New Finds for the Jazz Bookshelf

More than the rest of us who write about jazz, Whitney Balliett’s words describing music often turned into music. Yet the last book he wrote before his death last year was turned down by such mainstream publishers as Oxford University Press (which had published a number of his best-known volumes) and Random House. As a result, in 2006, Whitney’s New York Voices was published by the University of Mississippi Press.

Although some valuable books on jazz survive the deciding committees at American firms, I can attest that it’s getting harder to break through. For a couple of years, I’ve
unsuccessfully sent proposals to some of the publishers from whom I still get royalties (though modest) for previous jazz books. Occasionally the publishers don’t even answer back.

So, like Whitney, I’m going to approach the University of Michigan Press because—under the guidance of jazz author, critic and Rutgers University professor Lewis Porter—that firm has published, among other works, significant biographies of Ben Webster and Lee Morgan, a definitive history of the Detroit jazz scene, and the collected, unusually challenging insights of André Hodeir. (Imagine a mainstream American publisher even knowing who Hodeir was.)

Recently, I came across a publisher in Toronto—the 30-year-old Mercury Press—that proves how a nonacademic, for-profit firm still has the knowledge and determination to add notably to the history of this music with surprising, adventurous projects I doubt any mainstream American publisher would consider. Many years ago, a few jazz elders told me about a female trumpet player who could more than hold her own at cutting sessions. And last year, Mercury Press published the thoroughly engaging High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow by Mark Miller, the dean of Canadian writers on jazz.

He makes clear why, in 1928, when Snow played in Louis Armstrong’s band at the Sunset in Chicago, he made her proud by encouraging her to take solo choruses.

A 2008 surprise by the Mercury Press is David Lee’s The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field. I was part of that 1959 civil war in the fractious jazz community when Ornette made his explosive New York debut.

One of those bristling nights hearing Ornette at the Five Spot, I was sitting next to Roy Eldridge when he said, “I think he’s jiving. He’s putting everybody on.” And Coleman Hawkins, who immediately understood Dizzy and Bird when other established jazz dons were scowling, said in 1959 of Ornette that, while he never liked to criticize a musician publicly, “I think this one needs seasoning. A lot of seasoning.”

This daring, category-defying newcomer volubly turned many of the jazz critics off, but Martin Williams and Gunther Schuller championed Ornette as did, among some musicians, including John Lewis. Having been present and viscerally energized in Los Angeles at Ornette’s first Contemporary recording session, I was very welcoming at the Five Spot for much of his engagement.

Among other depth charges in this book, Lee goes into the very nature of jazz criticism and the inadvertent self-revelations of its practitioners. As for the musicians—not all of them elders, who were so hostile toward Ornette then—Lee quotes bassist Buell Neidlinger: “They’re scared to death Ornette was going to be the thing and that they couldn’t make it.”

That, of course, also happened when Bird and Dizzy came to town.

An extraordinary Mercury Press addition to the early history of jazz is Mark Miller’s Some Hustling This! Taking Jazz to the World, 1914-1929. Miller is a champion researcher, as evidenced by the many pages of annotated sources.

Here we have 22-year-old Sidney Bechet touring Europe in Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, and heard playing the blues by the celebrated Ernest Ansermet, founder and conductor of the Orchestra Suisse Romande, who had already championed Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy.

Writing of the young New Orleans jazzman’s “richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in novelty and the unexpected,” Ansermet trumpeted, “I wish to set down the name of this artist of genius; as for myself, I shall never forget it: it is Sidney Bechet,” whose blues had a “brusque and pitiless ending, like that of Bach’s second Brandenberg Concerto (sic).”

That reminded me that it wasn’t until my early 20s when I realized how strongly Bach could swing! Years later, I heard a classical trumpet player swing Bach’s Brandenburg with a symphony orchestra. His name was Wynton Marsalis.

(To find out more about the Mercury Press, visit its Web site at www.themercurypress.ca. Its books can be ordered online through amazon.com or amazon.ca.)

If only among America’s leading book publishers there was one editor equivalent to what the record industry has in Arbors’ Mat Domber, whose enthusiasm for jazz’s singular creators—regardless of their previous record sales—is typified by his new release, Scott Robinson Plays the Compositions of Thad Jones: Forever Lasting.

As for what may be my last music book, At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene, none of which has previously been in book form, I’m off, I hope, to a university press here. The advance isn’t much, but a university press book stays in print.

Originally published in May 2008

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