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Hank O’Neal’s The Ghosts of Harlem Available Now

After the Ken Burns treatment and decades of college-survey courses, jazz history sometimes seems exclusively dedicated to movements and eras, pillars and innovators. But often more interesting-and fun-are the secret histories: the house bands, the forgotten sidemen, the haunted clubs.

Hank O’Neal’s The Ghosts of Harlem: Sessions With Jazz Legends, a 488-page tome and CD out now from Vanderbilt University press, is a stunning effort that works both polemics. The book consists of interviews, conducted between 1985 and 2007, with more than 40 figures who worked in Harlem during its artistic and commercial zenith, among them Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Benny Carter, Billy Taylor, Frank Wess, Milt Hinton, Cab Calloway and others. Perhaps more interesting are the lesser-known figures, like trumpeter Jonah Jones, saxophonist Eddie Barefield and a number of guitarists, among them Eddie Durham, Lawrence Lucie, Danny Barker and Fats Waller’s Al Casey, who offers words to live by for working players: “To me, the music business is the greatest thing that ever happened to me … If you have the right idea in your head-I don’t mean trying to be the biggest thing that ever happened, but just trying to be yourself-it’s a great life. You have to remember, you never finish learning music.” As an interviewer O’Neal is conversational without being overly chummy, and his subjects seem fond of reminiscing and quick to recall. The photographs include archival performance shots and O’Neal’s intimate portraits, which stand as some of the best photography of these musicians during their golden years.

The CD includes loose, candid sessions dating 1972-1996 with Gillespie, Terry, Doc Cheatham and others, including a vocal turn from Milt Hinton on “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of This Jelly Roll.”

Hank O’Neal is a writer, photographer, music producer, president of Chiaroscuro Records and, last but not least, a former CIA agent. You can visit him online at The Ghosts of Harlem has a list price of $75; it was originally published in France in 1997 but has been newly revised and expanded.

Originally Published