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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Honoring the importance of educating our next generation of jazz enthusiasts, this post on the colorful book Jazz A-B-Z — originally published on Jerry Jazz Musician in 2005 — is a reminder of this creative resource. […] Continue reading »
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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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 […] Continue reading »
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 […] Continue reading »
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:
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 […] Continue reading »
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 […] Continue reading »
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].” […] Continue reading »
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 […] Continue reading »
From Miles: The Autobiography, Miles Davis recalls an evening that could have had him on stage with a very young Barbra Streisand
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 […] Continue reading »