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James Gavin: Surrender to Telling the Truth

Lee Mergner interviews author of biographies of Lena Horne and Chet Baker about his life as a writer

Cover of Deep in A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker by James Gavin
Cover of Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne by James Gavin
Author James Gavin

Author James Gavin has been writing about jazz and vocal music for over 20 years. His most recent book is the critically acclaimed Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne which has recently been published in paperback. Gavin also wrote Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker. His first book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for music journalism. He has contributed numerous articles for The New York Times, as well as Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair and JazzTimes. In addition, Gavin has contributed liner notes to over 400 CDs, including many reissues he produced himself for Verve, Blue Note, and Koch Jazz. His essay for the GRP box set Ella Fitzgerald – The Legendary Decca Recordings earned a 1996 Grammy nomination.

Gavin spoke with JT in great detail about his life as a writer, his approach to biography, his Chet Baker biography and his most recent book on Lena Horne.

What was the first piece about jazz or music that you wrote?

Believe it or not, it was the book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. Before that, I had never written so much as an article published in a real magazine…just some school newspaper pieces. I started with a book. It came out in 1991 when I was 27 years old. At that point, I quit my secretarial desk job at Saks Fifth Avenue and was suddenly plunged into the burden of having to earn a living by writing mainly about music. And I have been doing it continuously now for 19 years. I’ve never had a column. I’ve never had a staff job. I’ve always been a freelancer.

Were you educated or trained as a journalist?

I was an English major at Fordham University, but I have to say that I mainly taught myself. I began writing my first book when I was a junior in college. I was taking a writing tutorial with the writer Verlyn Klinkenborg, who has written a lot for The New York Times. I was fascinated by the nightlife of old in New York City, and I hoped and prayed that that scene still existed and that I would some day step into it. I said to him during one of our meetings, “No one has ever written a book about all those wonderful little clubs that used to be all over New York, and wouldn’t it be nice if someone did it?” And he said, “Why don’t you?” A bell went off and guess what? I did. That was 1984.

The idea of my book was amorphous at that time. I just knew I wanted to write a book about nightclub singers. The first thing I did was march into Carmen McRae’s dressing room at The Blue Note. She used to play there twice a year. I was the nerd of the world and I had no experience whatsoever. I had the gumption to say, “Hi, I’m writing a book about singers and I’d like to interview you.” She said, “Okay.” Then I met her manager who was standing right outside the door-a man named Kim Hartstein -and he was astonished when I told him the story, because he told me that Carmen had just said no to People Magazine and told the lady from Ebony to fuck off. And she said yes to me. With that blessing in mind, I proceeded.

The Chet Baker biography was your next book. Why did you move to a biography with one subject?

Chet Baker was hot at that time. The Bruce Weber documentary [Let’s Get Lost] had created a Chet Baker renaissance. It came out in 1989 and I started my book in late 1994. There was tremendous curiosity about Chet Baker and no one had written a serious book about him. At that time I had only a passing interest in Chet. I had never listened to him that much, but I knew that there was enormous psychodrama tied in with his music and his story. I called my dear, beloved late friend William Claxton, whom I still hadn’t met at that time. I introduced myself, and he knew who I was because he had my first book. I asked him if he knew if anyone were writing a biography of Chet. He said, “Not as far as I know, and I think it’s a wonderful idea.” So there again I got a blessing from on high and I started writing that book. It was sold to Knopf very quickly. To tell that story and deal with that cast of characters was a six-year hell ride. But it was one of the most exciting phases of my life, and of course, I grew to love Chet’s music very much.

I never felt, and still don’t feel, that I would have the chops to write about players like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk. I’m not a musician. I didn’t formally study music, even although I took some music classes in college. What I’ve learned, I’ve learned by listening and reading and talking to musicians. Because Chet was a singer and he also played like a singer-not that he didn’t have interesting technical expertise- I felt that this one I could maybe pull off. I got beaten up a lot by people who felt that I had skated over the music and focused solely on the drama. That is demonstrably untrue. I really busted my ass to do justice to Chet’s music. I devoted many many pages of that book to talking about his style. No, I didn’t devote entire chapters to analyzing solos. But for the average reader, musicology is best digested in small portions. I was not writing a music textbook. Furthermore, Chet’s music was not like Miles’ or Monk’s in that it didn’t go through dramatic changes, era by era. Chet devised his style very early on and spent the rest of his life refining it. He didn’t keep reinventing himself.

A biography requires a great deal of research.


Yes, 300 interviews for Chet and 300 interviews for Lena Horne. But I love doing interviews. They’re my favorite aspect of what I do. I’m very interested in the personalities of musicians and how their lives are reflected in the music. I feel that the ones who really capture our imaginations are the ones who have all this personal baggage. Very often they bring it onstage with them. You can feel it before they play or sing a note.

That was absolutely the case with Chet Baker and Lena Horne. Yet they were both such fine and undervalued musicians that they deserved to be treated very seriously in that regard. Chet got an awful bum rap and continues to. So many people have said, “Oh what he might have done, what he might have accomplished, if only he hadn’t destroyed himself.” Fuck you, is what I want to say to all of these people. The singer Ruth Young, his girlfriend throughout the ’70s, certainly agrees. She’s asked some of the same people, “Have you recorded 100 albums lately?” When Lena died, many people were saying, “Poor, oppressed, victimized Lena, what she might have done if it weren’t for Hollywood racism.” What more need she have done?

What’s the most difficult aspect of doing a biography on a notable jazz artist?

The most difficult part of writing for me is writing. Everything else is a piece of cake. I’m an obsessive researcher. Once I get started, I’m out of control. I turn over the world to find any living informant or shred of evidence. I love to interview people. But the terror I feel in facing the blank computer screen is almost as intense as ever. What pushes me forward? The drive to prove that I’m up to the job — and the knowledge that I have to get this book finished because I accepted the money. It’s really sticking your neck out, to write a book. You risk getting pulverized in the press. Worse than that, you risk getting ignored and seeing your book drown in a month. That hasn’t happened, because I haven’t allowed it to happen. Too much of my life is at stake. I spent seven years on my first book, six years on the book after that [Chet Baker] and five on the Lena Horne book. I’m getting faster. [laughs]


Aside from the writing, the hardest thing about doing a book may be finding the subject. It took me three years after the cabaret book to come up with the idea for Chet, and two years after Chet to think of Lena. See, there’s another encouraging trend. Now I’m really agonizing over what can stand on the shoulders of Lena Horne. I haven’t quite decided yet.

How do you choose your subject? Do you have to be a fan of the artist’s work?

I’ve written mostly about music. I would never choose a singer or musician who did not have a complicated and conflicted psychological life, because that’s what I really love to sink my teeth into. Musicology in and of itself doesn’t interest me that much. I’m interested in it as a reflection of a life of struggle. In Lena’s case, I was spoiled by the fact that her story has such tremendous worldly resonance. Her evolution reflected major eras in history, one after another. And she almost always revealed her state of mind in her singing.

What did you learn about Lena Horne that surprised you?

What pops into my mind, above everything else, is how unhappy she was and how burdened she was by the social position she’d adopted. I don’t think of Lena as a victim. I think of her as a victor. Yes, she was victimized by the same conditions in society that the rest of her race experienced. She was also cushioned from a lot of them, because of her stardom and success. But Lena was raised with a fierce sense of social consciousness, and she willingly took on the role of social symbol. It came at a big price. As she said to me when I interviewed her in 1994, “I was never able to enjoy this damned thing.” She was talking about her career. She said, “It was always a hassle, a fight.” That quote haunted me for a long time.


At another point in my book, she talks about how seldom she was able to luxuriate in the joy of performing, of entertaining. She said that for her it was about conquering her audiences, rather than winning them over. There was always an adversarial dynamic going on. William Claxton’s wife, the model Peggy Moffitt, saw Lena at the Cocoanut Grove [in Los Angeles] in the ’60s, and told me that, extraordinary as the performance was, she got the feeling that Lena hated the audience. I don’t know if, in the last ten years of her life, Lena was able to feel any real joy or satisfaction in all that she had done. When I met with her in 1994, it wasn’t there. Almost no memory of her past seemed to bring her any kind of warm, nostalgic glow. I felt no real sense of joy in anything she had accomplished. It was almost all a struggle for her.

You interviewed her way before you got started on the biography. Once you began working on the book, did you interview her again?

By the time I had started the book in 2004, she had been reclusive for four years and closed the door on all interaction with the press. Happily, though, I had my fantastic two-hour-and-fifteen-minute interview with her for The New York Times. And I had limited cooperation from her daughter Gail. While she didn’t want to be interviewed herself, she gave me a lot of names and addresses and allowed me to use her name in contacting those people. It was an almost ideal situation. Since the book has been published, I haven’t heard a word from the family, nor have I heard any hearsay about how they felt. But almost all of the reviews perceived my book, overall, as a very respectful portrait.

You’ve not shied away from revelations about the artists, most notably in the Chet Baker book. In the jazz world, that can be seen as tarnishing a sacred image. Do you ever have second thoughts about airing uncomfortable truths about jazz legends?

The Chet Baker book is the perfect illustration of what you’re saying. There was so much that was unattractive about Chet. People who had worshiped the Chet Baker myth and who so much wanted those sweet, misty-eyed vocal records he’d made in the ’50s to reflect the real man did not welcome my revealing so many dark truths about him. At a certain point in writing the book, I realized that I was just going to have to surrender to telling the truth. Like it not, this is the way it was. For me, the darkness made Chet all the more fascinating. I swear to you that I did not write that book with a sense of judgment, even though I was accused by a lot of critics of “obviously” not liking Chet. Why? How was it obvious? I guess it was obvious, to them, because I had revealed so much that was unattractive.


I’m not out to puff up anyone’s fantasies. I’m out to tell the most honest story that I possibly can about these fallible, gifted human beings. Their flaws are what make them complete, what take them down from their pedestals and make them one of us. Many of the greats, of course, were terrible human beings. I think that many people, myself included, hear beautiful music and want so much to think that it came out of a beautiful human, but often the artist and the person are completely separate entities.

In the case of Lena Horne, the word “bitch” was and still is sometimes applied to her, because of ways that she behaved in various situations. And because of her sometime coldness, which she used as a protective weapon — the icy barrier she built around herself to help her survive. I realized that it was my job to reveal why. “Why” is always the big question.

Early in my Chet Baker project, I became friends with Bertrand Fevre, a very talented filmmaker and director of music videos. He lives now in the South of France. Bertrand did a beautiful short performance film called Chet’s Romance in the year before Chet died. He knew Chet from that project. He gave me the best piece of advice that I have ever received as a writer. He said, “Try to understand, not judge.” I held that advice close as I was writing the book. I’m not aware of ever having not liked Chet per se, only of having been utterly fascinated by the choices he made and why. But because of a lot of it was unattractive, there were people who felt that I tried to tear him down. I just had to accept their reactions, which were their problem, not mine.

It can be a matter of tone. For example, in the biographies done by Albert Goldman about Lenny Bruce, Elvis Presley and John Lennon, the tone was often vicious. In writing a book of such length, did you find it hard to keep the right tone?


One of the problems you’re bringing up is the exhaustion and disdain that can set in. It’s like living with someone; you can grow bored and impatient. I was determined to never be mean. I knew that I had, in the past, written some mean things about people; I think back on those cases now and I’m embarrassed by them. I went into the Chet Baker book determined to give him a fair shake, while not sugar-coating the truth. Liking him wasn’t always easy when I learned how Chet, like most junkies, was inclined to treat other people to get what he needed. But Chet was a frightened and vulnerable guy. He was terrified of the world. Why else did he keep himself in a constant fog? His music is profoundly introspective. He shut out everything and performed from behind a curtain, in a way. That’s what made it so intimate and touching — he was sharing something very raw and private when he got onstage.

But in the course of 300 or 400 pages written over a long period of time, how do you maintain a consistent tone?

This is why God created editors. Hopefully you have one who will look at the whole book and be on the lookout for weariness or impatience. I gave the first draft of one of my Chet Baker chapters to a writer friend, and he circled certain adjectives that struck him, and me, as cold. From that point on, I was always on the lookout for any phrases that might have sounded unfair. Why would I have wanted to write a whole book about someone I didn’t like? I think of Chet very fondly now. And I never met him. He was scared and he was in trouble and he was trying to survive. He treated a lot of people badly, but you know what? It takes two to tango. Most of those people stuck around for it.

I’ll give you an example of a biographer who did an honest-to-God hack job — Maria Riva with her mother Marlena Dietrich. That is a notoriously harsh book, and fascinating. You really get the whole ugly truth from a woman who didn’t seem to like her mother very much and who seemed quite jealous of her.

That relentless negative tone can be very hard to read after a while.


I would suggest that anyone writing a biography read that book as a cautionary biographer’s tale, because the disdain is so strong all the way through. Everyone I know who loves Dietrich was intrigued and repelled and made very uncomfortable by that book.

You brought up an example of a biography that you can learn from for the wrong reasons. What are some of your favorite biographies, music or otherwise?

My favorite one without hesitation, and it was the blueprint for my Chet Baker book in many ways, was a biography of Robert Mapplethorpe by a writer named Patricia Morrisroe. She wrote about a very difficult subject, someone who was easy to dislike. And she did it, I feel, with absolute, unswerving objectivity. Nor did she flinch from the ugliest aspects of Robert Mapplethorpe.

She, like me, was beaten up for having supposedly neglected her subject’s artistry in her book. That is so far from the truth, because she gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work than anyone ever had. This was a woman writing about the most down-and-dirty aspects of the gay underground sex scene of the ’70s, and I marveled at how vividly she evoked it. Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe’s best friend, felt that this was a devastatingly unfair portrait of the Robert Mapplethorpe she knew. I myself never met the guy. But I think that Patricia, apart from being a marvelously colorful, detailed and smart writer, tackled this challenging subject with total grace. That book is a page-turner. I still turn to it anytime I hit a road block in my own writing, so that I can remember how wonderfully Patricia tells a story.

That’s the highest praise from one writer to another.

Unfortunately her book was reviewed very unkindly in The New York Times Book Review and a lot of places. I think a lot of people took their personal disdain for Robert Mapplethorpe to the typewriter when they were reviewing Patricia’s book. It wasn’t received nearly as well as it ought to have been. Finally, all these years later — the Mapplethorpe book was published in 1997 – Patricia has written a new book, Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia. I can’t wait to read it.

I think my favorite is Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. I reread that one every few years.


These biographies are successful to the degree to which their authors can place their subjects in a larger framework and make us understand how they changed or reflected history. To just tell the story of a life, if you do it well enough, is OK, I guess, because it’s good to have the information between the covers of a book. But what distinguishes the great ones is the author’s ability to make us understand why that subject is important. Otherwise why should we be reading hundreds of pages about this person?

When you choose a subject, do you have to keep it secret or worry about someone else doing the same subject?

I didn’t keep Chet and Lena a secret, because I was writing the books for major publishers, so it was assumed that my books would be the definitive efforts. A couple of would-be Chet biographers came along during my years of work on that book, but I was able to blow them out of the water, simply because I had already done so much work and so many people had placed their trust in me.

What is the subject of your next book? Do you know?

I’m toying with two or three ideas right now and I’m having a helluva time figuring out what can follow Lena Horne. What can stand on those shoulders? What figure can I choose who has that same sweeping historical resonance? Should I try now to do a smaller book, different from Lena? Should I try to do something even bigger? Should I try to focus less on music and spread my wings a little bit? No one likes to be pigeon-holed, and I’ve pigeon-holed myself. There are a lot of other subjects I care about deeply, but music has been my safe harbor from the beginning, because it’s been my great passion. Singers in particular I feel a great kinship with, because they use language to tell stories and try to move people, and that’s what I always wanted to do as a writer. I can’t sing, but I’m fascinated by the art of singing and by musicians who play as though they’re singing.

Who are some of your favorite jazz and music writers?


One whom I really respect as a fine and intelligent writer is David Hajdu. David is a real writer, not just an aficionado passing as one, which is so often the case in the jazz world. He’s a sensitive writer. Whether I always agree with him, or anyone else, is not the point; he’s a true craftsman and I admire that. I can say the same about Gary Giddins. Gary is another genuine writer; he’s smart, and has documented so much of importance in the jazz world of the last 35 years. I think that that young man at The New York Times really deserves his job, Nate Chinen. He’s a smart guy and a very good writer.

Then there’s John Gruen, who is in his early eighties now and has written about the high arts since the 50s. He writes about music and dance in a superbly readable, vivid, uncommonly insightful fashion. I’ve always admired John’s writing a lot. Zuza Homem de Mello is the foremost author and historian on the subject of quality Brazilian music. He’s written a string of extremely valuable books. Zuza is a fabulously well-informed and insightful writer and historian.

Do you use Kindle, Nook, Reader or iPad? What do you think of the new technology for book publishing?

Anything that keeps people reading books is okay with me. I’m an old-fashioned guy. I love the physical object of the CD and an LP. It makes the music more tangible to me. The same is true of books. I think of books as beautiful objects — especially if they’re made by a publisher like Knopf, which released my Chet Baker book. There you have world-class people collaborating to create an object that is so much more than something to read.


But there are certain trends that you can’t stop. Most apartment-dwellers don’t have the space anymore for shelves and shelves of books. Attention-deficit disorder is the national disease. It depresses me to go to a show and see all these beams of light throughout the room shining up in people’s faces, because the text message that just came in is surely more important than the show they’re seeing. People start talking in the middle of a show as though they’re watching it on television. They forget that those are real human beings up there.

Anyway, I don’t have any of those reading gizmos, but I’m not at all opposed to them, because if people still care enough to read books in any form, that’s great. Almost any new book has to be offered in those formats. A friend of mine at Knopf just told me that by the year 2014, probably about 30% of books will be read in electronic formats.

Do you still play LPs?

Yes, and I play my 45s and 78s. Much of this stuff hasn’t been reissued on CD yet. It’s very sentimental for me to hold an LP and to look at the pictures and read the liner notes. I’ve written hundreds of liner notes in my day and that’s a dying art, too.

Are you still doing liner notes now?


Yes; as a matter of fact I’m writing a set of them today, for Reader’s Digest. I’m still asked to do it occasionally, though much less than I was. But I love doing it, because it gives me the chance to tell a little story about how the music happened.

You don’t do the blow-by-blow and cut-by-cut analysis, do you?

I personally find that to be a really boring approach, unless every single track has historical significance. Otherwise, I’m not interested in analyzing every solo and noting all the key changes. Who cares? I find it patronizing to tell listeners about every note they’re hearing. Let them discover it on their own. Point out a few pertinent things and leave it at that, that’s my philosophy. Many would disagree. For me, liner notes are the chance to really tell a story and place a recording historically; to talk about what was happening in the artist’s life at that moment and to interview the surviving participants.

They’re like little books, aren’t they?

They should be. But if you’re just going to download tracks three, seven and eleven of an album, there’s not much need for them, is there? The art of the album, in which every track is considered in relation to every other track and crafted into a complete listening experience, is falling by the wayside too, unfortunately. I’m old-fashioned about things like that. But on the other hand, I have a lot of young friends and I love hearing about what they’re thinking and feeling. I don’t ever want to be a curmudgeon who’s mired in the past and refusing to look ahead, because I’m living in the world that I’m living in. And I’m having a helluva great time.

Originally Published