Alyn Shipton: Forensic Clarity
Noted jazz author and critic talks about his latest biography of Cab Calloway and about his career in jazz journalism and broadcasting
Alyn Shipton is the jazz critic for The Times in London and has presented jazz programs on BBC radio since 1989. He was Consultant Editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and has a lifelong interest in oral history, including editing the memoirs of Danny Barker, Doc Cheatham and George Shearing. His biography of Fats Waller was published in 1988. His Life of Bud Powell (written with Alan Groves) was the first English language biography of the pianist, and his book Groovin’ High, the Life of Dizzy Gillespie, won the 1999 ARSC award for the best research of the year. His New History of Jazz, published in 2001, was the Jazz Journalists’ Association Book of the Year, and won Alyn the coveted “Jazz Writer of the Year” title in the British Jazz Awards. In 2003 he won the Willis Conover/Marian McPartland Award for lifetime achievement in Jazz Broadcasting. In 2010 he was named Jazz Broadcaster of the Year in the UK Parliamentary Jazz Awards.
Shipton won an open scholarship to Oxford in 1972, where he read English at St. Edmund Hall. He later went on to take a PhD in music history at Oxford Brookes University. He has been a lecturer in music at Brookes (2002-3), teaching the jazz history course, and he has also given lectures on jazz and American popular music at Exeter University and at the Institute for United States Studies in the University of London. He is now lecturer in Jazz History at the Royal Academy of Music, London. He is also a bassist and has played with many jazz groups. Shipton divides his time between Oxford in the UK and rural France.
His latest book is Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. He spoke with JazzTimes about that book and his life as a jazz writer.
What was the first piece you wrote professionally?
I was still at High School in England, and I'd been doing editorial odd jobs for the classical music magazine Youth and Music News. This went to about 10,000 young music enthusiasts who subscribed to cut price tickets for London concerts and operas offered by the Youth and Music organization. After a few months of subbing copy for the camera-ready paste up, I was asked to join two other young would-be writers to interview Sir Arthur Bliss, the Master of the Queen's Musick, whose opera "The Olympians" (libretto by J. B. Priestley) was being revived. He was an imperious white haired, silver mustached man who looked more like a banker than a composer. My main memory of the interview was afterwards, spending half an hour in the garden in their St John's Wood house, discussing urban bee-keeping with Lady Bliss, who ended up giving me a couple of jars of London honey.
What was the first piece you wrote about music or jazz?
When I was an undergraduate at Oxford I started writing for Isis, the University Magazine, doing general arts pieces. I remember reviewing a concert by Segovia, and doing an elaborate feature on the uncertain future of the Ruskin School of Fine Art. Then in 1973 I was sent off to interview a local painter called Billy Scott-Coomber who had an exhibition about to open. We'd been talking for just a couple of minutes when our mutual love of jazz surfaced. I discovered that in the 1930s he had been a jazz musician, playing guitar and singing with Jack Payne and His Orchestra. In 1939 he had toured in a package show which included Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, and so the interview turned into a profile of this forgotten jazzman who had become a painter.
Did you have any formal training in journalism or even music journalism?
Absolutely none. Although I was discussing this with my Oxford English Literature tutor, the late Reggie Alton, just before he died a couple of years ago. I felt that the discipline of producing 3,000 words to be read aloud to him every Friday morning for three years, knowing that every grammatical error, every piece of sloppy thinking, and every attempt to gloss over reading I hadn't done would be publicly exposed to my tutorial partner with forensic clarity is probably what honed my skills as a writer!
Why Cab Calloway? What about Calloway most appealed to you? Were you a fan of his music before you began writing and researching the book?
In 1985 I was in New Orleans working with Danny Barker on his autobiography [A Life in Jazz, Oxford, 1986] and naturally we spoke about his time with Cab. I had been influenced by the writings of many jazz critics, including the likes of Hugues Panassié and Rudy Blesh, who dismissed Calloway as a "commercial" singer whose vocals got in the way of the fine soloists he hired for his band. Danny told me I had got it wrong, and set out to educate me. Evening after evening we sat on his porch and he played to me the records he had made with Cab. We discussed them late into those humid Southern nights, and I became a convert. I was amazed by the range and invention of Cab's singing, and the contemporary feel of his band, which kept pace with fashion during the nine years or so Danny was with it, from the late 1930s to the mid 40s. So that triggered my interest and after working with Doc Cheatham on his life story, which gave me insights into an earlier period of Cab's work, and then going on to research Dizzy's biography which took me into greater depth on the 1939-41 period, I started putting aside material for this book over twenty years ago. I didn't really start writing up the final version of it until last year.
How did you do you do your research? I assume you had to travel to the US a lot. What resource (library, archive, collection, e.g.) was most helpful to you?
In 1996 I won the Peter Whittingham Award in the UK given by the Musicians' Benevolent Fund for popular music research. (It's now given to a band to make a first recording, but in those days it was research-based.) This paid for me to spend some days in the Boston University Library, where Cab left his papers, including band scores, diaries and scrapbooks, as well as the raw materials for his autobiography. This collection has subsequently been made a restricted access archive, but I was lucky to have had the run of it. I was also able on that same trip to consult papers at Tulane and the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, where Danny Barker had left his papers, and where there was a separate archive concerning the 1952 production of "Porgy and Bess". Since then there have been several interview trips to the United States, including the chance to talk to many of Cab's associates in his later bands. His eldest daughter Camay and his grandson Christopher Calloway Brooks have been invaluable sources, but my original conversations with Danny and with Doc Cheatham remain prime oral history materials for the book, together with BBC interviews I carried out with Milt Hinton, Jonah Jones and Illinois Jacquet. Most fascinating of all the research I did was to learn more about Blanche Calloway. In this I was helped by my friend Howard Rye, and between us we scoured old issues of the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American to piece together the career of this remarkable female musician.
It sounds like you had plenty of contact with his family. Did you get the permission or blessing of his estate and family? How necessary is that when writing about a figure like Calloway?
I have been lucky in several of my books to have had support from the subject's family or friends. Most recently, the McHugh family were incredibly supportive in my life of songwriter Jimmy McHugh, and my current project (not about jazz) involves the participation of the family of the late Harry Nilsson on whom I'm writing the first full length biography. So, in a word, yes, family support is essential.
Cab's family however, is quite complex. He married twice and Camay was the daughter of his first girlfriend, whom he met at high school. She and her branch of the family (and born in 1927, she recalls Cab at the very height of his fame) were fantastically helpful. Both his daughter, singer Chris Calloway, and Cab's second wife Nuffie died during the writing of this project and I was not fortunate enough to talk to them. But Camay and her son gave me essential and much needed support and Chris Calloway Brooks in particular commented on early drafts of the book, pointing me in the direction of further research.
Calloway actually wrote an autobiography. Was that a help or hindrance? Oftentimes, autobiographies can contain misinformation that can really complicate matters.
Cab's autobiography has some fantastic contents and as he was not a great letter writer it gives us a rare chance to see how he viewed everything from his music to his home life. But it was written two decades before he died and so it presents the portrait he wished his public to see at that time. I found quite a few factual errors - like the statement about opening the Plantation Club with his band. He told this story often, about how the Missourians were all ready to play, even leaving their music on the stands when Owney Madden's thugs vandalized the place. But though it's a great story it can't be true. I checked the newspapers and when the attack happened Cab was out of town in Hot Chocolates and his band were three months short of their AFM transfers coming through. Just one example of a great anecdote being—as the British cabinet secretary once said—"economical with the truth." So his book is a great read but needs to be treated cautiously.
What did you learn about Calloway that surprised you?
How much of his act he owed to his sister! Because I was looking into a career that has hardly been documented, and much of what has been published on Blanche repeats one or two half-known facts, it was a revelation to find out how popular she had been, and how she actually pioneered much of the "Hi-de-ho" act that we now associate with Cab. Naturally, he rather plays this down in his book, and of course he grew to eclipse her by the early 30s, but I think the seeds of his achievement were all there in her act. Mind you, she went on to be a very successful businesswoman, founding a cosmetic company for the African American community.
One of the secrets to a compelling biography of a public figure is busting myths or misconceptions about the subject. Do you think you busted any about Calloway and if so what were they?
Even though Danny Barker had done a good job of persuading me that Cab was a fine bandleader and a good singer, while I was writing about Dizzy Gillespie I still took notice of his observation that "Cab was no musician." By which I think he meant Cab wasn't a great sight reader and he didn't hear harmonies with the same subtlety and skill as some of his most exceptional sidemen. But through talking in depth to men like Danny Holgate who was Cab's musical director for many years, and to people who had seen his performance as Sportin' Life in the 1952 tour of "Porgy and Bess" I came to realize that Dizzy was way off the mark. Cab was an extremely proficient musician, who conducted his bands with toughness and discipline, and who remembered all his arrangements note perfectly. He was also one of the major figures in the development of jazz singing. Gunther Schuller started the re-evaluation of Cab in his book The Swing Era and it's something I have talked over with him. I'd like to think I've gone a lot further in making the case for Cab as a really significant musician in his own right.
The book seems to concentrate much more on the music than the man. I didn’t get much insight into his psyche, other than that he was exacting bandleader and very ambitious. Was that approach intentional because you wanted the book to be about the music or done out of necessity because you didn’t have access to the details of his personal life?
Well, as you know from my previous answers, I had a point to make about the music. However, one reviewer described my Dizzy biography as "obsessive record collector hell" so I didn't want to go into quite so much analysis of the music as I did there, but I did want to lay down some critical guidelines for assessing his body of work as a whole, and as this book is in Oxford's music list, that discussion is a primary focus of the book.
But actually I think there's more about the man than your question suggests. I go into considerable detail regarding his early life and the lack of a father figure, his tendency to run wild and what he took from the experience of being sent to what was, in effect, a reform school. I document his three main relationships, his gambling, his carousing, and his occasional liking for a drink. But I am not a fan of books that speculate about someone's personal life based on little hard evidence. Cab was not a great letter-writer, nor a diarist, and most of his interviews focus on the professional. So what you have in my book is most of the hard evidence that exists in the public domain, plus the insights of a few of his close associates. I think, for example, that living on the road for most of one's adult life is a routine which is sufficiently samey to be dull for the reader. I've dropped in a few examples of how Cab varied this—not least sneaking out for a good time with the younger members of the cast of Bubbling Brown Sugar. And in the regime of being on the road there are some surprises, the arrival of Nuffie in his life coinciding with the moment when he offered to drive Jonah Jones to the gig for the first time ever, after years of playing together, and when he occasionally treated his men to a meal. But Cab was—as I also say in the book—a private man who went to some trouble to keep his opinions to himself and to guard his family's privacy. Even though he was incensed by his daughter Chris running out of a Broadway show to marry Hugh Masekela, he kept up the mask of civility and dignity to his public and also—because I've asked him about it— to Hugh. We just don't know what he really thought. Maybe in retrospect I've been somewhat over-subtle in the parts of the book that reveal the man, and I should have included more signposting.
I should stress that I am not making a deliberate parallel here, but your question reminds me of twenty five years ago when I was publishing Sammy Price's autobiography, and I knew he was a long-term associate of Henry Red Allen with whom he played at the Metropole for years. I felt that Sammy had said barely anything in his manuscript about the trumpeter. So after a few attempts to get him to add some extra detail, I finally asked him why he had not. He said, "Sure we played together for a long time, we were friends, But we didn't socialize. Every night, Red finished the gig, hailed a cab and went uptown in search of pussy before he went home. Where's the interest in that? My readers probably don't want to know this and it's not fair to Red's family to put it in print." As I say, I'm not making an exact comparison between Cab and Red, but I do quote Benny Payne when he says that Cab had "so many women you couldn't keep track of them."
Was there any material you left on the cutting room floor, so to speak?
Yes, lots of additional interview material. I spoke to so many people when I was making the BBC Radio documentary for Cab's centenary, and only a fraction got used in the book. I had a lot more stories about the later European tours, but again, one tour gets to be like another. Rather than turn the book into a sort of stamp collection of anecdotes of the touring life in chronological order, I focused on the ones that had something to tell us about Cab's development, his achievements and his staying power as an entertainer.
What do you enjoy most about writing about jazz and jazz artists?
Well, Lee, there's a pompous answer and a more down to earth one. So here goes, with the pompous one first. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, listening to jazz, there didn't seem to be much of a literature on it. I devoured books like Rudy Blesh's Hot Trumpets and Shapiro and Hentoff's Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, but often when I was really keen to find out about a musician, there wasn't much to go on. A case in point is Bud Powell. Until the little book that Alan Groves and I did seventeen years ago, there was precious little available in English, and I felt my book was actually helping people coming new to the music to find out more about the circumstances in which it was made. So I enjoy the thought that I might be opening up areas of the music to new listeners and whetting their appetites to learn more about it.
The down to earth answer is that I really enjoy the chance to listen in depth to somebody's music, and then see if it's possible to explore their life in equal depth. When I was doing the McHugh book, for example, the incredible archive of material he had amassed on the Cotton Club taught me more about it than I'd ever thought possible. I realized that—with the exception of Steven Lasker's work—nobody had really got to grips with all the different shows, the repertoire in them, and the performers. And Steven, naturally, had concerned himself with the Ellington period, whereas I was more interested in what came before and after. I love the idea of actually charting something like this and getting it into print for other researchers, even though it doesn't always get noticed, so for example Charlotte Greenspan's new book on Dorothy Fields refers to mine when it comes to McHugh's love life, but fails to take any account of my painstaking attempts to construct a real chronology for the songs that she and McHugh wrote for the Cotton Club.
I think my greatest satisfaction in this type of research came from trawling through the Calloway band diaries in the 1990s and the AFM transfer listings to work out the exact date when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie met for the first time, which I published—as far as I am aware—for the first time in the Dizzy biography and which other scholars seem to have accepted since as being the right answer.
You’ve gotten to know personally many jazz artists out there, several of whom you likely have had to write about. How does knowing an artist personally affect your critical judgment?
Of course it's difficult to write critically about people you've become friends with, in some cases played with as well, as I've always been a working bassist as well as a writer. But then everybody who knows me knows what I do, and that I am both a newspaper and magazine critic as well as a book author and broadcaster. I think the only solution is to be honest, and if a CD or a live concert package comes along that I really think is dreadful, I decline to write about it if I think it's going to ruin a friendship. Not doing this has occasionally led to some coolness. I gave one well-known English keyboard player a very stiff review for a string quartet commission he'd written which had one movement of brilliantly scored string writing, and three more with the strings just holding long notes while his band played. I said this was lazy writing, and an abuse of the funds given by the commissioning body. He was annoyed at the time, but later told me he was most annoyed because he agreed with a lot of what I'd said. I gave a young British saxophonist a very tough review for a new commission he'd written for the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and we had an hour of quite heated conversation after it appeared. But in the end he accepted that I had reviewed the concert I heard on the night, and not what he had been hearing in his head.
Over the years, you’ve interviewed many musicians, for print and for radio. Is there one interview that sticks out for you? And, if so, why?
Three years ago I did a very long interview with Sonny Rollins, which was for two one-hour broadcasts and a feature in the Times. He was a wonderful interviewee, and although he'd said he didn't listen to his old records, actually he remembered everything in remarkable detail. But he also remembered other aspects of his life and when we were talking about the times he had visited Britain, he started recalling the theme tunes of UK radio and TV programs. My proudest moment was when we ended up singing the theme tune to "The Archers," the BBC's longest running radio soap opera together. When the mikes were turned off, we sat and carried on talking for the best part of another hour, and it was one of the most memorable conversations I've ever had.
The only experience to top it was when I took Sir George Shearing the first copy of his autobiography (which we had written together) to his Manhattan apartment. In gratitude he sat at the piano and played me a solo recital. It's a privilege words cannot describe.
Which jazz writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?
Living and working in the UK, I have tended to be less influenced by American writers and more by European ones. Charles Fox, who only wrote a couple of short books, but who was a prolific journalist and liner note writer, was a big influence: eloquent, informed, and passionate. I also used to read Philip Larkin in the Daily Telegraph when I was a boy, and then read his collected jazz writing, but even then I realized that he sat at the mouldy fig end of critical writing about jazz, although his literary style was exemplary. And my mentor as a broadcaster Peter Clayton was also one of the finer UK critics, writing for the Sunday Telegraph. I also read Max Harrison's pieces in the days when he wrote for the Times, as did the humorist and writer Miles Kington. Among American critics and writers, once I had discovered Gene Lees and Gary Giddins, I started reading as much as I could of their work.
Whom do you enjoy reading now?
Right now I'm reading the collected travel writing of the late Sir Wilfrid Thesiger, and I tend to read complete runs of novels, so after the complete Patrick O'Brian nautical novels, I read all of Ian Rankin's Rebus books and all of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series. I have always read quantities of fiction since I studied English at University, and became a completist early on with John Galsworthy's and Anthony Powell's cycles. But I suspect your question is really about jazz writing. And there I have most enjoyed Ashley Kahn's recent books, Terry Teachout's Pops and the excellent life of Lee Morgan by my friend Tom Perchard, whom I think may turn out to be one of the finer writers of the future.
What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on jazz and music criticism?
I'm very pessimistic about the long-term future of books and magazines in print form. I have watched the growing percentage of my royalties from Kindle sales and the diminishing percentage of hard copy books with some disquiet. As a reader, and a bibliophile, I have to say I cannot imagine a life without books. I would not want to trade my stack of real books for a Kindle or i-Pad at present. But I am alarmed at what I can see happening in the book trade. I was sorry to see the Borders chain go under here in Britain, and on my last visit to the United States I could see that even my favorite well-established bookstores were struggling to keep afloat. In my 35 years in and around the publishing industry (I ran Grove's Dictionaries of Music for Macmillan, and then the music and reference list at Blackwell before moving to be a freelance editor for Continuum and more recently Equinox) I have long been an admirer of the American bookstore. Attempts to set up the equivalents to Barnes and Noble, Borders and Walden in the UK have never really worked, and Waterstone's is the closest we've got to those models. But I suspect that with one on the way out and the others threatened, the heyday of the huge monolithic bookstore chain might be numbered. I buy from Amazon like most computer literate people, but I also treasure my local stores, such as Blackwells, and ensure that a healthy percentage of the money I spend on books and CDs goes through their tills instead. Would that all serious readers did the same!
But having said that, I have to confess that as a writer I use online resources all the time. The Calloway biography was transitional, in that I did a lot of the original research in libraries where I consulted original documents, but I finished it by using online books and newspapers to supplement that reading. Because I worked with the McHugh family in digitizing part of their archive, I actually relied less on libraries for the Jimmy McHugh book (I Feel a Song Coming On) than I did for Cab. With CD-Rs of the document images and online access to various libraries I wrote most of the McHugh biography in rural France, hundreds of miles from a suitable research library. But in the normal run of things, I'd say online resources account for about 40% of my research nowadays, the rest spent here in Oxford UK at the Bodleian Library, or visiting specialist collections round the world.
I am not sure yet that the online music blogger has taken the place of the book or magazine/journal critic. I am a fan of the blogs by Terry Teachout and Ethan Iverson, for example, as well as the online musings of Dave Douglas, but I'm not sure that the immediacy of the online blog has the same literary poise as the well-turned article.
Here are some questions that I get asked a lot, so now I get to ask them of other people! As a writer, you get a lot of promotional copies of CDs – I’m guessing a few hundred a month. Do you listen to them all? What do you with them after you’ve reviewed or played them? How many CD and LPS do you have in your permanent collection?
I get anything up to 100 CDs a month. A third of these generally get listened to in detail and used in my "Short Cuts" brief review column in Jazzwise Magazine in the UK. I will probably play a track or two from at least 40 more - as I compile a monthly inflight show for Cathay Pacific airways and a bi-monthly one for Air New Zealand. This way I am featuring fresh music all the time and keep my ears open to what is going on. The remaining discs do not always get listened to, and often they are peripheral to my main interests anyway. Meantime I'm listening to another 20 or 30 albums a week to select the music for my weekly BBC radio show Jazz Library. So as well as the new CDs coming in to the house, I often have piles of material from the BBC library as well. I made a big effort to slim down my collection last year selling off hundreds of surplus CDs and about half my vinyl collection. More vinyl has gone since and I'm now down to the final 700 or so which are really rare and I'm keeping for the present. I have 3,500 CDs on permanent shelves in my office, and about the same in storage in my garage. And the piles of CDs off the shelves for current projects amount to about another 300, so I probably have access to a collection of about 8,000 CD or LP items at any one time. And that's not to mention the 1000s of extras I have on i-tunes!
What’s next as far as another book project? You mentioned a book about singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. What else do you have in the works?
Right now the Harry Nilsson book is taking all my spare time. I'm working with the family and the estate to produce what I hope will be the definitive life, and it's a bigger project than Cab. What's that got to do with jazz, you ask. Well, at one level, not a lot. But at another I was amazed to find the bassists on his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show were Messrs Ray Brown and Al McKibbon, and many fine jazz musicians contributed to the subsequent albums. Dr John worked on many of them across the years, so there is definite connection.
But beyond the Nilsson book, I have another big project to write about one of the major figures in British jazz, and my radio work goes on. But that's not always about jazz either, and right now I am producing a documentary on the great explorer Wilfrid Thesiger who would have been 100 years old this year.