Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
RJ Spangler

jazz books

40 posts in this topic

Do any of you read about the lives of jazz artists? I have been into this for many years (like 30 or so a year). I just finished "Hot Man: The Life Of Art Hodes" by Art & Chadwick Hansen (University of Illinois Press). I learned a lot about very early jazz & blues. Right now I am reading a book by Mike Zwerin (Yale Press), which is quite different from the previous book.

So what are you reading these days?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If you check out the recent (voluminous) threads about the bios of Fats Navarro and Thelonious Monk you will see that not any but MANY of those around here read jazz musician bios. ;)

My own copy of the Fats Navarro bio arrived yesterday, and I've absorbed my bit of bios of jazz and jazz-related artists through the years mself. Starting out with Ross Russell's Charlie Parker bio in my very young collecting days, and followed later on by the autobios of Count Basie, Charlie Barnet and Terry Gibbs, plus bios on Woody Herman, Dexter Gordon, another one on Bird, then Lester Young, Tommy Dorsey, Kenny Clarke, Hal Singer, Dick Twardzik, Louis Jordan, plus others on the fringe of jazz such as Muddy Waters, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Bob Wills, Pee Wee King, Milton Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Wynonie Haris, etc. And no doubt others will follow in due course.

But one word of caution (though maybe I'm stating the obvious): Don't reduce your "learning" about jazz to jazzmen biographies. Books on specific aspects of jazz (such as those on Kansas City Jazz, West Coast Jazz, 52nd Street, Bebop, or Ira Gitler's "Swing to Bop", "Jazz Away From Home" about jazz expatriates, etc.) will give you FAR more about the broader picture. Artist bios IMHO are more the icing on the cake.

BTW, what's that book by Mike Zwerin you are referring to?

Edited by Big Beat Steve

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There's also some good stuff in the Tom Talbert bio published by Scarecrow. Lots of fascinating stuff about the scene in NY and LA in the 40s and 50s from people like Danny Bank, Bud Shank and Jack Montrose

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for the info. Will have to investigate that. I really enjoyed the compilation of his 40s tracks on SeaBreeze so this one sounds good.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Among others Pee Wee Russell, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My own copy of the Fats Navarro bio arrived yesterday, and I've absorbed my bit of bios of jazz and jazz-related artists through the years mself. Starting out with Ross Russell's Charlie Parker bio in my very young collecting days, and followed later on by the autobios of Count Basie, Charlie Barnet and Terry Gibbs, plus bios on Woody Herman, Dexter Gordon, another one on Bird, then Lester Young, Tommy Dorsey, Kenny Clarke, Hal Singer, Dick Twardzik, Louis Jordan, plus others on the fringe of jazz such as Muddy Waters, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Bob Wills, Pee Wee King, Milton Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Wynonie Haris, etc. And no doubt others will follow in due course.

Clearly, a vast number of jazz biographies have been written, but which ones really stick in your mind - which do you consider unmissable? This would be a useful guide to me as to what to seek out next. My own list would have to include Art Pepper's Straight Life, Hampton Hawes's Raise Up Off Me and, possibly, Ross Russell's Bird Lives!. Also, in my youth I was very impressed by Alan Lomax's Mister Jelly Roll.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm no authority on which biographies would be most worthwhile OVERALL as I've touched only on a small percentage of what is out there (dictated by my own musical preferences). Unless you have a LOT of time you cannot read all that are out there and that are worth reading anyway. Not by a long shot.

I haven't read the Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes autobiographies yet (they will follow eventually) but I guess I can live without some that others would consider essential.

IMO it also depends above all on which musicians are among your jazz listening favorites. If the musician is one you take a particular interest in and if the bio is any good then you will devour it anyway. OTOH, no matter how great a bio is, if the musician featured in that bio is one that is not in your main center of interest you will probably not get THAT much out of it.

Another criterion would be those musicians that you consider "kingpins" of their era and musical style (i.e. reading about their lives will also tell you a lot about that particular era or style of jazz etc.). It is in this latter sense, for example, that I have appreciated the bio on Big Jay McNeely a lot as a source of info on early post-war R&B, or the bios on Milton Brown and Bob Wills as providing lots of info on Western Swing.

Generally speaking, to name just two examples, the autobio by Terry Gibbs ("Good Vibes") is definitely one to recommend. It is not only hilarious in places (Terry Gibbs is a great storyteller) but also captures the atmosphere of those times very well. In a totally different (more scholarly) sense, the Dick Twardzik bio ("Bouncing with Bartok") also is one I more or less read from start to finish in one go (though there are some who do not seem to agree with some of the author's conclusions about this or that detail).

Edited by Big Beat Steve

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Without doubt, Shapiro and Hentoff's Hear Me Talkin' to Ya is the best jazz book I've read.

I'm currently battling my way through George T. Simon's The Big Bands, which isn't as interesting as I hoped. I was expecting something more like Stanley Dance's "The World of ..." series. Simon just brushes the surface, and his writing isn't very good. I picked up a few things I had not heard before, but I'm thinking of giving up and starting another book. Maybe Lomax's "Mr Jellyroll".

The "The World of ..." series is pretty good. I've also enjoyed Gunther Schuller's scholarly Early Jazz and The Swing Era.

For more anecdotes, Eddie Condon's We Called It Music is hard to beat.

Other things I recently read and liked: Nicholson's Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington and Goggin's Turk Murphy: Just for the Record (I live near SF, so this is locally interesting to me, too).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

For more anecdotes, Eddie Condon's We Called It Music is hard to beat.

Yes I forgot that one. It is a VERY good read indeed. And if you read that and want to SEE what you are reading about in there, try to get hold of his "Scrapbook of Jazz" which will give you the picture (literally) spotted liberally with typically Condonish captions. ;)

BTW, I did not find George T. Simon's "The Big Bands" that dull at all. it really needs to be taken and used as a work of REFERENCE on the individual bands and band leaders, not a sequence of short biographies in the strictest sense of the word.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

IMO it also depends above all on which musicians are among your jazz listening favorites. If the musician is one you take a particular interest in and if the bio is any good then you will devour it anyway. OTOH, no matter how great a bio is, if the musician featured in that bio is one that is not in your main center of interest you will probably not get THAT much out of it.

This is sound advice and I agree. I'm also interested, though, in jazz biographies which are great reads in themselves, even transcending the jazz context. For example, I've seen Art Pepper's Straight Life recommended in a non-jazz context as a compelling biography. I think the Morton book had something of that status, too, though it's decades since I read it.

Edited by BillF

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I just finished:

jade.jpg

There's lots of information about LaFaro, that I didn't know about. That's good even though It may have benefited with some additional editing.

Here's one that's not mention enough, but not a biography:

7120788.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If you check out the recent (voluminous) threads about the bios of Fats Navarro and Thelonious Monk you will see that not any but MANY of those around here read jazz musician bios. ;)

My own copy of the Fats Navarro bio arrived yesterday, and I've absorbed my bit of bios of jazz and jazz-related artists through the years mself. Starting out with Ross Russell's Charlie Parker bio in my very young collecting days, and followed later on by the autobios of Count Basie, Charlie Barnet and Terry Gibbs, plus bios on Woody Herman, Dexter Gordon, another one on Bird, then Lester Young, Tommy Dorsey, Kenny Clarke, Hal Singer, Dick Twardzik, Louis Jordan, plus others on the fringe of jazz such as Muddy Waters, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Bob Wills, Pee Wee King, Milton Brown, Big Jay McNeely, Wynonie Haris, etc. And no doubt others will follow in due course.

But one word of caution (though maybe I'm stating the obvious): Don't reduce your "learning" about jazz to jazzmen biographies. Books on specific aspects of jazz (such as those on Kansas City Jazz, West Coast Jazz, 52nd Street, Bebop, or Ira Gitler's "Swing to Bop", "Jazz Away From Home" about jazz expatriates, etc.) will give you FAR more about the broader picture. Artist bios IMHO are more the icing on the cake.

BTW, what's that book by Mike Zwerin you are referring to?

Steve -- you've certainly read some interesting books! I totally agree about not just reading biographies. Over the years I've read books like "Honker's & Shouters" by Arnold Shaw, the ultimate reference to jump style jazz & blues, as well as "Rhythm & Blues" by John Broven, "Central Ave Sounds" -- the best introduction to Central Ave jazz, blues and R&B in LA plus several books about Kansas City & New Orleans jazz. Last year I read George Lewis's giant book about the AACM. My interests are broad to say the least! I am particularly fond of the more obscure biographies by maybe lesser known cats (Doc Cheatham, W.O. Smith, Clyde Bernhardt, Louis Smith, Danny Barker, Cousin Joe, etc). Swing era guys seem to my favorites but not exclusively.

Currently I am reading "The Parisian Jazz Chronicles" by Mike Zwerin (Yale University Press).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Steve -- you've certainly read some interesting books! I totally agree about not just reading biographies. Over the years I've read books like "Honker's & Shouters" by Arnold Shaw, the ultimate reference to jump style jazz & blues, as well as "Rhythm & Blues" by John Broven, "Central Ave Sounds" -- the best introduction to Central Ave jazz, blues and R&B in LA plus several books about Kansas City & New Orleans jazz. Last year I read George Lewis's giant book about the AACM. My interests are broad to say the least! I am particularly fond of the more obscure biographies by maybe lesser known cats (Doc Cheatham, W.O. Smith, Clyde Bernhardt, Louis Smith, Danny Barker, Cousin Joe, etc). Swing era guys seem to my favorites but not exclusively.

Currently I am reading "The Parisian Jazz Chronicles" by Mike Zwerin (Yale University Press).

Well, I feel I have only touched the tip of the icebeg. Of the biographies of lesser known musicians you mention, I feel the one on Danny Barker would be #1 for me right now - but who knows ...

I've read "Honkers & Shouters" as well as John Broven's "Rhythm & Blues" too and agree with your comments (BTW, if you liked the subject of John Broven's book, also check out "I Hear You Knocking" by Jeff Hannusch aka Almost Slim).

As for "Central Avenue Sounds", I bought this a couple of months ago and had high hopes for this but (sorry to say) put it aside about halfway through - for the time being at least. The book certainly is not bad but IMO the basic idea of presenting history by way of oral narratives works far better in "Hear Me Talking To Ya" and also in Ira Gitler's "Swing To Bop". IMHO "Central Avenue Sounds" could have benefited from a slightly different selection of the interviewees that made it into print (I understand there is a HUGE LOT more oral history on tape in the archives - there is another thread herre where this is detailed). E.g. interviewing all three Woodman brothers who essentially repeat the same thing from only slightly different angles is a bit wearying. The way it is the reader really has to search for the actual info on Central Avenue here and there and to and fro throughout the book and is all is a bit overly loose. Another aspect is that this book probably was written WAY too late. It ought to have been written in the 70s (or 80s at the latest) when a lot more Central Avenue "survivors" still were around to provide THEIR oral input.

But well ... I can always get back to that book again later (and definitely will).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

oral history is problematic, and something of a lazy-writer's technique, I think - it definitely takes a lot more work to view statements and events critically (as in, Did they actually happen this way?). On the other hand, Gitler's book is fascinating; Jazz Masters of the 1940s is essentially the same thing, he just added some transitional paragraphs.

Also, Nathan Pearson's oral history on KC is excellent.

Edited by AllenLowe

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That would be this one ...

http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catal...0252013362.html

Actually I was thinking of that one as another example of how to make oral histories work.

I read this book with great interest in the 90s (time to dig it out again) and a couple of years later got a secondhand copy of Ross Russell's book on Kansas City jazz too (to finally make up for the fact that I had missed out on it in the late 70s).

I find both books complement each other well as their appraches are quite different. But how would you - and others - make the comparison?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I haven't read Russell's KC book but, based on his Charlie Parker bio, which was largely made up (Howard McGhee:"none of that stuff happened;" Curley Russell: "he made it up. I was there") I would go with Pearson's book, which is well organized. He also interviewed the right musicians.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes, having gradually become aware of the grain of salt that RR's Bird bio needs to be taken with, I had my apprehensions too but as far as I can judge he does not go that overboard in the way he captures the essence of the bands he describes. At any rate I felt he did manage to make the music come alive in his lines.

And his book and Pearson's are different enough in their approches so they do not really duplicate each other IMO.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

there's also a more recent book by Frank Driggs - I haven't read it, though.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

there's also a more recent book by Frank Driggs - I haven't read it, though.

I think it's called, "I have taken pictures"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

...from Chris Albertson...

and refused to give them back -

<_<

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Why was I half expecting an exchange like this? :lol:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Because that rare shot of the Weintraub Syncopators in Tahiti is nowhere to be found?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

all this aside, Chris, since I've never read any of his stuff - how is Driggs' research and writing?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Don't have the info in front of me, but Dan Morgenstern has expounded at length on the numerous fabulations in both Ross Russell's Bird bio and his book on KC jazz.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm not surprised - the one time I met Howard McGhee he nearly went into a rage over the Bird book - kept saying, "I was there when this happened and it didn't happen that way." Everybody I knew who was associated with Bird - Curley, Haig, even Tommy Potter, as I recall, remarked that they never talked to Russell and that they regarded the book as fiction. It's really shameful.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.