Tag Archives: Valaida Snow

WOW! BRIA SWINGS IT at THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG HOUSE (July 4, 2013)

“Yeah, man!” is the only apt response to this performance — captured live at the Louis Armstrong House in celebration of the day Louis believed was his birthday.  Here the effervescent Miss Bria Skonberg swings out (thinking of Valaida Snow, perhaps) with Dalton Ridenhour, keyboard; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet; Darin Douglas, drums; Jared Engel, string bass:

The sound of muted trumpet and clarinet over a rocking rhythm section is so warmly a reminder of Swing Sessions — think of Joe Marsala’s bands.

Recorded and preserved by Jim Balantic — another errand boy for Rhythm!

May your happiness increase!

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THEMES AND VARIATIONS: THE 2011 WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY

Now that I have posted about eighty video performances here — thanks to Flemming Thorbye, Elin Smith, Jonathan David Holmes, and Michael Stevens — I can write a few lines about the Classic Jazz Party in general, and why it was such a remarkable experience.

It wasn’t a formal occasion by any means — in fact, it was distinguished by the friendly, comfortable interplay between musicians and listeners, sitting down to breakfast with one another.  But the CJP was the result of a good deal of behind-the-scenes planning that blossomed forth in music.

All jazz parties and festivals require a great deal of work that the person listening to the bands is rarely aware of — planning that begins more than a year in advance and continues well after the particular party is over: lining up musicians, agreeing with them on times and dates and payment, making sure that they can get to the party and have suitable accomodations, taking care of last-minute crises and more.  When you see the person in charge of one of these events and wonder why (s)he has no time to stop and chat, to say nothing of sitting down for a meal or a set of music, these are some of the reasons.

But the CJP has a thematic underpinning — which is to say Mike Durham likes jam sessions, and one happened each night in the Victory Pub, but he has a deep emotional commitment to the arching history of jazz and an equal desire to see that no one is forgotten.  So rather than grouping six or seven able players and singers on the stand with no organizing principle in mind (thus, the blues in Bb, RHYTHM changes, and a series of solo features), Mike Durham has created — with the help of his equally enthusiastic and scholarly players — a series of small thematic concert tributes.

I will only list the names so that you can understand the scope of the CJP: Clarence Williams, Bix Beiderbecke, novelty piano, Jelly Roll Morton, Bennie Moten, territory bands, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelly, Lionel Hampton, Adrian Rollini, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Annette Hanshaw, naughty songs, multi-lingual pop songs, Chicago reedmen, Billie Holiday, percussion, the ukulele, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, King Oliver, stride piano, the tenor saxophone, Bessie Smith, the Rhythmic Eight, John Kirby, Jabbo Smith, Valaida Snow, the Rhythmakers.

You can thus understand why the weekend was both great fun and educational without ever being academic or pedantic.  An immersion in living jazz history — reaching back one hundred years but so firmly grounded in the present moment — loving evocations without any hint of the museum about them.

And there are more sets like those being planned for 2012.

Here is the estimable Flemming Thorbye’s tribute to the whole weekend — his evocative still photographs capturing aspects of thirty-three varied sets — with an Ellingtonian background recorded on the spot.  And don’t give up before it’s through, because Flemming has a delicious surprise at the end: a segment of the Friday night jam session in the Victory Pub, with Andy Schumm leading the troops ably through CRAZY RHYTHM, with Ms. Calzaretta shaking that thing to the beat:

Learn more about the delights in store this year here.

CECILE McLORIN SALVANT SALUTES BESSIE SMITH and VALAIDA SNOW at the 2011 WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (thanks to Elin Smith and Flemming Thorbye)

The highly dramatic young singer Cecile McLorin Salvant was a hit at the 2011 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, and she did not disappoint this year.  It’s clear that she has immersed herself in the repertoire she chooses, and she is a high-energy theatrical performer of the old school, someone who throws herself into each song.

In her tribute to Bessie Smith, Cecile was aided by “Bent’s Seven Blue Babies,” Bent Persson, cornet; Jean-Francois Bonnel, reeds; Paul Munnery, trombone; Mauro Porro, piano; Philippe Guignier, banjo; Christian Lefevre, tuba; Nick Ward, drums.

ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND (Elin):

NOBODY IN TOWN CAN BAKE A SWEET JELLY ROLL LIKE MINE (Thorbye):

YOU’VE GOT TO GIVE ME SOME (Elin): duet between Cecile and Philippe . . . whatever can the lyrics can be talking about?

YOU OUGHT TO BE ASHAMED (Elin):

OH, DADDY (Elin):

For her tribute to Valaida Snow, Cecile was joined by Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Jean-Francois Bonnel, Matthias Seuffert, Mauro Porro, reeds; Kristoffer Kompen,trombone; Paul Asaro, piano; Roly Veitch, banjo and guitar; Henry Lemaire, string bass; Richard Pite, drums.

SWEET HEARTACHE (Thorbye):

NAGASAKI (Thorbye):

There’s a good deal more from Cecile to be found on YouTube: those intoxicated by her approach to the music will find much to enthrall them!  Thanks as always to the generous Flemming Thorbye (“thorbye”) and Elin Smith (“elinshouse”) whose videos can be enjoyed on YouTube and their own sites: http://www.thorbye.net., and http://www.elinshouse.wordpress.com.

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.

“STOMP OFF, LET’S GO!”: MIKE DURHAM’S CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY 2011

Mike Durham’s Classic Jazz Party is the successor to the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival, and will be held in the comfortable Village Hotel Newcastle from Friday, November 4, 2011, to Sunday (no doubt Monday morning), November 6-7, 2o11.

(In an earlier version of this posting, I had the incorrect dates — the party begins on the fourth, not the eleventh.  Apologies for any confusion this might have caused.)

Here’s the jazz cornucopia to end all . . . hour-long concert sessions beginning at noon, then a break for dinner, and more music until midnight, followed by jam sessions in the Victory Pub.  I’m already thinking of the inflatable cushion, the tea flask and sandwiches, the extra batteries, and more . . . be prepared!

Friday (11/4):

Clarence Williams Lives! The Hot Antic Jazz Band with guests Kristoffer Kompen (trombone) and Raymond Graisier (vibraphone)

The Jelly Roll Morton Trios:  Keith Nichols (piano), Matthias Seuffert (clarinet), and Nick Ward (drums) salute Mr Jelly Lord

Teasin’ the Ivories: Mauro Porro (piano) salutes Arthur Schutt, Rube Bloom, and Seger Ellis

Dear Bix: Andy Schumm and His Gang

Benny Moten’s Music: Keith Nichols’ Blue Devils Orchestra explore Kansas City

Djangology: Philippe Guignier and Henri Lemaire, Mike Piggott (violin), Norman Field (reeds)

The Ellington Small Bands: Matthias Seuffert, Rico Tomasso (trumpet)

Dishin’ the Dirt: Caroline Irwin sings saucy songs – oooh!

Benny, Fud, Pee Wee, and Tesch: Norman Field, Keith Nichols, and Nick Ward laud some of the tough clarinets

Dallas Blues: Bent Persson and his Orchestra explore mid-30s Armstrong

A Gardenia for Lady Day: Cecile McLorin sings Billie Holiday

Andy’s Midnight Ramblers: Kristoffer Kompen, Andy Schumm and Co. – Twenties Chicago in the Victory Pub

Saturday (11/5):

Jazz Goes To The Movies: Film rarities from the collection of Mike Hazeldine

Syncopated Paraphernalia: Richard Pite’s amazing one-man percussion show

Cornet Chop Suey: Bent Persson’s Hot Five recall the glory days of 1925-1926

Vibraphonia:  Raymond Graisier’s tribute to Lionel Hampton

The Magic Ukulele Show: Professor Martin Wheatley tells us everything we need to know about the “jumping flea”

Singing In Tongues: Caroline Irwin displays her linguistic capabilities

Pickin’ Cotton: Josh Duffee (USA) and 11-piece band recreate McKinney’s music

Lincoln Gardens Stomp: Mike (Durham) and Doc (Bastide)’s Creole Jazz Band: six nationalities go back to 1923!

Three Pods of Pepper: Frans Sjöström, Norman Field, and Martin Wheatley muse over some jazz byways

Tellin’ it to the Daisies: Debbie Arthurs’ Sweet Music and the world of Annette Hanshaw

Snowy Morning Blues: Paul Asaro’s solo recital of James P Johnson’s works

East St Louis Toodle-Oo: Keith Nichols’ Blue Devils Orchestra play early Ellington

The Three Tenors: Steve Andrews, Jean-François Bonnel, and Matthias Seuffert with an all-star rhythm section

Doc’s Night Owls: The Hot Antic Jazz Band and guests play music for insomniacs in the Victory Pub

Sunday (11/6):

Encore! Encore!: More movie magic from Mr Hazeldine’s archives

The Lion & the Lamb: Willie “The Lion” Smith and Donald “The Lamb” Lambert tribute from Nichols & Asaro

Potato Head Blues: More Louis-worship from Bent Persson’s Hot Seven

From A-flat to C: Rico Tomasso & friends play the music of the John Kirby Sextet

Sau Sha Stomp: The Hot Antics & special guest David Sager (trombone) recall trumpet ace Jabbo Smith

Got the World in a Jug:  Cecile McLorin sings Bessie Smith

Zonophone Stomp: Mauro Porro’s international band tip their hat to Bert Firman’s Rhythmic Eight

Humpty Dumpty: More Bixiana from Andy Schumm and the Gang

High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm: Cecile McLorin pays tribute to the legendary Valaida Snow, with Rico Tomasso (trumpet)

Venuti, Rollini & Lang:  Mike Piggott (violin), Frans Sjöström (bass saxophone), Martin Wheatley (guitar), Keith Nichols, Norman Field, Raymond Graisier, Josh Duffee

The Rhythmakers: Bent Persson, Matthias Seuffert, and Co. recall the great 1932 Billy Banks sessions with Red Allen and Pee Wee Russell

The Small-Hours Swingers: Andy Woon leads a hand-picked group deep into the morning in the Victory Pub

For more information, visit http://www.whitleybayjazzfest.org/concerts.html.  Mike tells me that there are some seats — not many — left . . . so don’t be left out!

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.