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MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES by Peter Vacher
Five Leaves Publications. 314 pages. 14.99. ISBN 978-1-907869-48-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

 

Sixty and more years ago, when I first started to listen to jazz, there were few books on the subject easily available. I remember getting hold of a copy of Leonard Feather's Inside Be-Bop and carrying it around like a bible during my army days in Germany. There were one or two jazz magazines like Jazz Journal, and weekly publications such as the Melody Maker did carry a reasonable amount of jazz coverage in the form of record reviews and short articles about individual musicians. I've still got an old grammar school exercise book from 1952 in which I pasted cuttings from the Melody Maker, and another one, liberated from the unit office, that I similarly used as a scrapbook. I had to hide it during inspections as it was a chargeable offence to take army property for one's own use.

The situation with printed material did improve and, for some of us, there was a happy period when several jazz magazines were published in Britain and it was easier to obtain American publications like Metronome and Down Beat. The number of books increased, too, and there was even a jazz book club.

It's probably true to say that books about jazz have continued to appear, but that the magazines have mostly disappeared and information about jazz in popular music publications is now non-existent. What has happened is that the audience for jazz has declined, and the fact of the music now being almost completely divorced from popular entertainment has meant that few younger people encounter it and if they do they often don't like it. I'm not sure that most people, young or old, ever did like jazz. They might have accepted short solos in a big-band context or as a brief interlude in a vocal performance, but extended solos bored them. There were times when a few major soloists might have achieved some fame or notoriety, and a particular group might have had a record that attracted attention outside a jazz context. But jazz as an art music never did command a wide audience.

Many of the books about jazz now being published come from academic presses and offer fairly specialised analyses of individual musicians' careers or surveys of specific periods of jazz history. I'm not criticising such books and my own shelves contain many of them. Some important work has been done by writers who have produced in-depth accounts of the lives and music of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and others. And there have been astute investigations of the so-called "be-bop revolution," with all its musical and social ramifications. The examples I'm using will indicate where my own interests are mostly based. As I said, I value these books, though there are moments when they seem a bit distant from the feeling or mood of the  music, and I find myself almost returning to those old magazines, my scrapbooks with their faded cuttings, and that copy of Inside Be-Bop to revive something of that sense of urgency and excitement that first drew my attention to the records I heard. Or to interviews with musicians. Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop, which is largely constructed around reminiscences by people active in the 1940s, always gives me a better idea of the period than any amount of musical analysis or critical judgement in other books on the subject.

All the above observations were triggered by reading Peter Vacher's excellent Mixed Messages. In his introductory comments he points out that there are now few, if any, regular outlets for lengthy interviews, and he wryly remarks that he's "been in at the death of more jazz periodicals than is wholly decent." He also says that the best interviews can offer alternative accounts of jazz history and developments. It's an inescapable fact that a lot of jazz writing revolves around recorded evidence, and some books often appear to be little more than extended record reviews interspersed with sparse details of a musician's life. An interview, on the other hand, can bring out much more in terms of showing what the person concerned did in between recording sessions. And quite a few jazzmen didn't record all that much, even though they may have had long and active careers.

There is a particularly informative interview with bassist Norman Keenan, not someone likely to be known to a great number of jazz fans. Born in 1916, he, like so many musicians who started out in the 1930s and 1940s, got a lot of his musical education on the road. Keenan joined the Tiny Bradshaw band when he was 18 or 19: "We were a bunch of very young men on the road. We went down South, playing the old dance places, the old tobacco barns. We had a few bad days when the promoters ran away with the money." He went on to refer to the strict segregation, and the general ups and downs of touring to towns where hotel accommodation for blacks was non-existent and restaurants served whites only.

I could carry on quoting from Keenan because his career took him into bands led by Lucky Millinder, Cootie Williams, Earl Bostic, and Count Basie. What is intriguing is that he mentions many other musicians, now long-forgotten, and adds little asides that do more than place them in a particular group. Keenan met a pianist called Allen Tinney who was around in the very early days of bop, but who later dropped out of the jazz scene and turned to commercial music. I recall reading that Tinney, returning from army service, was shocked by the prevalence of drug use among the boppers and decided that he wanted no part of that kind of life.

An interview with Gerald Wilson is instructive about his activities as a trumpeter, bandleader, and arranger. Wilson started working with bands in the 1930s, but it was in the post-1945 period that he began to make a name for himself in California. He had his own big-band and was aware of the new trends in jazz. Wilson's band recorded a version of Groovin' High, and he claims that "When you play it now you can see how far ahead we were." He also mentions a number of long-forgotten musicians, such as trumpeter Karl George who spent time in the Stan Kenton and Count Basie orchestras and made a few records under his own name for small labels on the West Coast. George additionally worked with rhythm'n'blues groups, which is an indicator of how musical styles mixed at that time and also shows how musicians took whatever jobs were available in order to earn some money.

I'm in danger of picking out interviews, and the comments in them, that touch on my own tastes for the modern sounds of the late-1940s and early-1950s. But the interviews with Louis Nelson, long associated with New Orleans jazz, and Ruby Braff, who I suppose can be described as a mainstream player, cover other territory. Braff throws out provocative comments like confetti, and can often be quite funny. Talking about  attempts to persuade him to give up jazz, he says he was asked, "Do you want to be in a life that has wild women, gambling, smoking, drinking and music?" and replied, "Oh boy, you just said the magic words." He's not impressed by musicians who criticise audiences for not paying attention and adds: "I like audiences. If they're not attentive, it's my fault, not theirs. There are no bad audiences, just bad performances."

It's inevitable when comparatively younger players are interviewed that there are complaints about the difficulties linked to making a living playing jazz. Not that it was necessarily any easier for the older jazzmen, though they could perhaps find employment with a big-band or with small groups which had an inclination towards jazz. Saxophonist Lanny Morgan points to the lack of outlets for jazz in Los Angeles, once a key centre for it, and he says, "There's really no place for big bands anymore, except every once in a while." In New York trumpeter John Eckart talks about recording jingles and taking jobs with "swing bands that play for dancing," as well as working in groups hired for weddings and similar occasions. I suppose it's true to say that many jazzmen have always had to accept commercial work to get by. Weddings, backing strippers in sleazy clubs, studio sessions(well-paid if not always stimulating), pit orchestras, etc. It's probably harder now, though, to find a variety of ways to earn a living.

There are stories about the eccentrics among musicians and the unreliability of others. Bassist Rufus Reid remembers touring with Dexter Gordon and says that the tenor saxophonist was "so laid back it began to take its toll." Gordon drank heavily, and a concert in Poland was a disaster when he "got a bottle and cracked it on the bus before we even got to the hotel so that was that." Lanny Morgan first went on the road in a band led by Charlie Barnet, who he describes as combining "a whole-hearted commitment to the music with a hell-raiser's life-style." Later, Morgan was in a band that pianist Ike Carpenter formed. Carpenter was "very forgettable as a player," but "quite a drinker." Trumpeter Bill Berry worked in Woody Herman's band with trombonist Bill Harris whose odd habits caused Berry to think that he was "nuts but a great player." Berry, incidentally, was a studio musician for 15 years, "but always made sure that I played jazz at nights because studio music isn't really music." The pay is good but it doesn't allow for any individuality.

There are accounts of problems with prejudice of various kinds. Obviously, blacks suffered a great deal, especially when they toured in the South. But women often had a hard time making their way in jazz. The singer/pianist Judy Carmichael, white and middle-class, tells how the noted white impresario John Hammond was disconcerted and "quite put out when he realised that she was not African-American." She was adept at playing stride piano, a style usually associated with larger-than-life black male performers. There was also an abrasive encounter with pianist Dick Wellstood, though Carmichael thinks that alcohol may have been the cause of his hostility towards her. She says that, on the whole, black musicians were friendlier and more helpful.

My test of a book about jazz is whether or not it makes me want to hear the music. This one does.