Classical Jazz Riffs for Readers
FRANKIE NEWTON was an eloquent trumpet player whose reputation lingers among the remaining few who heard him in Boston, Harlem, or the rest of the jazz world. His name was taken, though definitely not in vain, by a distinguished British historian who assumed the byline "Francis Newton" to write about jazz without blowing his professional cover. The historian, Eric Hobsbawm, eventually did go public, and now we all have the pleasure of an updated, expanded version of his book "The Jazz Scene," whose origi ns go back more than three decades.
At that time, Hobsbawm-Newton was already drawing on years of the most attentive listening. So the total now is perhaps six decades distilled in the unique manner of an abject jazz fan who sees his subject, good and bad, in the full economic, social, and political perspective of a historian. He is also a supple writer who is always throwing out lifelines of analogy or metaphor to readers who want to inquire what jazz is but feel rebuked by Louis Armstrong's classic reply: "Man, if you gotta ask you'll ne ver know." Examples: "Every jazz musician is forced to become a sort of nightly poet laureate, who guarantees a supply of odes on fixed dates and occasions." "A sung blues is ... an aesthetic whole as unplanned and coherent as an old-fashioned small-town square."
O sample "The Jazz Scene" along with another outstanding book of the season, "The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP & Cassette," is to recall how often Britain's writers have swung to the beat of the Colonies' chief original art form. Perhaps the French got there first, with Hugues Panassie and later Andre Hodeir refining the craft of jazz criticism.
But pillars of American jazz commentary like Leonard Feather and Stanley Dance migrated to the source from Britain. Biographies of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis came from Britons Derek Jewell and Ian Carr, respectively. And Brian Rust, of Britain's Original Barnstormers Spasm Band, put together those monumental two-volume, fanatically detailed discographies of jazz bands and American dance bands up to 1942.
The Penguin writers are Londoners Richard Cook, who heard Jelly Roll Morton's "Doctor Jazz" in his youth, "and that was that"; and Brian Morton, who grew up in Dunoon, "a kind of New Orleans-on-Clyde, where jazz was invented by his ancestor, Jam Roll Morton, in 1745."
As you may surmise from these authors' notes, they wear their learning lightly in this doorstopper of a book, which attempts no less than to be a comprehensive critical guide to recorded jazz from its beginnings to now. It even searches out the extant recordings of Hobsbawm's Frankie Newton, whose "quirky lyricism and sudden bursts of heat make him exhilaratingly hard to predict."
A spot check found that nobody's perfect. The incisive entry on "third stream" pianist Ran Blake of the New England Conservatory of Music implies that the conservatory's long-gone president Gunther Schuller (whose own books on jazz are essential) is still there. Erroll Garner is spelled with one "l," for crying out loud. And would anyone ever look for the blithely humorist singer-pianist Dave Frishberg under David Frishberg?
But Cook and Morton are comprehensive, and their extensive comments on the recordings are briskly critical, quick to note when a sacred cow stumbles or a lesser light shines - and to evaluate the technical sound quality as well as the music. Like Fowler's "Modern English Usage," this is one of those rare reference books that are a delight to read.
The authors go out on a limb with rankings of records from one star ("... a severe disservice to the listener") to four stars ("... demands a place in any comprehensive collection"). Five stars is for a few records of "desert-island calibre." Another spot check: Charlie Parker gets several fives, Duke Ellington gets two, and others go to Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Sonny Rollins, and J. J. Johnson. But no fives go to such giants as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Benny Good man.
CLARINETIST Goodman is the subject of the season's big jazz biography, Ross Firestone's "Swing, Swing, Swing." Its title echoes the Goodman band's signature number, "Sing, Sing, Sing," from the days of drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Harry James, who would soon go on with bands of their own. Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson also played for Goodman, a pioneer in putting black musicians on the same stage with whites. "And he didn't grandstand about it," said Hampton. Goodman was truly color-blind, as he proved by being equally rude to black and white players, said another musician.
Certainly the Goodman with the glare of disapproval that musicians called "the Ray" is here. And the author notes many episodes of a strong ego elbowing other egos aside. But the book puts a dedicated musician in a vivid context, whether he's jamming with the king of Thailand ("He was quite a good player, considering his rank," said Benny), learning a new way to play from classical clarinetist Reginald Kell, rehearsing at Carnegie Hall in the morning because he loved the acoustics, or being a fond parent
to his daughters. I only missed the moment reported to me by way of a friend of the family: Goodman put on one of his records before some guests and benignly asked four-year-old Rachel, "Who is playing the clarinet?" She looked up mischievously and said, "Artie Shaw" (Goodman's chief competitor at the time).
AT the other end of the reed chain from Goodman's limpid tonality is Ornette Coleman, the shrieking saxophonist who remembers such jokes as the one about the waiter dropping a tray of dishes while the customer says, "Listen, dear, Ornette's playing our favorite song!" - and who won the first Guggenheim fellowship for jazz composition. The title of John Litweiler's "Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life" refers to the "free jazz" that Coleman based "on the melodic lines rather than [as in most jazz improvisa tions] the chord structure of a composition." This is a densely packed work for the committed reader willing to trace the vision of the man who met cosmic thinker Buckminster Fuller and recalled: "He manipulated the model [of the tetrahedron], turned it inside out, made it dance - but the corners never touched. I said to myself, `that's just like my music.' "