My copy has fifty or more page-corners turned down to remind me of where the irreplaceable stories, sights, and memories are. And any reader will find his or her own memorable pages. (There’s a lovely short piece at the end about what Louis means to him and to us.) But this book is more than the record of someone who aimed for the right place and stayed there, more than a series of anecdotes (how much a plate of red beans and rice cost at Buster Holmes’ in the mid-Sixties and the secret of its deep flavor).
Clive does not fashion himself in a self-conscious way: the book is not a narcissist’s holiday or a diary. He isn’t Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, or Stephen Dedalus. But from the first pages of this narrative, it’s clear that he is someone on a quest — not simply to learn to play the trumpet as they do in New Orleans, but to answer the deep questions “Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my purpose on this earth?” To me, Clive’s search for those answers — his journeys back and forth from the UK to NOLA — is the most rewarding part of this book, because we see him as serious in his introspective scrutiny, whether he is asking his rather rigid father a dangerous question across the dinner table or continuing the same deep inquiries as an adult. In this way, the book has a resonance beyond his musical aspirations and realizations. It becomes more than a “jazz book”; it feels, without pretensions, much like the chronicle of the development of a personality, an awareness, a developed consciousness.
Clive is modest both in his description of his endeavors, and there is no self-congratulation, but we see the growth of someone we can value for a kind of gentle honesty as well as for his trumpet playing. And that makes TIME OF MY LIFE a book not only to enjoy, but to recommend to those who wouldn’t know Kid Howard from Kid Rock.
A soft-spoken, friendly, yet meaningful work of art, “ça c’est plein.”
And here’s a little taste:
I recommend it with pleasure.
May your happiness increase!