By Jonathan Leal

Duke University Press. 238 pages. $22.99. ISBN 978-1-4780-2075-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Jonathan Leal’s grandfather played saxophone : “From its curves once bloomed laconic wind band pieces, local upbeat Tejano classics, buttoned-up swing favourites,  - and, notably, energetic, earnest attempts at conversing with an iconoclastic Black sound forged after hours in Harlem nightclubs thousands of miles from the heat mirages of the Rio Grande, made local through ink and vinyl and rumour and report, rendered audible through records pressed and sold and spun and later stored away : Charlie Parker with Strings, Charlie Parker and Machito’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, Charlie Parker and Dizzy  Gillespie’s Bird and Diz”.

That one long sentence in a way sums up the overall theme of Leal’s book – how the sounds of bebop cut across racial barriers and shaped the lives, musical and otherwise, of numerous young people in the United States. It would be wrong to claim that bebop was ever a widely-popular music. Black listeners often preferred the sounds of rhythm-and-blues, white audiences listened to the pop music of the day, country-and-western, and folk music. But what Leal is aiming at is to demonstrate that bebop had an appeal to some people who, because of their ethnicity, might have been expected to turn to music more-associated with their backgrounds. He focuses on three examples to illustrate his case.

James T. Araki, born 1926, was of Japanese-American descent, Raúl R. Salinas, born 1934, was Mexican-American, and Harold Wing, born 1927, was Afro-Chinese-American by birth. Two of them – Araki and Wing – were musicians, Salinas wasn’t, but nevertheless became heavily involved with bebop in one way or another. It is probably obvious from Leal’s comments about his grandfather that his own background is Mexican-American. 

James T. Araki was born in the United States in 1926, both his parents being Japanese-American. He recalled listening to records, presumably of jazz and popular music, from around 1939, and by the time he was in high school was proficient enough at the piano, and also the clarinet, to play with the Gila River Dance Band, which seems to have been linked to the Gila River Location Centre where Araki and his family had been moved to when war with Japan started in 1941. Internment, with its assumption that anyone with Japanese connections was likely to be disloyal, was something that he naturally felt bitter about. When, later, Japanese-Americans were conscripted, Araki was posted to Japan to act as an interpreter. It was around this time, 1945, that “he heard a new music being played by black radical artists”.

Jazz became popular in Japan following the arrival of the American Occupation Forces, and Araki is credited with having been a prime influence on local musicians. He disguised himself as a Japanese civilian and played at the Club Esquire in Tokyo, which was off-limits to American soldiers.  He also recorded several tracks with Japanese musicians, one of which, “Jimmy’s Bop”, pointed to a mixture of swing and bebop, as if they hadn’t quite worked out how to make the transition to the new sounds. It can be located on YouTube.

When he returned to California he worked in clubs in the Los Angeles area, and was invited to join the Lionel Hampton orchestra. He did record with it in 1955 but turned down the chance of touring Europe with Hampton. Arika had decided that his time in Japan had provided opportunities to study “Japanese cultural history and literature”, and that these subjects were going to be his main areas of activity. This isn’t the place to go into details about his academic career, but suffice to say that he eventually became a Professor at Hawaii University and the author of several books on aspects of Japanese culture.  He died in 1991.

We are in a different world when we look at the life of Raúl Salinas, though bebop still played a major role in it. He was born in Austin, Texas, in 1934 and moved to California in the early-1950s when he appeared before a juvenile court and was given the option of either joining the army or leaving town. He was already deeply involved with bebop as a listener and “thoroughly steeped” in the music of Pancho Hagood, Babs Gonzales, Joe Albany, Jimmy Raney, Joe Farlow, Red Rodney, and others that Leal names. I think he means Tal Farlow when he says Joe, but that’s a minor point.

What I find interesting about the list, which has twenty names, is that eight of the musicians were white. I mention this not to dispute Leal’s accurate assertion that bebop was initially spawned out of the black American experience, but to indicate that, by the early-1950s, someone like Salinas would have been listening to both black and white musicians. In fact, there’s ample recorded evidence to show that, from the mid-1940s, white jazzmen were playing significant roles in bebop.  Drummer Stan Levey and pianist George Wallington are two names that immediately come to mind.

At some point Salinas became involved with drugs. Leal doesn’t tell us how and why this came about. Was it because of his interest in bebop? Did he feel that in order to understand it he had to follow the example of many of the musicians and use drugs?  Leal is sharp on white critics who, he says, placed too much emphasis on drug use among bop musicians. But it was a fact that drugs were rife in the bebop world of the late-1940s and early-1950s. Salinas himself is quoted as saying that when he met Harold “Chink” Williams, who was then the drummer with trombonist Benny Green’s band, “we rapped and we got high, I guess by then I was sort of a bag man for musicians passing through”.

It was probably inevitable that Salinas would end up in prison, especially because he had gravitated from being a heroin user to being both an addict and a dealer. But it was while he was in prison that he became radicalised, reading “Franz Fanon, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and Malcolm X”. And he began to write poetry to express his social and political opinions and construct a record of his own experiences. Leal provides some useful analyses of the poems, though reading the excerpts he uses it does occur to me that hearing Salinas reciting them would bring out more of their effect. It isn’t always obvious on the page. They are quite clearly declamatory in construction, and records do exist of Salinas performing them. Leal refers to the Beats, who were in the 1950s making something of an impression. He rightly points out that the largely white Beat experience (Bob Kaufman was a black exception on the West Coast) didn’t really mean a lot to a Mexican-American like Salinas who had suffered the prejudices and problems that someone of his class and racial background frequently came up against.

Salinas died in 2008. Leal has a few lines which, in their way, might be a kind of obituary: “I find myself reflecting on how, for Salinas and others, the numbing sameness of prison pain was offset by close listening and creative writing, both of which unlocked the significance of old episodes and provided difference, texture and direction amid the thousands of missed sunrises”. And he quotes a line from “A Trip through the Mind Jail”, a key Salinas poem: “Somewhere, someone remembers”.

Harold Wing is the one name of the three covered by Leal that I knew before reading his book. I have a CD of him on drums with a Paul Quinichette group at a 1954 recording session. And I knew of his work with pianist Erroll Garner’s Trio in the 1950s. Leal mentions two recording sessions in 1950 at which Wing was present. I must admit that, based on information in an old discography I have, I’d always assumed the drummer was Harold “Doc” West. Leal gives information indicating that it was Wing. It’s a sign of how musicians had to adapt in order to earn a living that Wing was also in the rhythm section at a couple of 1949 recording sessions by the rhythm-and-blues singer, Joe “Mr Google-Eyes” August.

Wing was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1927, and because of his background (father Chinese-American, mother African-American) was nicknamed “Chink”, something that wouldn’t be acceptable now. But, as the saxophonist James Moody said, “We called him Chink. That was his name”.       There’s a poster reproduced in the book which advertises an appearance by Charlie Parker at The Blue Mirror in Newark with the drummer shown as Chink Williams. Recording dates don’t tell the whole story, and Wing played club dates and one-nighters with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Bud Powell. It was at those engagements that Wing would have been able to express himself and utilise the bebop style of drumming which incorporated a looser and more-flexible approach than had previously been practised. Leal says that “Wing’s understanding of what it meant to create art was deeply connected to the idea that bebop was a racialized countermodernist art music”.

There is a reference to Wing at some point having “suffered from addiction”, and among his compositions was a piece called “Consequences of a Drug Addict Role” which was recorded by pianist and singer Shirley Horn in 1972. Leal describes it as “an experimental prose and sound poem that offers reflections on the temptations and destructions of drug use, on the relief and empowerment drugs promise and the strife and death they frequently deliver”.

By 1972 Wing had been working for several years for the City of Newark as ”music director for the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs”. The city was attempting to revitalise itself after some rioting (known as “the Newark Rebellion”) in 1967.   Leal says that “Working for the city with access to city resources , including funds and infrastructure, Wing and his collaborators were able to provide opportunities for a number of musicians and audiences to think about where Newark might be heading”. And he adds that he collaborated with others to make Newark an “object of glamour, excitement, and curiosity“.  Wing died in the mid-1980s.

Leal’s intentions in his account of how bebop influenced and shaped the lives of three young Americans is not simply to document their activities : “I’ve worked to suggest that by pursuing a newly specified musical idiom and challenging an anti-assimilationist ethos, the musicians of Harlem’s midcentury underground set a striking precedent  for a new  generation, stirring in many a desire to disrupt the standard logic of racial subject formation, to subvert rote and systematic denial of internal complexity, and to reject forced submission to dreams of colonial design”.

Without in any way wanting to challenge Leal’s statement it might be useful to quote what Dizzy Gillespie said: “We never wished to be restricted to just an American context, for we were creators in an art form which grew from universal roots and which had proved it possessed universal appeal”. Obviously, the experiences of young white American listeners would differ from those of young Black Americans or Chinese, Japanese and Mexican-Americans. But bebop did make an impact on white musicians, writers and intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s.

The novelist and poet Gilbert Sorrentino once said, “Bop for me, was the entrance into the general world of culture……when I was 14 culture meant going to the opera and doing your homework every night”. And if I can be allowed to insert my own introduction to bebop in a country distant from its origins, I first heard records by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker around 1950, when I was 14, and they opened my ears to exciting new musical sounds and my mind to the avant-garde in literature and art. Bebop was a liberating factor in my experience and helped show me there was something beyond the habits and activities of the drab industrial town where I grew up.  I don’t think what I’ve said in any way lessens the value of what Leal asserts. It simply points to the power and persuasion of the music.

Dreams in Double Time is a provocative, and sometimes even angry book. Jonathan Leal is out to challenge many assumptions about music, race and freedom. It’s possible to disagree with him at times, though perhaps a little difficult to do so from a distance. I haven’t had Leal’s experiences. or those of his grandfather and the three people he discusses. There are a few factual points worth querying. For example, Leal refers to “the most famous Beats of the late-1940s and early-1950s, self-proclaimed counter-cultural figures including Ross Russell, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady”.

Ross Russell had no links at all to the Beats. A one-time merchant seaman and pulp-fiction writer, he ran a record shop in Hollywood in the mid-1940s which helped spread the word about bebop, and he established Dial, a label which recorded Charlie Parker, Howard McGhee, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Dodo Marmarosa, and others. He wrote a somewhat controversial book about Parker, and another about jazz in Kansas City. His novel, The Sound, about a black trumpeter (though the character is clearly based on Parker) is colourful in its portrayal of the lively musical and social scene in Los Angeles in the 1940s. But the writing style has more to do with Russell’s pulp-fiction background than with any Beat literary intentions.

Leal says that “an attention to minor figures can say major things”, and that’s one of the values of his book. By choosing to focus on James Araki, Raúl Salinas, and Harold Wing, he has highlighted some important questions relating to matters of race, freedom and politics in the United States. And from an artistic point of view he has stressed the importance of black culture in influencing and even shaping the lives of a variety of people. I gained a great deal from reading Dreams in Double Time.