Bookshelf #13 (Jazz edition)

90. Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now (Edited by Robert Gottlieb)
91. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD (Richard Cook & Brian Morton)
92. Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis (Philip Freeman)
93. Celebrating the Duke… And Louis, Bessie, Billie, Bird, Carmen, Miles, Dizzy and Other Heroes (Ralph Gleason)
94. Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
95. The Otis Ferguson Reader (Edited by Dorothy Chamberlain and Robert Wilson)
96. Satchmo (Louis Armstrong)
97. As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir (Chet Baker)

I’m pretty sure these are all the jazz books I own — it’s possible I’ll come up against something I missed later on. In the last few months I’ve spent umpteen hours listening to and investigating jazz — from Armstrong to Ayler (but much moreso Ayler) — and there were three books in particular which helped open that door for me: John Gennari’s Blowin’ Hot and Cool (which I wrote about here), Philip Freeman’s Running the Cool Down, and Ralph Gleason’s Celebrating the Duke. Once the bug hit it hit hard and I started buying more jazz books to supplement (to help me begin to make sense of) my listening. Five of the eight titles above are very recent purchases (to give you some idea of just how deficient in this area I was before), and I’ve taken at least a dozen books out of the library in the last couple months as well, including some I will eventually purchase (the two I’m most anxious to secure copies of are Leroi Jones’s/Amiri Baraka’s Black Music and Martin Williams’s The Jazz Tradition).

Just a few short words about some of the above: I like Philip Freeman’s book a lot even though it feels a little disjointed to me (the whole being a little less than the sum of its parts, I think) and despite the fact that it wasn’t easy going at first, given how much effort he expounds describing in great detail music I was for the most part not very familiar with. I suppose the fact that I’ve familiarized myself with much of it since says something about his descriptive powers. I also — and this is crucial — appreciate the fact that Freeman, whatever his knowledge of jazz history (and I take it he does well in that area) basically approaches the stuff as a rock critic. For writing on Miles’s electric music, nothing that I’m aware of tops Greg Tate’s astonishingly great essay in Flyboy in the Buttermilk, but Freeman makes a strong case for the stuff regardless and his book is more or less an extension of Tate’s argument. (For the record, I do love On the Corner and Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way but don’t get much at all out of the much less spacious Agharta, except maybe some of the keyboard parts; by the time I reach the 10-minute mark I find it really tiresome.) On the other hand — as a counter-argument to Freeman and Tate — there’s Stanley Crouch’s eviscerating essay on Miles’s electric period (“On the Corner: The Sellout of Miles Davis”), which is one of hundreds of essays featured in Reading Jazz. Crouch’s argument strikes me as more than a little petty (hung up as he is on such limiting definitions of “quality”) but nonetheless quite compelling as a polemic — real draw-the-line-in-the-sand kind of writing The Otis Ferguson collection was purchased through Ebay. I also own his movie collection, and have read so much about the guy (plaudits from the likes of Christgau and Frank Kogan, among others) I figured I’d take to it right away, but nothing has clicked for me yet. I’ll try again at some point Finding a reliable jazz record guide has proven difficult (where to begin? who to trust?), so I realized I was taking a chance a few weeks ago when I purchased a used copy of the Cook/Morton collection (the third edition; I noticed in Indigo recently that it is now in its seventh). Luckily, it turned out to be a wise choice. Like every jazz record guide I’ve come across the thing weighs about eleven pounds, but the writing is clear, opinionated, descriptive — to the point where it often gets away from me, not that that’s a surprise — and is good at providing some context. Were I 25 years younger and completely devoted to the stuff I could imagine myself devouring this title from start to finish while simultaneously filling out gaps in my collection, exactly the way I did with Christgau’s ’70s guide way back when. Circumstances will prevent such obsessiveness from ever taking shape, but I imagine the book will come in very handy for years to come.

Any great jazz books you can recommend? My taste, as you may have figured out, leans much more heavily towards criticism than biography, but any recommendations are appreciated.


11 thoughts on “Bookshelf #13 (Jazz edition)

  1. I like Ben Ratliff’s NYT 100 essential jazz albums book quite a bit, both for the writing and the selections, which seem to be a good spread of the obvious, the less obvious, and the rather obscure; it suggests a really wide range to be explored.

  2. You may want to check out Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper and Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker (both of which scared my life straight at the time). The author of the latter, Ross Russell, has the distinction of being considered a cross between Dr. Eugene Landy and Albert Goldman, since he got Parker out of the hospital only to become his legal guardian. He made money not just off of the subsequent bio, but from releasing outtakes, despite Parker’s protests.

    I mention each together because of the similar grittiness. At least Art Pepper penned his own with the help of this third wife. In that regard you may find the same with the book by Parker’s widow rather than the ’70s sensationalism of Russell’s. I haven’t read hers yet, so I would be eager to know.

  3. Thanks for those, I’m interested in all three of them.

    There’s an entire chapter, more or less, about Ross Russell in Blowin’ Hot and Cool, and about his involvement with Parker, the decision to release the demos, etc.

  4. An absolutely vital read: As Serious As Your Life by Valerie Wilmer, the best history of post-Coltrane jazz which benefits from a vast cast of interviewees, including nearly all the key players and most of the others, and a realistic and sober (if depressingly so) portrait of the sociopolitical and economic ramifications of what happens when you devote your life to making free music and the factors which have conspired to render free jazz the most invisible of innovative musics this past half century.

    Also recommended, the two books which helped form me as a writer, Andre Hodeir’s Towards Jazz, published in the fifties but still extremely relevant, and Max Harrison’s A Jazz Retrospect, a collection of the great man’s writings for Jazz Monthly and other places; his chapter on Gil Evans is a dazzling neoplasm of critical brilliance. Neither is easy to find but they are both findable.

  5. Marcello, the Wilmer book sounds precisely like what I’m looking for right now… thanks.

    Andrew, no, at least not my edition (maybe there’s a different collection?). This one is just called The Otis Ferguson Reader (on the front it says, “The Arts — Lively and Literary,” followed by a role call of subjects, but I don’t see this on the inside). I guess I should have mentioned that it’s not only jazz writing.

  6. Hey Scott,

    Just came across your Jazz Bookshelf. It looks good, as far as it goes. The Penguin Guide is without doubt the best, most trustworthy guide going, though you need to buy the latest edition (I think it’s up to seven or eight now) in order to keep up with contemporary stuff — the latest reissues as well as recent new releases. Tom Hull, who does Christgau-inspired jazz Consumer Guides in the Village Voice, is also worth following. (He has a website where you can check out all the stuff he’s rated — in jazz and other genres — and he also maintains a helpful list of the highest-rated albums in the Penguin Guide.)
    Baraka’s Black Music and (especially) Martin Williams’ Jazz Tradition are essential for sure. Also pick up any of Gary Giddins’ books, some of which I’m sure are out of print, but his fairly recent Visions of Jazz is a good, bible-sized anthology of his writings from throughout his career. He’s got good taste and is very readable. Francis Davis, who replaced Giddins as the Voice’s jazz critic (though he now seems to be vanished from the paper) is also really good and has published several books that compile his various reviews, profiles, etc. And the late New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett is indispensible, if somewhat conservative in his tastes.
    As for electric Miles, I can understand your impatience with Agharta, though I like it myself, largely because of Pete Cosey, who’s one crazy guitarist. You should get Jack Johnson, half of which (“Right Off”) consists of Miles’ most straightforwardly rocking music of the ’70s. Anyone who believes Wynton Marsalis’ claim that Miles didn’t know how to play rock music (and therefore should have stuck to “jazz”) will be convinced otherwise by “Right Off.”

  7. Thanks, Tim. Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz was one of the books I took out of the library, but I didn’t get very far with it. Probably better that I get my own copy so I can take my time with it. I enjoy listening to Giddins talk about jazz. I found an old NPR interview online where he discusses Charlie Parker in ways that made me start to understand his music a lot better, definitely.

    I do like Jack Johnson btw, better than Agharta, though I might prefer side two (“Yesternow”) to side one. With Miles’s electric stuff, I tend to prefer the moody rambling stuff to the out-and-out rocking stuff.

  8. FROM SWING TO BOP, by Ira Gitler; FOUR LIVES IN THE BEPOP BUSINES — A.B.Spellman; LOST CHORDS — Dick Sudhalter; LESTER YOUNG — Lewis Porter. Any book by Whitney Balliett, Gunther Schuller, Martin Williams and Francis Davis. The best book written by a jazz musician — JAZZ MASTERS OF THE 30’S, by Rex Stewart.

  9. Interesting-the taste in books obviously mirrors the taste in jazz. I love Dick Sudhalters’ book ‘Bix Man and Legend’ as well as Gunther Schullers’ books ‘Early jazz’ and ‘The Swing Era’ which are fantastic. Ca’t see how you can appreciate later jazz styles without having some knowledge of earlier styles. Jazz is a river.

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