The best biographical or autobiographical writings make a person the reader has never encountered come to life on the page. JOTTINGS OF A JAZZMAN: SELECTED WRITINGS OF LEN BARNARD, edited by his niece Loretta Barnard, has just that magic.
When I was a few pages into it, I felt as if I had met and heard Len, which says much — not only about the power of Len’s personality and insights but also about Loretta’s loving presentation.
Len Barnard was a major figure in Australian jazz, and the players and singers from Oz are, at their best, possessed of a fierce focus, a strength of purpose, an intensity. Len was an excellent drummer and washboardist and first-rate pianist and composer.
But he also thought about his music, the world around him, and the way people behaved — a philosopher without the heavy weight of an official philosophy. His writings show him as curious, opinionated, amused, sharp-eyed, both unsparing and generous. Here are a few samples:
Len was a reader. Here he quotes from an obscure cookery book in a letter:
An excerpt from THE ACCOMPLISHT COOK (1712) with the correct verbs for dismembering of various meats and game: lift that swan, rear that goose, unbrace that mallard, allay that pheasant, unlace that coney, unjoynt that bittern, unlatch that curlew, break that egript, thigh that woodcock. Try a few of those to the bridge of ‘Old Man Ribber.’
From his journal, 1969:
Played Clarence Williams at breakfast. I’ve always felt that too little has been said of the charm of his music, of its atmosphere, its complete absence of vulgarity, stridency, over-accentuation, and all the other faults of lesser jazz – its easy humour and almost kindly glow, its integrity as art. Every Clarence Williams record is a benediction.
After offering a tape of a superb live performance to a record producer:
My fears of philistinism were confirmed. He liked it, but didn’t think that full spontanaiety plus on-stage noises were suitable for his needs. Offered to buy “Mood Indigo” for $25. I declined. Told him he had the studio sickness which is induced by surgically produced recordings and the unimaginative parading of an oft-repeated routine before the microphone before perfection is attained. A bloodless, sterile perfection . . .This attitude of businessmen is what they call ‘progress,’ bit it is merely satndardization as opposed to less pretentious individualism of the true musician. It’s a minor form of industrialisation, which nowadays means bad food, pointless bustle and jittery nerves, whereas the other road means good digestion and serenity.
On playing the drums:
Drums have seemed to be bonny imposters at times, as regards the perfection of extension of arm and rhythmic slap on a chair arm. An in-ness, a tactile link with music that has been hard to replace. Came close (digression) when in 1982, played a large lobster pot with open palms and a pair of wooden salad servers. These got shorter as they shattered brittley and there is that wonderful elan andimmediacy that is expedited by this and you extemporise and bring out dishes of ham that even you didn’t know were in your larger of tricks. The other feeling is the knife in hand, but the heel of hand marking the rhythm on the tablecloth.
The voice is at times cranky, observant, poetic,ruminative — a combination of Larkin, Balliett, S. J. Perelman. The book is wonderfully amplified by photographs and remebrances of Len by his family and admirers. When I finished the book, I felt as if I’d been privileged to overhear a fascinating and complex man. And although I never got any closer to Len than through the medium of a dozen CDs, this book made me miss him terribly.
As I write this, I have not yet acquired the needed mercantile information — how to buy the book, its price, the best way to acquire it. I hope to find these things out soon.
But I would urge anyone who is interested in what an articulate artist sees and hears to read this book.
Len Barnard was a jazzman but his perceptions were deeper than 4 / 4, larger than his drum kit. And Loretta Barnard has given us a fine gift of her late uncle and his world.
A postscript: I was so enthralled by the book and by Len that I omitted something delightful and informative — the lengthy section at the end with quick, witty, crisply written biographical portraits of all the people who were part of the book — written by the jazz scholar Bill Haesler, who knows his Oz thoroughly. Published by itself, this section would be an invaluable overview of Australian jazz and more.