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 […] Continue reading »
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:
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 […] Continue reading »
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 […] Continue reading »
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 […] Continue reading »
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.”
[…] Continue reading »
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: […] Continue reading »
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.’” […] Continue reading »
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. […] Continue reading »