Jazz (Gift) Books
There’s no shortage of jazz biography and other writings continually adding to the sagging shelves of my bookcases, and an even greater profusion of titles in blues, soul, gospel and folklore has arrived in the past couple of years. When I began listening to jazz in the late 60’s, a substantial collection of jazz literature was then available through the Worcester Public Library, which also boasted an extensive library of jazz recordings. I can still visualize the plastic-coated covers of original releases like Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, Charles Mingus’s Tijuana Moods, and Lionel Hampton’s You Better Know It, and perhaps the graphics stay with me so vividly because the album jackets were usually in better shape than the records. Circulated vinyl tended to have more snap, crackle and pop than the family-size box of Rice Krispies.
But I digress. The subject is books, and in that realm I maxed out my borrowing privileges every few weeks with seminal works such as Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya’ by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro; The Jazz Tradition by Martin Williams, and the decade-by-decade Jazz Masters series that Williams edited; Whitney Balliett’s anthologized writings in volumes like The Sound of Surprise and Night Creatures, in addition to his frequent missives in The New Yorker; and Stanley Dance’s The World of Duke Ellington. Balliett let his subjects talk throughout his filtered narratives, and the volumes by Hentoff and Dance were essentially oral histories, so the power of story became a formative element of my early jazz appreciation. This led in turn to such autobiographical classics as Sidney Bechet’s Treat It Gentle, Jelly Roll Morton’s Mr. Jelly Roll, and Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. When Lester Young said that a musician needed to tell a story in his solo, I felt attuned to what he meant, and I’ve been chasing them ever since.
If a gift book or two for the jazz lover on your holiday shopping list is what you’re seeking, here’s a short list of 2012 publications that should make them happy.
The Boston Jazz Chronicles, 1937-1962 by Richard Vacca
This essential Baedeker to the Boston scene is a guide to the districts, the venues, and the players who made the Hub one of the most dynamic centers of jazz during the 25-year period that begins in the Swing Era and carries through to Boston’s influential role as an incubator of post-modern jazz. Highest marks to author and indefatigable researcher Dick Vacca; this labor of love should serve as the model for similar studies of other urban and regional jazz centers.
The Jazz Standards by Ted Gioia
Jazz historian and pianist Ted Gioia has selected 250 songs as the essentials for what working musicians need to know, and IMHO what the rest of us need to cherish and preserve. More than a reference work, and not to be confused with a fake book, Gioia offers essays on each song and its composer, and a critical take on the best recorded performances of each.
The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story by Gregg Akkerman
Johnny Hartman is best known for the recording he made with the John Coltrane Quartet in 1963. It’s been rightly hailed as a masterpiece ever since its release, and one of the quintessential make-out records to boot. But for most casual listeners, it’s all Hartman is known for even though his career spanned the 1940’s through the early-80’s. I saw him only once when he appeared at the Columns in West Dennis on Cape Cod around 1977, and there’s a hilarious tale that Akkerman relates from that night alone. He’s got the rest of the story too.
The Fan Who Knew Too Much by Anthony Heilbut
Heilbut’s The Gospel Sound was the first in-depth chronicle of gospel music’s history. This new volume offers a wider array of “meditations,” with essays on subjects ranging from Thomas Mann to radio soap operas, Aretha Franklin to Robert Johnson and Delta blues. Heilbut’s opening chapter, “The Children and Their Secret Closet,” has garnered the book special attention for its revealing look at homosexuality in modern gospel music.
KD: A Jazz Biography by Dave Oliphant
KD was Kenny Dorham, and Dave Oliphant brings the Texas-born trumpet great’s story to life in 200 pages of tightly-constructed rhymed quatrains. Jazz has inspired plenty of poetry, but as far as a I know this is an unprecedented way of telling a full life’s story. Here’s how Oliphant begins the chapter on KD’s tenure in the Charlie Parker Quintet:
“Confidence! Thy name is Kenny Dorham
How else take over for Miles in a premier
Unit of that post-war day no tinge of fear
In offering himself as the sacrificial lamb…”
Why Jazz Happened by Marc Myers
Myers provides essential reading on his daily blog JazzWax and reports on music and musicians for the Wall Street Journal. Why Jazz Happened focuses primarily on the years 1942-’72, a period that Myers sees as the golden age of jazz as an art form. Myers draws extensively on the interviews he’s published in JazzWax, and he’s woven them together with a smart historical overview in writing a highly readable account of the impact that various social and economic forces have had on the music.
World on a String: A Musical Memoir by John Pizzarelli
Pizzarelli at 52 may strike some as too mid-career for a memoir, but as Bucky Pizzarelli’s son he’s been around the music his whole life, and during that time this gifted storyteller has gotten to know and work with musicians whom we’re always eager to hear more about, among them Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Benny Goodman.
As long as I’m on the subject of books, I’ve got honorable mentions to make of several other titles I’ve enjoyed reading over the past few years. Jazz may not be selling a lot of CD’s these days, but you rarely see a jazz book remaindered, so even if these aren’t still in storefront windows, you’ll find them here or there.
Here and Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino by Bill Milkowski
Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Jo Jones
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice by Tad Hershorn
Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club by Todd Barkan
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World by John Szwed
I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy by Bob Reisman
Shout Sister Sister: The Untold Story of Rock’n’Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle Wald