The brilliant entertainer Josephine Baker was among the world’s most celebrated figures of the jazz age, headlining groundbreaking revues during the 1927 Folies Bergere (while costumed in little more than a girdle made of bananas) and challenging racial and gender stereotypes at virtually every step of her career. Her artistry also intensified the discussion of morality and entertainment.
This extended excerpt from Ean Wood’s 2000 biography The Josephine Baker Story looks at the debate surrounding this issue that took place in Austria during her 1928 tour. The fascinating story — featuring economics, politics and religion — is a reminder of the complexity of the time in which she lived, and ends with a wonderfully ironic punchline.
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In Martin Torgoff’s brilliant new book Bop Apocalypse — an extensive exploration of the connections of jazz, literature and drugs, and how drugs impacted the lives and work of people like Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, Lester Young, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg — Torgoff devotes a chapter to Billie Holiday’s struggle with drug abuse, and the public airing of it when her 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues was published.
While her book had errors that have since caused critics and biographers to cast doubt on the book’s veracity, as Torgoff writes, in many respects, “the book is remarkably frank about her early years in Baltimore and her time as a prostitute. It is also replete with information about her
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The 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is remembered for its meltdown of Benny Goodman’s band, a Saturday night show featuring rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry, and, of course, the full-length documentary film that covered many of the festival’s terrific moments. Jazz on a Summer’s Day was intended to be a short film but filmmaker Bert Stern shot so much footage that it wasn’t released until 1960. In this excerpt from
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Having just been released from serving a ten month drug related prison sentence at Terminal Island, the distinctive alto saxophonist Art Pepper re-entered the Los Angeles jazz scene in 1956 – still undeniably talented and hopelessly drug-addicted. His first gig upon his release was on June 29 in Malibu at Paul Nero’s The Cottage, and he also played with tenor Jack Montrose at the Angel Room in South Central. “I was doing well,” Pepper wrote in his classic autobiography, Straight Life, “but I was goofing, and I was really getting strung out.” On this photo session, taken by […] Continue reading »
In 1956, shortly after recording Songs for Swingin’ Lovers — which included the ultimate Frank Sinatra tune, Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — Sinatra’s career was white-hot. His record contract with Capitol was up for renegotiation, which posed a financial challenge for Capitol, who competed with other labels, particularly RCA, for Sinatra’s services. “When we took him on two and half years ago, Frank couldn’t get a record,” Capitol executive Alan Livingston told Downbeat. “Now, every company in the business is after him.”
After signing Sinatra to a seven-year contract that carried an annual guarantee of $200,000, Sinatra biographer James Kaplan writes that he had a “virtual carte blanche to record whatever he pleased. The suits were happy enough with their star to grant him an indulgence or two, and the first was […] Continue reading »
In November, 1946, at the height of his popularity, Dizzy Gillespie took his big band out on the road, and in 1947 hired Ella Fitzgerald to tour the South. According to Ella’s biographer Stuart Nicholson, she had been added to this tour in response to Gillespie’s Hepsations tour in 1945, whose groundbreaking sound “had confused and confounded the southerners,” and because Ella could “create balance after the unrelieved diet of bop…The Gillespie band saw Ella as a former swing era star, light-years removed from what they were doing, a palliative to help their music go down with the public.”
Even with Ella, however, things could be challenging. The audience would “listen, stand around and applaud,” band member Howard Johnson said,” and try and pretend they dug it. I think they appreciated the artistry of Dizzy because […] Continue reading »
One of the iconic images of jazz — Chet Baker and wife Halema — is a shot taken by William Claxton during a photo session for the cover of a Pacific Jazz anthology album called The Blues. It was a time of brilliant artistry for Baker, and of course rampant and destructive drug abuse.
A story of their relationship and of this photo session, as told in this book excerpt from James Gavin’s Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker begins with the dark, drug-caused decline of the band Baker played with at the time — Phil Urso, Peter Littman, Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Bond and Bill Loughbrough — who had most recently recorded the album […] Continue reading »
In 1960, Eric Dolphy told Down Beat magazine, “At home I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds.” This imitation of birds (who, according to Dolphy, sing in “quarter tones”) was embraced by none other than John Coltrane, who said that the addition of Dolphy — and his philosophy — to his quartet “turned [the quartet] all around.” Dolphy’s playing helped set the stage for the music Coltrane would create later.
Also critical was their friendship, which was especially important to Coltrane since he was so consumed at the time by his alcohol and heroin abuse. Quoting a Coltrane friend, John Fraim writes in his 1996 biography Spirit Catcher: The Life and Art of John Coltrane that “outside of Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy was his [Coltrane’s] only true […] Continue reading »
The Five Spot Café, a club located in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood, was the site of a six month gig for the quartet of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, drummer Shadow Wilson, and bassist Wilbur Ware. This engagement — coming on the heels of Monk’s cabaret card reinstatement — marked the merging of two of the most original voices in American music, Monk and Coltrane, in a space where cheap beer and good music attracted some of the city’s most influential artists and writers. Regulars included Larry Rivers, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg.
In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, author Robin D.G. Kelley quotes Five Spot co-owner Joe Termini remembering the impact Monk’s quartet had on his club: “Once we hired Monk, all of a sudden the place was crowded every night. And frankly, in the beginning, I just didn’t understand any of it.” […] Continue reading »
From his autobiography, Miles Davis recalls his experience meeting and playing with the recently deceased pianist Horace Silver in 1954, a point in time following Miles kicking heroin. Silver played on Rudy Van Gelder-engineered recording sessions with Miles at the time of this Alfred Lion photograph that were released on Miles Davis Volume 3 for Blue Note, and Miles Davis Quartet for Prestige.
The scene in New York had changed since I’d been gone. The MJQ — Modern Jazz Quartet — was big on the music scene then; the kind of “cool” chamber jazz thing they were doing was getting over big. People were still talking about Chet Baker and Lennie Tristano and George Shearing, all that stuff that came out of Birth of the Cool. Dizzy was still playing great as ever, but Bird was […] Continue reading »