“Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?”

While the civil rights movement may not have officially begun until the December, 1955 day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, the stage for it was set years before that.  Religious leaders and institutions, jazz and athletics all famously played important roles in building a foundation for the movement,

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September 24th, 2018

“Jazz is too good for Americans!”

Being disgusted with Congress is, of course, nothing new…In an excerpt from Dizzy Gillespie’s 1979 autobiography (written with Al Fraser) to BE, or not . . . to BOP, Dizzy reminds us of the thick-headed politicians of 1957 who questioned the “exorbitant” fees paid to him and his band during their 1956 State Department-sponsored tour of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe and South America.

In this excerpt — from a chapter titled “Higher Than Ike” —  Dizzy cynically writes about the “thanks” he received from members of Congress following the tour, as well as the controversy concerning his

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August 30th, 2018

We can learn from how jazz musicians communicate

From Wynton Marsalis’ 2008 book Moving to Higher Ground:  How Jazz Can Change Your Life comes another example of how humanity (and even the world of politics) can learn from how jazz musicians communicate…

 

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At [age] 12, I began listening to John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, and Freddie Hubbard.  Just by paying serious attention to these musicians every day, I came to realize that each musician opens a chamber in the very center of his being and expresses that center in the uniqueness of his sound.  The sound of a master musician is as personalized and distinct as the sound of a person’s voice.  After that basic realization, I focused on

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August 3rd, 2018

“War Comes to 52d St.”

     In Arnold Shaw’s biography of New York’s 52nd Street, 52nd Street:  The Street of Jazz, he devotes an entire chapter to the impact World War II had on “The Street,” its musicians, and ultimately on American society.  

     “…World War II came to 52d St.,” Shaw writes, “bringing not only a curfew, entertainment tax, rationing and an influx of sailors and soldiers on leave, but a rash of striptease joints, tab padding and other sharp practices, fistfights and sluggings, racial conflict, and even attacks on

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May 9th, 2018

“The girl in Bennett’s who knows about jazz” — a story about Elvis Costello’s mother (and the smuggling of Lennie Tristano recordings!)

     On a whim I recently picked up the rock musician Elvis Costello’s 2015 biography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, a strange and (as far as I can tell — only 100 pages into it) occasionally brilliant reflection on his life.  

     Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus in 1954, began his career in London’s pub scene before becoming an important contributor to the British punk and new wave movement of the mid-1970’s.  Long a darling of rock critics, Costello was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, and is known to contemporary jazz fans as the husband to popular pianist/singer Diana Krall.

    The following excerpt from the book is a colorful story of Costello’s mother Lillian’s employment as a clerk in the record departments of two Liverpool retailers — first, Rushworth & Dreaper (a renowned seller of musical instruments), and three years later, Bennett’s, a smaller shop that catered to musicians.  Along the way, you will discover how

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March 29th, 2018

Jack Kerouac and the “Beatnik crap” that cheapened the memories of jazz icons

In this short excerpt from David Amram’s 2002 biography Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac,  Kerouac talks with Amram about how the “Beatnik crap” that Kerouac and his friends reluctantly represented was “distorting everything,” and “cheapening the memories of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.”  It is an interesting and entertaining view of that era, filled with the vigor, passion, wit and wisdom Kerouac is remembered for.

 

 

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     In January of 1959, we collaborated with a once-in-a-lifetime group of artists on the film Pull My Daisy.  In addition to appearing in the film as Mezz McGillicudy, the deranged French horn player in the moth-eaten sweater, I composed the entire score for the film and wrote the music for the title song, “Pull My Daisy,” with lyrics by Jack [Kerouac], Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg.

     The idea of making a film based on Jack’s work was easier to

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January 22nd, 2018

Poet Jack Hirschman’s “Rifficals” and memories of Keystone Korner

In an enlightening essay found in Kathy Sloane’s entertaining history of Keystone Korner, the famed ‘70’s – 80’s North Beach San Francisco jazz club, the poet Jack Hirschman writes that “post-World War [II] jazz, abstract expressionism, and what I call field composition in poetry represent for me the trinity of essential American idioms that really are the foundation of not merely my work, but the work of virtually a whole generation of writers and musicians.”  Hirschman writes that he found inspiration for his poetry in the music of Monk (“he was like a poet writing in musical notes”), Charlie Parker and Cecil Taylor (“also a writing poet [who] fills the plane up and all the spaces”) and produced what he called “rifficals,” countless improvisations inspired by jazz that he passed out to the audience at the Keystone.

Like many of us, Hirschman believes jazz is a centerpiece of our cultural history.  “The African American dimension has been a major influence on virtually all the artists in this country,” he writes, “even if people

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August 29th, 2017

How Billie became “Lady Day”

Having just published Arya Jenkins’ excellent new short story “Foolish Love,” in which Billie Holiday’s music plays a central role in the life of the story’s main character, this piece, excerpted from Bill Crow’s 1990 book, Jazz Anecdotes, is a wonderful reminder of how Ms. Holiday became known as “Lady Day.”  The story is set up by Crow and stories about nicknames created by “Prez.”

 

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Lester Young made up names for many of his friends, and everyone used them.  He called Count Basie “The Holy Man,” (shortened by the band to “Holy”) because he was the

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June 9th, 2017

Milt Hinton’s recipe for “Millionaire Meatloaf”

This holiday season, you may want to consider making “Millionaire Meatloaf,” a dish the late, great bass player Milt Hinton and trombonist Tyree Glenn conjured up while touring with Cab Calloway. This story is not only one of food, but also of the culinary creativity required of jazz musicians during a time of segregation, when even getting a meal was a tremendous challenge.

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December 13th, 2016

“Diz for President”

Claiming that his first order of business as president would be changing the name of the White House to the Blues House, Dizzy Gillespie’s run for President in 1964 wasn’t as illogical (or comical) as it seems on the surface. (In fact, given the ignorance of one of our current major party nominees, it is easy to write that Dizzy put much more thought into his vision for the country, and was without question more evolved as a candidate). As election day approaches, it is time to ask ourselves, what better time than today for a candidate whose platform includes disbanding the FBI and giving major foreign ambassadorships to jazz musicians?

In his 1979 autobiography To Be, or not…to Bop, Dizzy devotes an entire chapter to the story of his experience as a candidate for the presidency. The entire

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November 4th, 2016

“Glossary of Jazz Slang” — from Mezz Mezzrow’s 1946 biography, Really the Blues

Really the Blues, the little-known but highly influential autobiographical work by jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow (co-written by Bernard Wolfe), is one man’s account of decades of jazz and American cultural history. The clarinetist’s colorful life – which he described in the 1946 counter-culture classic as having strayed “off the music” which led to his doing “my share of evil” – was adventurous, earthy, and jubilant, and was told not so much as a biography but as a novel that made “the Mezz” a hero with the era’s key counter-culture figures, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Much has been made of Mezzrow’s relationship with Louis Armstrong — he managed Armstrong for a time and dealt much of the “gauge” he craved, and Mezzrow’s reputation for dealing pot was so well known that “Mezz” became slang for marijuana. He is also remembered for his

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October 24th, 2016

From What the Eye Hears — when the connection between jazz music and tap dancing became strained

I have been spending some time recently with an excellent new book, What the Eye Hears — A History of Tap Dancing. Written by New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert, the book — recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in Nonfiction — is an informative, entertaining history of tap dancing, and a reminder of its central role in American popular culture. A particularly interesting part of its history is its relation to jazz music, especially in the vaudeville circuit and in the nightclubs of the early twentieth century.

Regarding this, Seibert wrote in an email to me: “Jazz and tap dancing grew up together. Both came, in W.C. Handy’s words, ‘down the same drain’ of minstrelsy, and origin stories for ragtime include the syncopated stepping of

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March 15th, 2016

Gil Scott-Heron and the influence of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on his life

Yet more evidence demonstrating the influence John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has had on musicians…This book excerpt from Marcus Baram’s excellent biography, Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man demonstrates how Coltrane’s legendary recording “inspired Gil with his mercurial independence in the face of criticism” at a time when the creative artist was contemplating his future as a novelist, poet, musician, and

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May 13th, 2015

Sammy Davis, Jr. and seeking white acceptance in an “independent and assertive way”

This excerpt from cultural historian Gerald Early’s essay from The Sammy Davis Jr Reader is a provocative reminder of Davis’ important role in breaking down racial barriers, and how the racism he faced led to his rebellion against it that was “couched in terms of seeking the acceptance of whites, but seeking

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May 6th, 2015

Live From New York, it’s Saturday Night Live, featuring musical guest…Gil Scott-Heron

Tonight, NBC presents a 40-year anniversary show on Saturday Night Live, which, during that time has presented many cutting-edge (and let’s face it, at times very drab) comedic moments and personalities. While the show is known for its comedy, musical performances have at times made the show staying up past normal bedtime hours a worthwhile option. One of those moments was a December, 1976 SNL hosted by Richard Pryor, who hand-picked his musical guest, the soul/jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron. That memorable appearance is reported on by Marcus Baram in this excerpt from his biography Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man:

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In the fall of 1975, Gil got a call from Richard Pryor, who invited him to be a musical guest on an upcoming episode of Saturday Night Live, which Pryor was going to host in a few weeks. Pryor invited him after hearing a story about Gil that impressed the comic: A few months earlier, Gil had been invited by singer Roberta Flack to perform on

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February 15th, 2015

Johnny Otis on Lester Young and the racism that territory bands encountered

In his 1993 book Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, the jazz and blues musician and impresario Johnny Otis writes primarily about the music scene in Los Angeles during the 40’s and 50’s. Otis — who discovered the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson and Etta James, and who is considered one of the most prominent white figures in the history of R & B — also devotes substantial portions of his book to the toxic white racism so prevalent in American entertainment in the first half of the 20th Century.

The following excerpt — which begins and ends with an homage to Otis friend Lester Young — describes the experience of

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January 26th, 2015

Fletcher Henderson and “Christopher Columbus”

I can’t let Columbus Day go by without paying homage to the Chu Berry/Andy Razaf song that was a “novelty hit” for Fats Waller and the theme song of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Recorded and performed by countless artists from Louis Armstrong to Lawrence Welk, Jeffrey Magee, author of The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, tells the story of the song’s origins, and how it became “another focal point of frustration to those around [Henderson].”

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October 14th, 2014

Hampton Hawes writes about the “dependability” of the piano

I am in the early stages of reading pianist Hampton Hawes’ 1972 autobiography (written with Don Asher) Raise Up Off Me, which Gary Giddins called, in his introduction, “the first book to give an insider’s view of the most provocative and misunderstood movement in jazz — the modernism of the ’40s, bebop.” It is incredibly entertaining and a witty, lucid, and smart read.

In a paragraph representative of the book’s quality, Hawes writes about his respect for and appreciation of his instrument’s dependability:

The piano was the only sure friend I had because it was the only thing that was consistent, always made sense and responded directly to what I did. Pianos don’t ever change. Sittin’ there every day. You wanna play me, here I am. The D is still here, the A flats still here, they’re always going to be there and it don’t matter whether it’s Sunday, Ash Wednesday or the Fourth of July. Play it right and it comes

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October 4th, 2014

Miles Davis on almost playing with Barbara Streisand

From Miles: The Autobiography, Miles Davis recalls an evening that could have had him on stage with a very young Barbra Streisand


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One night we were playing at the Village Vanguard, and the owner Max Gordon wanted me to play behind a singer. So I told him I didn’t play behind no girl singer. But I told him to ask Herbie [Hancock] and if Herbie wanted to do it then it was okay with me. So Herbie, Tony [Williams], and Ron [Carter] played

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September 29th, 2014

Lose weight with the Duke Ellington “simply steak” diet!

In his 1973 autobiography Music is My Mistress, from a chapter titled “The Taste Buds,” Duke Ellington writes about his special diet, losing thirty pounds while on it, and the resulting onstage antics.

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In 1955 my doctor, Arthur Logan, told me I would have to take off twenty-two pounds. I tore up his suggested menu and made one of my own. Mine was simply steak (any amount), grapefruit, and black coffee with a slice of lemon first squeezed and then dropped into it. With the exception of a binge one day a week, I ate as much of this and as often as I please for three months.

When we returned to the New York area, my first date was

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September 20th, 2014

A Journey Into Jazz: Anecdotes, Notes and Photos of a Jazz Fan

Lee Santa, who calls himself “simply a fan of jazz who is also a photographer” and whose life has been “heavily influenced by jazz’s sounds, structures and impressions,” recently reached out to me via email, informing me that Roundbend Press has just released his collection of photographs, A Journey Into Jazz: Anecdotes, Notes and Photos of a Jazz Fan.

Along with his entertaining introduction to the book, Santa sent me several photographs from the book — all of which I have never seen before. For example, there is Ornette Coleman at Berkeley’s Greek Theater in the turbulent year of 1968, Pharoah Sanders at the Village Gate in 1970, Sam Rivers playing outdoors (maybe at the Jazz Festival?) in Portland, 1979, and one of Mose Allison in Seattle in 1988 (about the same time I recall seeing him at a club in Portland).

Santa’s background story is very cool, and is told in his introduction and in Terry Simons’ publisher’s note, both published here. At the end of Santa’s introduction, you will find several photos

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August 26th, 2014

Remembering Cannonball Adderley — an appreciation by Quincy Jones

Cannonball Adderley was an endearing, charismatic and cutting-edge musician who, as Adderley biographer Cary Ginell writes in the introduction of Walk Tall: The Music and Life of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley “brought an enthusiasm for his music to nightclubs around the world, expanding jazz’s boundaries with a fresh exuberance as the music progressed from the bebop of the 1940s and ’50s to combine with gospel and soul to help pioneer the subgenres of hard bop and soul jazz in the ’60’s.” His signature sound — though cut short at the age of 46 in 1975 — remains an essential ingredient of the music’s past, present and future.

I am in the process of working on an interview with Ginell, which I expect will be published sometime in August. Meanwhile, the book’s Foreward — a fond remembrance of Adderley by his friend Quincy Jones — is published here in its entirety,

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August 1st, 2014

The “perplexing” and “puzzling” Buddy Bolden photograph

While reading through Donald Marquis’ outstanding In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz (1978), I was reminded about the only photograph in existence of Bolden — perhaps the most famous photograph in the history of jazz. Here is what Marquis learned about it while writing his book…

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May 24th, 2014

A follow-up to Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, published in 1979, remains one of the most critically acclaimed jazz biographies ever written — some would even call it a “classic of its kind.” Written by the great West Coast alto player and his third wife Laurie, the book is brutally honest about the world Pepper traveled in, and is filled with colorful stories about his time with Stan Kenton, graphic descriptions of his sexual encounters, and, of course, the toll of his epic substance abuse.

Laurie Pepper has just published a follow-up to Straight Life called Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman, an exciting development for many of us. I haven’t read it yet, but hope to do so. No less an authority than Gary Giddins blurbed for the book: “Everyone who knows the skillful craftsmanship she brought to Straight Life, the masterpiece she made of Art Pepper’s life, will find it here again, in service to her own story, which would be

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May 22nd, 2014

Tommy Dorsey stands up for Charlie Shavers

The stories about racial confrontations that jazz musicians experienced are, unfortunately, limitless. I recently posted “The Jazz at the Philharmonic Dice Game Bust,” which told the story of how producer Norman Granz challenged segregation in Houston.

Here is a pretty interesting story that Louis Bellson tells about how his bandleader Tommy Dorsey stood up for trumpet player Charlie Shavers during a swing through the Carolinas:

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Somewhere down South — North Carolina or South Carolina — segregation, of course, was going on. Tommy told the buyer [on one date], “He’s [Shavers] in my band. He’s an artist. He’s featured

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May 21st, 2014

Louis Armstrong and “Gage”

In “Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, author Thomas Brothers writes about Armstrong’s early fascination with marijuana — an interest that began in Chicago, 1928, while playing the Savoy Ballroom. This interest led to a marijuana possession arrest on November 13, 1930 in the parking lot of Los Angeles’ Cotton Club. “Armstrong was allowed to finish out his night work before they hauled him off to jail around 3:00 A.M.,” Brothers writes.

The following book excerpt begins with a rather humorous transcript from his trial, and then

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March 25th, 2014

Book excerpt from Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, by Thomas Brothers

On the heels of terrific books on Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington comes Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism, author and Duke University Music Professor Thomas Brothers’ follow-up to his revered Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans.

In the book’s introduction, Brothers reports that his book picks up where Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans left off, with Armstrong’s 1922 Chicago arrival, and ends ten years later. He writes, “My main thesis is that the success of this nimble-minded musician depended on his ability to skillfully negotiate the musical and social legacies of slavery. Indeed, his career can be understood as a response to these interlocking trajectories.” I have just begun reading it and have been taken in by “Welcome to Chicago,” the book’s first chapter that tells the story of what Armstrong would have seen as he entered Lincoln Gardens for the first time in August, 1922; for example, the racially inflected floor show whose “centerpiece of the presentation is a row of light-skinned dancing girls;” dancing couples in an environment where “correct dancing is insisted upon” (to keep immorality charges at bay); and the local white musicians — “alligators” — described as “the little white boys…motivated to learn the music and cash in.”

I had the privilege of interviewing Thomas Brothers following the publication of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, and he has accepted my invitation for an interview about his new book. It is

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March 7th, 2014

Journey to Jazzland

On occasion I have taught a very basic 45 minute “History of Jazz” class to first and second graders. I play music and show video, hold up classic record album covers, and read a quotation or two. Without fail, the 6 – 8 year olds are excited by the music and images, and it is exhilarating to see them get to their feet and unabashedly dance, inspired by the music of Armstrong, Goodman, Ellington, Basie, Billie, and Monk. Their energy is unbounded, and is a reminder of what lives inside children before many unlearn their “hip” roots.

Whenever a new book geared toward teaching children about jazz music is released, I am moved to share the news…Check out Journey to Jazzland, a picture book to inspire kids to learn about jazz. Conceptualized by Gia Volterra de Saulnier, she writes that she hopes to “get more kids inspired to learn at least a little bit more about jazz,” and to get them to know about “this important music history that really should be kept alive.”

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February 5th, 2014

Donald Fagen — “Eminent Hipster”

You may want to consider adding Donald Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters to your reading list. In it, the Steely Dan co-founder writes intelligently and often humorously about his early-life relationship with the jazz culture and how it helped shape his life choices and musical direction. Fagen says that the book’s main subjects are “talented musicians, writers and performers from a universe beyond suburban New Jersey who showed me how to interpret my own world.” Some of the “hipsters” Fagen shares along the way are Henry Mancini, all-night jazz DJ Mort Fega, WOR radio legend Jean Shepherd, and the Boswell Sisters.

An example of his colorful writing…In his chapter titled “In the Clubs” — an appreciation for the jazz clubs of New York he frequented as a young man — he wrote:

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December 19th, 2013

An excerpt from Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout

It’s a great time for jazz biography. In addition to Stanley Crouch’s book on Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong biographer and Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout has turned out what several critics report to be an important book on the life of Duke Ellington. I have just completed the first chapter and am eagerly anticipating the pages beyond. To get a flavor for the book, you may enjoy this short excerpt, in which Teachout describes Ellington’s work habits and what Ellington “sought and got” from his band, described here as his ”accumulation of personalities.’”

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November 13th, 2013

Book Excerpt from “Mingus Speaks,” by John Goodman

Charles Mingus is among jazz’s greatest composers and perhaps its most talented bass player. He was blunt and outspoken about the place of jazz in music history and American culture, about which performers were the real thing (or not), and much more. These in-depth interviews, conducted several years before Mingus died, capture the composer’s spirit and voice, revealing how he saw himself as composer and performer, how he viewed his peers and predecessors, how he created his extraordinary music, and how he looked at race.

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July 3rd, 2013

In This Issue

Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, talks about her book, and the complex life of her late husband.

Also in this issue…A new collection of jazz poetry; "On the Turntable," a new playlist of 22 recommended recordings by seven jazz artists; three new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Great Encounters”; several short stories; the photography of Veryl Oakland and Charles Ingham; a new Jazz History Quiz; and lots more…

On the Turntable

This month, a playlist of 22 recently released jazz recordings, including those by Chris Potter, Sons of Kemet, Stephan Crump, Brittany Anjou, Julian Lage, Joey DeFrancesco and Antonio Sanchez

Poetry

Seventeen poets contribute 21 poems in this month’s edition…

The Joys of Jazz

In new podcasts, Bob Hecht tells three stories; one about Miles Davis’ use of space in his music, one on the mutual admiration society of Sinatra, Lady Day, and Lester Young, and the other about the train in jazz and blues music.

“What are some of your all-time favorite record album covers?”

Gary Giddins, Jimmy Heath, Fred Hersch, Joe Hagan, Maxine Gordon, Neil Tesser, Tim Page, Veronica Swift and Marcus Strickland are among the 25 writers, musicians, poets, educators, and photographers who write about their favorite album cover art

Art

“Thinking about Ida B. Wells” — a photo narrative by Charles Ingham

Jazz History Quiz #126

In 1964, along with the orchestra of arranger Lalo Schifrin (pictured), this flutist/alto sax player recorded one of the first “Jazz Masses,” and soon after studied transcendental meditation in India. He would eventually become well known as a composer of music for meditation. Who is he?

Great Encounters

Dexter Gordon tells the story of joining Louis Armstrong’s band in 1944, and how they enjoyed their intermission time.

Art

In this edition of Veryl Oakland’s “Jazz in Available Light,” photographs of Red Garland, Dizzy Gillespie and Rahsaan Roland Kirk are featured.

Short Fiction

"Strings of Solace," a short story by Kimberly Parish Davis

Interviews

Romare Bearden biographer Mary Schmidt Campbell discusses the life of the important 20th century American artist

Cover Stories with Paul Morris

In this edition, Paul writes about jazz album covers that offer glimpses into intriguing corners of the culture of the 1950’s

Short Fiction

"And so we went to Paris," a short story by Sophie Jonas-Hill

Coming Soon

National Book Award winning author for non-fiction Jeffrey Stewart is interviewed about his book The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke...Legendary producer, Blue Note Records discographer, and Mosaic Records co-founder Michael Cuscuna talks about his life in jazz.

In the previous issue

The question “What are some of your all-time favorite record album covers?” was posed via email to a small number of prominent and diverse people, and the responses of Gary Giddins, Jimmy Heath, Fred Hersch, Joe Hagan, Maxine Gordon, Tim Page, Veronica Swift and Marcus Strickland are among the 25 writers, musicians, poets, educators, and photographers who participated...Also, the publication of the winning story in our 50th Short Fiction contest; an interview with Romare Bearden biographer Mary Schmidt Campbell; a collection of jazz poetry; two new podcasts by Bob Hecht; the March edition of "On the Turntable," and lots more...Click here to be taken to the issue.

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