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March 2001

W. Royal Stokes
Living the Jazz Life: Conversations With Forty Musicians About Their Careers in Jazz

Oral interviews have been an integral part of jazz’s historical literature ever since the 1950 publication of Jelly Roll Morton’s recorded reminiscences. This was early jazz history come alive, and it proved to exert a powerful influence on subsequent books. In 1955, Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro published Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, which presented, in effect, the then entire history of jazz in the words of its primary sources: the musicians themselves. And between 1970 and 1980, the late Stanley Dance compiled four anthologies of transcribed recollections of hundreds of jazzmen from the swing era. Needless to say, all of these have added immeasurably to our understanding of jazz in those periods.

In the same spirit, then, did experienced jazz journalist W. Royal Stokes conduct his interviews over a 20-year period of time, later to collect some 40 of them for inclusion in Living the Jazz Life, the most recent of his three books. With a minimum of personal intrusion, Stokes allows his subjects to speak freely about their childhood initiations into the world of music, their early experiences learning their craft, their first exposures to jazz and their subsequent careers as professionals. Tellingly, his interviewees were largely selected by convenience: they were easily accessible either by virtue of their local performances in the Washington, D.C., area or at venues otherwise sought out by the intrepid reporter. They all make for an interesting read.

Early on, Stokes makes it clear that he chose for inclusion only musicians who have not been widely written about elsewhere. Additionally, he divided his individual pieces into groupings that some might find exclusionary, but this decision, he reminds us, is the author’s prerogative. Opening with a section called “Musical Families,” he introduces the commentaries of Jackie and René McLean, Louis Bellson, Freddy Cole, Nat Adderley, Slide Hampton, Bucky and John Pizzarelli and Duffy Jackson, while the remaining chapters are devoted to instrumental and other groupings, such as saxophonists, pianists, singers, composers, strings, musicians from “other climes,” blues, comedy and jazz.

The question arises, though, as to the absence of chapters on currently active clarinetists or worthy but underexposed brassmen. Anticipating this criticism, Stokes states in his introduction that his intention was not to represent the entire scene but only to cast reflection on the musicians he felt were the most deserving of attention. Of the lesser-known figures, he has included sax players Russ Gershon, Kit McClure and Leigh Pilzer; pianists Terry Waldo, John Eaton and Sumi Tonooka; 1920s blues diva Edith Wilson; harpist Dorothy Ashby; bassist Glen Moore; cellist David Eyges; Australian multiinstrumentalist James Morrison; Brazilian singer and composer Joyce; Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen; and six blues artists of specialized renown. Virtually all of the others are far better known, such as tenormen John Stubblefield and Lew Tabackin; pianists Mal Waldron, Ramsey Lewis, Marcus Roberts and Cyrus Chestnut; singers Shirley Horn and Diana Krall; composers Jimmy Heath, Gerry Mulligan and Joanne Brackeen; bassist Slam Stewart; violinist Regina Carter; and in the final chapter, Steve Allen and Bill Cosby.

All in all, this is a highly eclectic assemblage of musical personalities, but the totality of their voiced experiences, coupled with their views on the art itself, should prove illuminating to every reader.

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