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THEIR IRRESISTIBLE STORIES

It’s taken me some time to write about Hank O’Neal’s book, THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM (Vanderbilt University Press), but admiration slowed me down.  What follows is only the smallest sample of its contents. 

Between 1985 and 2007, O’Neal (an excellent home-grown journalist who knew how to ask questions and get out of the way) interviewed forty-two jazz giants.  Some were well-known (Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Illinois Jacquet, Cab Calloway, Andy Kirk, Sy Oliver, Jonah Jones, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan, Buddy Tate), others no less deserving but in semi-obscurity to all but jazz devotees and scholars (Al Cobbs, Ovie Alston, Gene Prince).  Almost all of O’Neal’s subjects have now died: Frank Wess, Terry, and Billy Taylor might be the sole survivors. 

Rather than ask each musician for a long autobiographical summary, O’Neal focused on their memories of Harlem.  Fascinating stories resulted, which eventually proved stronger than their grief for a way of life that they had seen vanish.  

O’Neal is also a fine photographer from the old school — Berenice Abbott was his occasionally irritable mentor — so the book has large-format photographs of its subjects, often in their homes, as well as invaulable jazz memorabilia (advertisements and posters, record labels and the like) and photographs of the buildings that now stand where the uptown clubs used to be.  I find those transformations hard to take; that Connie’s Inn is now a C-Town supermarket makes me gloomy.

But because many of the musicians had never been asked to talk about Harlem, they responded with fresh stories that were hilarious, profound, touching.  

Fats Waller’s advice to guitarist Al Casey: “Don’t ever let your head get too big because there is always that little boy around the corner that can outplay you and outdo everything you do.”

Harry Edison, recalling his mother’s economic advice: ” [When I was fourteen or fifteen] I played with a guy named Earl Hood.  I remember I had to have a tuxedo and my mother paid two dollars for it.  We played little jobs around Columbus and every time I got home my mother used to ask me, ‘How much did you make?’  I’d tell her that Mr. Hood told me I was playing for the experience, and she said, ‘To hell with experience, you might as well stay home if you’re not going to get paid.’ ”

Edison’s memory of pianist Don Lambert taunting Art Tatum at an uptown jam session: “Get up off that chair.  You can’t play, you’ve got no left hand, you’re the world’s worst piano player.”

How clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton asked Teddy Wilson for a raise: “Teddy, I think you ought to put a little yeast in the money.”

Al Cobbs, remembering what Louis Armstrong said about the crowds he drew: “Let me tell you something.  The kind of music I’m playing makes people feel good–the folks come in and they buy steaks.  But some of the things people are playing make people sad, and these folks will just sit there, drink a Coca-Cola, and stay all night.”

The record session that Nat Cole wanted to organize in California, with Illinois Jacquet: “He’d be on piano.  I’d play my horn, and Jimmy Blanton, Sid Catlett, and Charlie Christian would make up the rhythm section.  That sounded great to me.”

The book is full of stories: impatient Stuff Smith wandering out on the ledge of a tall building.  How Coleman Hawkins explained his record of BODY AND SOUL to Thelma Carpenter as musical love-making.  What Milt Hinton’s teacher said to him.  Danny Barker explaining the difference between New Orleans and New York in terms of hospitality.  Al Casey paying tribute to Teddy Bunn.  Buddy Tate remembering the last time he saw Charlie Parker alive. 

And the book comes with a compact disc of many of the giants playing (and talking) — musical history.

THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM is too cumbersome to take to the beach, but it’s a masterpiece.  To learn more about it, visit http://www.vanderbiltuniversitypress.com/books/335/the-ghosts-of-harlem, where you can see twenty beautiful sample pages.

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