Ever feel insecure about listening to jazz? Like it’s over your head? Well, it’s not. And if you need proof of this, pick up Jeff Gold’s photobook Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s and see who had a front-row seat to the finest live jazz of the 20th century. Flip to nearly any page, and far more than scholars, gatekeepers, or snobs, you’ll see regular people of all backgrounds out for a good time.
“Today, so often, particularly among the most serious jazz bands, it’s almost kind of this intellectual pursuit. You get shushed if you’re talking too loud,” fashion critic Robin Givhan notes near the end of the book. “Sometimes people would come not just to listen, but also to dance and enjoy themselves, and to party.”
Jazz fan or not, you’ve probably seen archival photos of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or Billie Holiday at various holes-in-the-wall. But you probably haven’t seen many of their audiences. Gold bought most of these photos from a single collector, who had kept them in a bank vault until now. In smartphone terms, they switch to the selfie camera, filling an incomplete page of the jazz story by capturing those who watched it play out.
At historically crucial venues like Los Angeles’ Club Alabam, Washington, D.C.’s Turkish Embassy, and New York’s Village Vanguard, the dressed-to-the-nines guests look magnificent. Parker seems to agree. On the first page, he’s shown in a pinstripe suit with a lapel visible from the moon, blazing a grin at an attractive young couple.
Gold, a music historian who co-wrote 2012’s 101 Essential Rock Records and edited Iggy Pop’s 2016 as-told-to Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges, intersperses the photos with eyewitness interviews: bandleader/producer Quincy Jones, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, historian Dan Morgenstern, and others who were there at the time. Givhan and pianist Jason Moran comment from the sidelines.
Some of their analysis is race-based. These images of Black, white, and brown faces show that many jazz clubs were oases of racial harmony in segregated America. Gold underlines this over and over to mixed results. Jones and Rollins address the matter directly; Moran, roughly half the age of both men, doesn’t. When Moran answers questions about race obliquely, Gold peppers him with more. The result is an awkward rhetorical tug of war.
Including Givhan was a brilliant choice; she translates some of the photos into the language of fashion. But her most penetrating insights are undermined by formatting issues. She entices us to pore over these photos, but many of them are almost postage-stamp-sized, like the printer had run out of paper. Even though the photos appear full-sized elsewhere in the book, it’s a chore to flip around to find them. After a perfunctory epilogue that speeds through the rest of jazz history in a few paragraphs, it feels like Gold slammed on the brakes.
Still, don’t let these loose nails deter you from a remarkable alternate history. Sittin’ In isn’t just worth a read, especially in these gigless days; for its thesis alone, it’s downright necessary.