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Summer Jazz Reading

A survey of jazz-related books recently released and expected to be released

John Abbott, Sonny Rollins, 1995
Nina Simone
Lena Horne, New York 1994

Summer’s here and the time is right for reading, not fighting, in the streets, boy. For many of us it’s a time in which we finally get around to starting those monumental or important books we always meant to read, like Moby Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow, but then soon find ourselves engulfed in the latest trashy biography or detective novel. At least we can impress our friends with the pile of books on the coffee table, even though the stack more likely represents aspirations rather than accomplishments. It’s the night table that more accurately portrays the reader’s true inclinations.

For jazz fans, there are plenty of recent books to stack up on the night table. In the realm of biographies, we can start with one that now seems particularly timely: James Gavin’s Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, which has just been issued in paperback. In the wake of Horne’s death, the book provides thorough context for the outline of her life and accomplishments. Gavin, author of the noted Chet Baker biography, Deep In a Dream, always does incredible amounts of research but always presents the material in a lucid and occasionally lurid narrative, with an emphasis on the unexpected revelation. The writing is never, or at least rarely, dry. And you are guaranteed to learn a ton about the subject you never learned before. I won’t spoil the revelations in Stormy Weather, but suffice to say, all was not light and happiness in Ms. Horne’s life.

Terry Teachout’s Pops, A Life of Louis Armstrong also boasts a great deal of research, but the writing is more on the dry side, not that there’s anything wrong with that, particularly with a legendary figure, who has already been covered to death and back again. Armstrong is by definition a colorful figure, who lived a very active and storied life, so the man provides much of the drama and narrative thrust. For some of us, there can never be too much written about the man and his music. Teachout offers nothing particularly controversial or shocking about Armstrong, but does well with explaining his powerful influence on American culture.

As excerpted in an earlier issue of JT, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas offers a detailed look into the life and psyche of one of the more singular vocalists in jazz. Cohodas’ research into Simone’s early years reveals not only a musical prodigy, but also a young woman who was prematurely pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions. We all know that she turned into a temperamental artist of epic proportions yet one who maintained a social and political consciousness. What we didn’t know was how she got that way and this biography tells us plenty about that.

Jimmy Heath decided not to wait for some music professor or jazz critic to dissect his life either during or after it. Accordingly, his autobiography, I Walked With Giants, tells his own story with remarkable candor and wit. His stories of his early years with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band are particularly compelling. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina and raised both there and in Philadelphia, Heath was an active participant in the development and growth of bebop and modern jazz. He’s also a warm and engaging person, whose diminutive size belies both a large heart and considerable talent.

There are three interesting blues biographies that have recently been released: Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story by George Lipsitz; Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter by Mary Lou Sullivan; and Lightnin’ Hopkins: A Life in Blues by Alan Govenar. Unfortunately, the Otis and Winter bios tend to be more of the Boswell-like hagiography treatment, a common problem when a subject is profiled during his/her lifetime and when the subject is an active part of the process. If you’re a fan of either artist, you won’t mind. But if not, you may find the approach treacly and self-indulgent. However, the Lightnin’ Hopkins bio is a must-read for any fan of blues or roots music. Hopkins was a colorful artist, who incorporated a wide variety of blues styles and material into his act and was often purposefully misleading about his own life. Despite considerable obstacles to his research, Govenar crafts the tale of Hopkins’ life with the facts at hand and neither romanticizes nor sensationalizes the man and by the end you will likely wish that you saw him perform or had a drink with him. You will certainly want to listen to his albums, even though the book documents how he would sometimes toss them off like guitar picks or bottles of booze.

Robert Palmer was a music writer who covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, and in the process cast a long shadow over music journalists for nearly three decades. Esteemed rock critic Anthony DeCurtis was one of those personally influenced by Palmer and he recently curated a nearly comprehensive anthology of Palmer’s writing about modern music. Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer features pieces, from liner notes to articles for Rolling Stone or The New York Times, from the stylish and erudite writer about all sorts of music, including jazz, and the book is even arranged according to various genres. Among the articles in the anthology are stories on Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and Sun Ra. His piece on Charles Mingus was excerpted in the April 2010 issue of JT. Before his death in 1997, Palmer wrote about the American music scene with intelligence and passion. He managed to be opinionated without being boorish, often a tricky proposition. The prose in this anthology often sings with a palpable sense of urgency. In this age of anyone-can-do-it backpack journalism, you have to wonder whether we will see the likes of writers like Palmer again. Here’s hoping.

JazzTimes readers are likely to be more familiar with the both the content and format of the essays in At the Jazz Band Ball by Nat Hentoff. This latest anthology of Hentoff’s columns and articles focuses exclusively on jazz-no diatribes about the First Amendment here. That said, Hentoff often does tie in what he calls his “day job”-writing about political and social issues-with his observations about the jazz scene, past and present. It seems you can take the man out of politics but you cannot take politics out of the man. Many of his columns for JT are included, but there are also articles done for Down Beat, Wall Street Journal and other notable publications. Hentoff has always been one of the music’s most accessible writers, with a colloquial and unpretentious tone. And although he retells a story or two (or dozen) here, how many people, much less writers, are around now who not only knew the major figures in jazz, but was close to them? It’s one thing to read a 40-something jazz writer pontificate about the early days of bebop, but it’s quite another to hear about Bird, Diz and Miles from a man who was there and in whom those artists confided regularly. As a researcher would say, that is the difference between a secondary and primary source. Hentoff is indeed a living primary source but never academic, so he has that going for him, which is nice.

As long as we’re on the subject of primary sources, jazz aficionados will surely be interested in Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews, edited by Chris DeVito, who culled interviews with the legendary saxophonist from various books, magazines and radio shows. The result is one part oral history and one part philosophical treatise. In contrast to his nearly limitless expressiveness on the saxophone, Coltrane was not a voluble person, so these interviews are not as riveting as, say, those with someone like Miles Davis, who was often profane as well as pithy. Coltrane was never profane in conversation and his pithiness was more likely to be subtle and humble. Yet there’s still plenty for a serious jazz fan to absorb from this interesting collection. Considered by many jazz people to be the single most influential saxophonist at least in modern times, Coltrane’s own words about his music and life deserve our attention.

Finally, there are incredible coffee table books coming out on two of the music’s most interesting figures. Both are highly recommended. Neither volume is suitable for carting to the beach, but both are excellent additions to the library of not only any jazz fan, but any lovers of modern American culture. The first, We Want Miles: Miles Davis vs. Jazz, is being released now in conjunction with a large exhibition now being presented in Montreal. Notwithstanding its odd subtitle, the book includes a wide range of images of Miles, related to Miles and inspired by Miles, as well as essays and testimonials about Miles. Yes, miles and miles of Miles. But Davis’s episodic creative and personal life lends itself well to a book like this one. I can think of no other jazz artist whose life and career unfolded so distinctly as if in chapters, and none more visually-oriented in both the persona and music.

Although it arrives too late for summer perusal, Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins will be published just in time for Sonny’s 80th birthday on September 10. This hybrid of fine art photography and critical analysis features the images of photographer John Abbott and essays by writer Bob Blumenthal in a large-sized art book. The co-authors both have longstanding professional and personal relationships with the subject and it shows in the range of dramatic images and the breadth of the musical analysis. The book uses the structure of the Saxophone Colossus album as the basis for its exploration of Rollins’ life and music, but the authors don’t let that 1956 album confine them. For example, in the chapter titled “You Don’t Know What Love Is” Blumenthal discusses the genesis of Rollins’ sound and Abbott’s photos show Rollins practicing in his home studio or up close with his horn. Although there’s plenty of overlap, in the most basic sense, the text helps you to understand the music and the images help to explain the man. Look for an excerpt from this exquisite book in the October issue of JazzTimes. In addition, in what surely will be one of the biggest events of recent years, Rollins will perform a concert on September 10th at the Beacon Theater in New York City to commemorate his 80th.

Now get reading. Or at least get stacking.

Originally Published