Commentary Magazine


Topic: Louis Armstrong

Pops and Pale

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

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Bookshelf

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60’s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60’s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

Read Less

Bookshelf

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

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Bookshelf

• Milt Hinton, who died eight years ago at the age of 90, was the most versatile jazz bassist who ever lived. He played with—just for starters—Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Bing Crosby, Paul Desmond, Aretha Franklin, Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Jackie and Roy, Michel Legrand, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, John Pizzarelli, Pee Wee Russell, Barbra Streisand, Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters and Teddy Wilson. (It might be easier to list the famous musicians with whom he didn’t play.) He was also a serious amateur photographer who started bringing a camera to his gigs in 1935, and in 1988 he published a folio of his pictures called Bass Lines whose accompanying text amounted to a concise autobiography. The resulting volume was one of the finest illustrated books about jazz ever published, for Hinton, in addition to being a vivid writer, had a sharp eye and a knack for capturing his colleagues in unpremeditated poses.

Now Bass Lines has been reissued in an expanded edition called Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs (Vanderbilt University Press, 364 pp., $75) that fills in the blanks in Hinton’s story and brings the narrative down to 1999, just prior to his death. If you love jazz but don’t own Bass Line, it’s an absolute must, and you’ll probably want to buy it even if you already have a copy of the earlier volume, since the new material in this edition is similarly interesting.

Though Hinton’s photographs are always striking, the real significance of Playing the Changes lies in its text. Time and again he tells us stories about the great jazz musicians he knew that illuminate their lives with the immediacy of a candid snapshot. A good example is this priceless glimpse of Louis Armstrong’s offstage life on the road:

Wherever he traveled, he took three tape recorders which were hooked together and stacked up on shelves in a special trunk he’d had made. One of his two valets would load all three machines and, as soon as Pops got into bed, the first one would be turned on. The music was always the same—his own or Guy Lombardo’s—and usually within a couple of minutes, he was snoring. The valets would take turns staying up and watching the machines. When a tape finished, they’d quickly switch on the next recorder, then reload the empty. They knew that if the music stopped, even if only for a few seconds, Louis would wake up.

This anecdote is accompanied by a photograph of Armstrong standing next to his triple-barreled music machine, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a plaid shirt and smiling proudly. It is one of hundreds of pictures so revealing that I can’t even begin to list my favorites, though I do have a special liking for one which was taken at the birthday party that Richard Nixon threw for Duke Ellington at the White House in 1969. It shows Duke Ellington and Willie “The Lion” Smith seated together at a grand piano, playing a duet for a cluster of dazzled onlookers and looking very pleased with themselves. I also like the 1940 photo of two weary musicians from Cab Calloway’s band standing under a sign in front of a North Carolina lunch counter that says HAMBURGERS HOT DOGS LUNCHES FOR COLORED ONLY. Such fragments of life as it is lived are the stuff of which history is made, and Milt Hinton preserved more of them for us to ponder than any other jazz musician of his generation. Thanks to Playing the Changes, he will be remembered for that achievement at least as well as for his ever-tasteful, immaculately swinging bass playing.

• Milt Hinton, who died eight years ago at the age of 90, was the most versatile jazz bassist who ever lived. He played with—just for starters—Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Bing Crosby, Paul Desmond, Aretha Franklin, Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Jackie and Roy, Michel Legrand, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, John Pizzarelli, Pee Wee Russell, Barbra Streisand, Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters and Teddy Wilson. (It might be easier to list the famous musicians with whom he didn’t play.) He was also a serious amateur photographer who started bringing a camera to his gigs in 1935, and in 1988 he published a folio of his pictures called Bass Lines whose accompanying text amounted to a concise autobiography. The resulting volume was one of the finest illustrated books about jazz ever published, for Hinton, in addition to being a vivid writer, had a sharp eye and a knack for capturing his colleagues in unpremeditated poses.

Now Bass Lines has been reissued in an expanded edition called Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs (Vanderbilt University Press, 364 pp., $75) that fills in the blanks in Hinton’s story and brings the narrative down to 1999, just prior to his death. If you love jazz but don’t own Bass Line, it’s an absolute must, and you’ll probably want to buy it even if you already have a copy of the earlier volume, since the new material in this edition is similarly interesting.

Though Hinton’s photographs are always striking, the real significance of Playing the Changes lies in its text. Time and again he tells us stories about the great jazz musicians he knew that illuminate their lives with the immediacy of a candid snapshot. A good example is this priceless glimpse of Louis Armstrong’s offstage life on the road:

Wherever he traveled, he took three tape recorders which were hooked together and stacked up on shelves in a special trunk he’d had made. One of his two valets would load all three machines and, as soon as Pops got into bed, the first one would be turned on. The music was always the same—his own or Guy Lombardo’s—and usually within a couple of minutes, he was snoring. The valets would take turns staying up and watching the machines. When a tape finished, they’d quickly switch on the next recorder, then reload the empty. They knew that if the music stopped, even if only for a few seconds, Louis would wake up.

This anecdote is accompanied by a photograph of Armstrong standing next to his triple-barreled music machine, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a plaid shirt and smiling proudly. It is one of hundreds of pictures so revealing that I can’t even begin to list my favorites, though I do have a special liking for one which was taken at the birthday party that Richard Nixon threw for Duke Ellington at the White House in 1969. It shows Duke Ellington and Willie “The Lion” Smith seated together at a grand piano, playing a duet for a cluster of dazzled onlookers and looking very pleased with themselves. I also like the 1940 photo of two weary musicians from Cab Calloway’s band standing under a sign in front of a North Carolina lunch counter that says HAMBURGERS HOT DOGS LUNCHES FOR COLORED ONLY. Such fragments of life as it is lived are the stuff of which history is made, and Milt Hinton preserved more of them for us to ponder than any other jazz musician of his generation. Thanks to Playing the Changes, he will be remembered for that achievement at least as well as for his ever-tasteful, immaculately swinging bass playing.

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Oscar Peterson, RIP

cross-posted at About Last Night

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson’s peers knew better. He was very, very popular—every great virtuoso is—but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

Peterson got more bad reviews than any other major jazz pianist, and on occasion he deserved them. Miles Davis, one of the few musicians of importance to have said anything unpleasant about him, famously remarked that Peterson “makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues.” That was both nasty and untrue, but it did point to the chink in his armor. Unlimited virtuosity is a snare for the unwary artist. “Only in limitation,” Goethe wrote, “is mastery revealed.” Peterson’s extreme technical facility, by contrast, sometimes lured him into the trap of glibness. When he was coasting, all you heard was the fireworks. Nor did it help that he recorded so prolifically throughout his seven-decade-long career. No one can make that many records save at the price of consistent inspiration, and Peterson paid that price too often for comfort.

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cross-posted at About Last Night

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson’s peers knew better. He was very, very popular—every great virtuoso is—but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

Peterson got more bad reviews than any other major jazz pianist, and on occasion he deserved them. Miles Davis, one of the few musicians of importance to have said anything unpleasant about him, famously remarked that Peterson “makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues.” That was both nasty and untrue, but it did point to the chink in his armor. Unlimited virtuosity is a snare for the unwary artist. “Only in limitation,” Goethe wrote, “is mastery revealed.” Peterson’s extreme technical facility, by contrast, sometimes lured him into the trap of glibness. When he was coasting, all you heard was the fireworks. Nor did it help that he recorded so prolifically throughout his seven-decade-long career. No one can make that many records save at the price of consistent inspiration, and Peterson paid that price too often for comfort.

He was at his best from 1953 to 1958, when he led a drummerless trio featuring the guitarist Herb Ellis and the bassist Ray Brown that was celebrated for its aggressive, unrelenting swing. Peterson and his colleagues modeled themselves on the legendary King Cole Trio, but unlike that deliciously easy-going ensemble, the Peterson Trio was a straight-ahead group whose members favored fast tempos and liked nothing better than to light the afterburner and take off. Most of their recordings are out of print, but The Oscar Peterson Trio at Zardi’s, a thrilling live album recorded in 1955 at a Los Angeles nightclub, captures them at their most characteristic.

When Ellis decided to quit the road, Peterson replaced him not with another guitarist but with a drummer, the tasteful and elegant Ed Thigpen, thereby recharging his creative batteries for another half-dozen years. It was this version of the Oscar Peterson Trio that recorded most frequently, and one must pick and choose carefully among its many albums to get a clear sense of how good the group could be. Fortunately—and not coincidentally—the most popular of its recordings, Night Train, is also one of the finest. An after-hours 1962 studio set devoted to blues tunes and blues-flavored pop songs, Night Train shows how deeply Peterson could dig when he felt like laying back instead of showing off.

Peterson’s later albums are typically less interesting than the ones he made with Brown, Ellis, and Thigpen, but My Favorite Instrument, a 1968 collection of unaccompanied piano solos called that was privately recorded in Germany under optimal circumstances, is worthy of special mention. His playing here is both carefully controlled and consistently inspired, and even his harshest critics have singled it out as noteworthy. I also like The Trio, a live set from 1973 featuring the guitarist Joe Pass and the bassist Niels Pedersen, which contains a version of Nat Cole’s “Easy Listening Blues” that shows how much Peterson learned from his nonpareil predecessor.

In addition to recording with his own groups, Peterson cut hundreds of albums as a sideman, most of them made in the days when he was barnstorming with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concert troupes and doubling as house pianist for Verve, Granz’s record label. He recorded with everyone who worked for Granz—Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Lester Young, even Fred Astaire—and his sensitive, discreet support rarely failed to stimulate those for whom he played. Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded in 1957, is an especially choice example of his prowess as an accompanist.

Peterson also wrote a memoir, A Jazz Odyssey, about which I wrote in COMMENTARY when it was published in 2002:

I can think of no other jazz autobiography that has made the mysteries of music-making so readily accessible to the lay reader. Even those who dislike Oscar Peterson’s playing will find his book informative—surely a near-unprecedented achievement…. Despite his gifts as a raconteur, Peterson is not a natural writer—his ghostwritten prose is too often stiff and ostentatious—but when he speaks of music, the results have a clarity and specificity rarely found in books of this genre. And unlike most jazz memoirists, he is even willing to be critical of other players, including some of the most admired musicians in jazz. Peterson’s analysis of the “uneven and unfinished” playing of the bebop pianist Bud Powell, for instance, cuts sharply against the grain of conventional critical wisdom, and whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, they merit close scrutiny, not only in their own right but for the perspective they offer on his own remarkable technical achievements.

Alas, A Jazz Odyssey is out of print, but Gene Lees’s Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing is still available in paperback. An intelligent and warmly sympathetic biography by one of the few jazz critics who appreciated Peterson properly, it profits from Lees’s close friendship with his subject.

Peterson was crippled by a stroke in 1993, and though he continued to play in public, his last performances added no luster to his reputation. Now that the long sunset of his post-stroke career is over, my guess is that he will fade from view for a time—perhaps even a long time. But sooner or later some patient and industrious critic will sift through the mountain of variably inspired recordings that he left behind, separate the wheat from the chaff, and tell a later generation of listeners what those who admired Oscar Peterson in his lifetime already know: when he was good, no one was better.

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Dave Brubeck

On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.

This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.

Brubeck recalled:

Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”

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On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.

This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.

Brubeck recalled:

Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”

Brubeck has avoided faculty meetings to this day, and his classically-influenced jazz has duly drawn some criticism from academic purists. His 1961 jazz musical The Real Ambassadors is a quintessential anti-purist work, involving collaboration with Louis Armstrong to address subjects from Civil Rights to the Cold War. Textual complexity makes The Real Ambassadors especially intriguing listening.

A more grandiose, four-square example of Brubeck’s mixing of genres is his 1969 cantata The Gates of Justice, which contains musical settings from the Old Testament, Hillel the Elder, and Martin Luther King Jr.. Rerecorded in 2001 for Naxos with a resonant tenor soloist, Alberto Mizrahi, who serves as Hazzan for Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue, Brubeck’s Gates of Justice is no less than an attempt to reconcile African-Americans and Jews. Its 1960’s-era social ambitions may belong to a more idealistic age, but Gates of Justice’s kaleidoscopic range puts it in the category of good crossover music, like the best of Leonard Bernstein. When Brubeck performs, he does not tread lightly on the keyboard; yet in life, he always treads the path of righteousness.

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Bookshelf

• Would Truman Capote now be read if he hadn’t written In Cold Blood? I wonder, and Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote makes me wonder all the more.

It happens that I hadn’t read any of Capote’s early essays for a number of years prior to the publication of this posthumous collection, but the impression they made on me when I was in college remained unchanged after I looked through Portraits and Observations. The young Capote was a very talented, very precious journalist who had a knack for travel writing and literary portraiture but was greatly in need of precisely the kind of rigorous editing he got when he started writing for the New Yorker. There is an unmistakable difference between the flossy essaylets he was writing for Vogue and Mademoiselle in the 40’s and early 50’s and the long, elaborately reported pieces on Marlon Brando and Porgy and Bess in Russia that passed through the scrupulous hands of William Shawn before seeing print. In “The Duke in His Domain” and “The Muses Are Heard” we meet for the first time the “nonfiction novelist” who poured all the tricks he’d learned from writing fiction into the creation of In Cold Blood, a book that for all its undeniable flaws remains a classic of postwar American journalism.

Capote never wrote anything better than In Cold Blood—and next to nothing after it that was any good at all. Once he made his bundle, he let loose the reins of his craft and succumbed to self-indulgence. The results can be seen in Portraits and Observations, the first half of which consists of pieces written between 1946 and 1959, not a few of which are very fine indeed. In that year Capote departed for Holcomb, Kansas and his rendezvous with the murderers of the Clutter family, and from then onward Portraits and Observations becomes increasingly uneven and ultimately pointless.

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• Would Truman Capote now be read if he hadn’t written In Cold Blood? I wonder, and Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote makes me wonder all the more.

It happens that I hadn’t read any of Capote’s early essays for a number of years prior to the publication of this posthumous collection, but the impression they made on me when I was in college remained unchanged after I looked through Portraits and Observations. The young Capote was a very talented, very precious journalist who had a knack for travel writing and literary portraiture but was greatly in need of precisely the kind of rigorous editing he got when he started writing for the New Yorker. There is an unmistakable difference between the flossy essaylets he was writing for Vogue and Mademoiselle in the 40’s and early 50’s and the long, elaborately reported pieces on Marlon Brando and Porgy and Bess in Russia that passed through the scrupulous hands of William Shawn before seeing print. In “The Duke in His Domain” and “The Muses Are Heard” we meet for the first time the “nonfiction novelist” who poured all the tricks he’d learned from writing fiction into the creation of In Cold Blood, a book that for all its undeniable flaws remains a classic of postwar American journalism.

Capote never wrote anything better than In Cold Blood—and next to nothing after it that was any good at all. Once he made his bundle, he let loose the reins of his craft and succumbed to self-indulgence. The results can be seen in Portraits and Observations, the first half of which consists of pieces written between 1946 and 1959, not a few of which are very fine indeed. In that year Capote departed for Holcomb, Kansas and his rendezvous with the murderers of the Clutter family, and from then onward Portraits and Observations becomes increasingly uneven and ultimately pointless.

In 1963, Random House brought out Selected Writings of Truman Capote, a neat little anthology of Capote’s fiction and journalism that contains the best of his work prior to In Cold Blood, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “A Christmas Memory” and the two big New Yorker pieces reprinted in Portraits and Observations. Selected Writings is out of print, alas, but I suggest that you seek out a used copy, since this new volume is not an adequate substitute for it, unless you feel an irresistible desire to wallow in Capote’s later writings. The only “late” piece in Portraits and Observations that I was glad to add to my shelf was “Ghosts in Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood,” an interesting 1967 reminiscence of the making of Richard Brooks’s film. The rest is dross.

Incidentally, Capote makes the following nostalgic claim in a 1959 essay about Louis Armstrong:

I met him when I was four, that would be around 1928, and he, a hard-plump and belligerently happy brown Buddha, was playing aboard a pleasure steamer that paddled between New Orleans and St. Louis…. The Satch, he was good to me, he told me I had talent, that I ought to be in vaudeville; he gave me a bamboo cane and a straw boater with a peppermint headband; and every night from the stand announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, now we’re going to present you one of America’s nice kids, he’s going to do a little tap dance.” Afterward I passed among the passengers, collecting in my hat nickels and dimes.

As the Brits say, no doubt this is true, but the fact is that “the Satch” stopped playing on New Orleans excursion boats in 1921, three years before Capote was born. It seems that the author of In Cold Blood was fabricating material long before the reliability of his most successful and admired book was challenged by those in a position to know. William Shawn wouldn’t have liked that one bit.

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Bookshelf

Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

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Now that I’m deeply immersed in writing the life of Louis Armstrong, I find myself reflecting at frequent intervals on the biographer’s art. Musical biography is a peculiarly tricky undertaking, because it demands that its practitioners find words to describe an art form that is, as I have said on more than one exasperating occasion, radically ambiguous. The composer Ned Rorem put it neatly: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” Fortunately, biographers are usually called on to spend more of their time writing about life than art, and many musical lives, Armstrong’s most definitely included, are sufficiently eventful to offer an industrious chronicler plenty of raw material.

In my quarter-century as a book reviewer, I’ve run across a fair number of first-rate musical biographies, and in recent weeks I’ve been rereading some of them in search of inspiration:

• Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler is that rarity of rarities, an academic biography written with a journalist’s flair. That it should have been written about a country singer is all the more remarkable. Nowadays a similar study would have been crammed full of tendentious, theory-based interpretation and trendy critical jargon, but Porterfield steered clear of such superfluities, and gave us a book that is as definitive as any biography can hope to be.

• David Cairns’s two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, The Making of an Artist and Servitude and Greatness is, hands down, the best biography of a great composer ever published. To be sure, it would be hard to write a dull biography of Berlioz, whose life was so full of spectacularly unlikely occurrences that a mere summary is intriguing; but Cairns brought off the near-impossible feat of producing a biography comparable in quality to the composer’s own sensationally readable Memoirs. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is as good—and well written—as any of the best literary biographies, which is saying something.

• Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) is the first (and, so far, only) biography of a rock musician that aspires to the same level of seriousness as a classical-music biography. The second volume, published in 1999, was inevitably less interesting, since Presley’s life after 1960 was an unedifying chronicle of public decline and private squalor. In Last Train to Memphis, by contrast, we see the young Elvis up close, and even those who take no interest in his music will find his story irresistibly compelling.

• I know of no finer biography of an American composer than Anthony Tommasini’s Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997). Among countless other good things, Tommasini brings off the difficult task of writing about a man he knew personally without lapsing into sentiment—or spite. I wish he would now turn his hand to writing an equally penetrating life of Aaron Copland!

• At 851 closely packed pages, Richard Osborne’s Herbert von Karajan: A Life In Music (1998) ought by all rights to be tedious. Instead it’s a page-turner, partly because Karajan’s complex personality was so fascinating, but mostly because Osborne is a lucid stylist with a comprehensive understanding of his subject and a highly developed sense of the relevant—three traits rarely to be found in the same biographer.

• Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) is the kind of book that can only be written by a great scholar who has spent a lifetime reflecting on a major artist. Though the subtitle accurately reflects Lockwood’s priorities—he devotes more space to Beethoven’s music than his life—he succeeds in integrating life and work into a single, fully unified treatment. The result, as I wrote in COMMENTARY four years ago, is “a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure.”

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Bookshelf

• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

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• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

In addition to writing about Lieberson, Miller, and John Hammond—the producer-talent scout who spent much of his celebrated career recording jazz and pop for Columbia—Marmorstein depicts a cast of lesser-known backstage characters equally worthy of recognition. George Avakian, who brought Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to Columbia and recorded some of their best-remembered albums, is given his due, as is Deborah Ishlon, the master publicist who first spread the word about Glenn Gould, and talked Stravinsky into writing his “conversation books.”

To write consistently well about a company that recorded everyone and everything from Liberace to Don Juan in Hell demands a degree of cultural competence not possessed by the average human being. While Marmorstein has done his homework—to the point of having read Lieberson’s forgotten novel 3 for Bedroom C and Ishlon’s equally obscure roman à clef Girl Singer: A Two Part Invention—he does not exhibit a complete knowledge of classical music. (Somebody at Thunder’s Mouth Press should have told him that the Brahms First Symphony isn’t a piano concerto.) But the small errors that disfigure The Label do not diminish its effectiveness as journalism, and Marmorstein’s breathless summary of Columbia’s significance is in no way overstated:

In the overlapping epochs of the 78-rpm platter, the 33-rpm vinyl disk, the cassette tape, and the compact disk, Columbia Records seemed to be everywhere. That ubiquitousness was true for no other record label. . . . Decade by decade, Columbia launched the careers of our most seminal recording artists and deposited their sound prints onto the permanent record.

All that came to an untimely end when Columbia was bought by Sony in 1987, a transaction that led in short order to the dumbing-down of the classical and jazz divisions that had been Columbia’s pride. Now that the entire recording industry has been devastated by the rise of Web-based new media, younger music lovers are largely unaware of the role that Columbia Records played in the shaping of postwar American culture. Kudos to Gary Marmorstein for telling them what they missed.

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Weekend Reading

Terry Teachout has contributed to COMMENTARY for over twenty years, the last ten years of them as our regular music critic. One of our most versatile and wide-ranging writers, he has addressed subjects ranging from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Bruno Walter to Walt Disney—and everything in between. (He’s also written excellent biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, and is now working on a life of Louis Armstrong.) This weekend, we offer a mere handful of some of his best work, while reminding you that Terry’s writings as deep as they are broad, and that you can browse all of them here.

Culture in the Age of Blogging
June 2005

I.B. Singer and Me
September 2004

Living with Art
February 2004

Taking Sinatra Seriously
September 1997

The Problem of Shostakovich
February 1995

Terry Teachout has contributed to COMMENTARY for over twenty years, the last ten years of them as our regular music critic. One of our most versatile and wide-ranging writers, he has addressed subjects ranging from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Bruno Walter to Walt Disney—and everything in between. (He’s also written excellent biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, and is now working on a life of Louis Armstrong.) This weekend, we offer a mere handful of some of his best work, while reminding you that Terry’s writings as deep as they are broad, and that you can browse all of them here.

Culture in the Age of Blogging
June 2005

I.B. Singer and Me
September 2004

Living with Art
February 2004

Taking Sinatra Seriously
September 1997

The Problem of Shostakovich
February 1995

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Bookshelf

• Half a lifetime spent hanging out in smoke-filled nightclubs and harshly lit recording studios has persuaded me that the act of playing jazz is inherently photogenic. This being the case, I happily call your attention to Lee Tanner’s The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography (Abrams, 175 pp., $40), whose subtitle is right on the money. It contains 150-odd black-and-white pictures taken by most of the best photographers who have interested themselves in jazz, among them Bill Claxton, Bill Gottlieb, Milt Hinton (who was also one of the great jazz bassists), Herman Leonard, and Gjon Mili. Many of the images it contains will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with jazz: Fats Waller eating a hot dog in Harlem, Lester Young sitting in a hotel room not long before his death, a cadaverous-looking Dave Tough warming up on a practice pad. Others are less familiar but no less striking. I wish there were more pictures from the 1930’s and fewer from the 1960’s, but everything that’s here is choice.

What struck me as I flipped through The Jazz Image was the intense characterfulness of the faces of the men and women portrayed within. Did anybody ever take a bad picture of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington? Some performers give the impression of being detached from the act of performance—take a look at the back-desk violinists the next time you go to a concert by a symphony orchestra—but great jazz musicians, whether on or off stage, almost always look larger than life. A few, most notably Bill Evans, actually give the impression of looking like the music they play.

• For some reason I’ve never gotten around to writing anything about Gilbert and Sullivan beyond the odd review. Don’t ask me why: I admire their operettas greatly, and after watching Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on TV last month, I had “My Object All Sublime” running through my head for the better part of a week. This inspired me to read Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography (Oxford, 504 pp., $55), which somehow escaped my notice when it was published five years ago. It is, as advertised, a dual biography that covers the lives of both of its subjects quite thoroughly, before, during, and after the years of their professional association, and if you’re wondering how much of Topsy-Turvy is true, it’ll tell you exactly what you want to know. (Short answer: most of it.)

Like most Gilbert-and-Sullivanites, Ainger is not a professional scholar but an amateur enthusiast, and like all such folk, he revels in the accumulation of facts. As a result, Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography is a bit dry in spots, but never impossibly so, and though I wouldn’t recommend reading it solely for pleasure, I’m glad to say that I found it surprisingly pleasurable to read.

• Half a lifetime spent hanging out in smoke-filled nightclubs and harshly lit recording studios has persuaded me that the act of playing jazz is inherently photogenic. This being the case, I happily call your attention to Lee Tanner’s The Jazz Image: Masters of Jazz Photography (Abrams, 175 pp., $40), whose subtitle is right on the money. It contains 150-odd black-and-white pictures taken by most of the best photographers who have interested themselves in jazz, among them Bill Claxton, Bill Gottlieb, Milt Hinton (who was also one of the great jazz bassists), Herman Leonard, and Gjon Mili. Many of the images it contains will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with jazz: Fats Waller eating a hot dog in Harlem, Lester Young sitting in a hotel room not long before his death, a cadaverous-looking Dave Tough warming up on a practice pad. Others are less familiar but no less striking. I wish there were more pictures from the 1930’s and fewer from the 1960’s, but everything that’s here is choice.

What struck me as I flipped through The Jazz Image was the intense characterfulness of the faces of the men and women portrayed within. Did anybody ever take a bad picture of Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington? Some performers give the impression of being detached from the act of performance—take a look at the back-desk violinists the next time you go to a concert by a symphony orchestra—but great jazz musicians, whether on or off stage, almost always look larger than life. A few, most notably Bill Evans, actually give the impression of looking like the music they play.

• For some reason I’ve never gotten around to writing anything about Gilbert and Sullivan beyond the odd review. Don’t ask me why: I admire their operettas greatly, and after watching Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on TV last month, I had “My Object All Sublime” running through my head for the better part of a week. This inspired me to read Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography (Oxford, 504 pp., $55), which somehow escaped my notice when it was published five years ago. It is, as advertised, a dual biography that covers the lives of both of its subjects quite thoroughly, before, during, and after the years of their professional association, and if you’re wondering how much of Topsy-Turvy is true, it’ll tell you exactly what you want to know. (Short answer: most of it.)

Like most Gilbert-and-Sullivanites, Ainger is not a professional scholar but an amateur enthusiast, and like all such folk, he revels in the accumulation of facts. As a result, Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography is a bit dry in spots, but never impossibly so, and though I wouldn’t recommend reading it solely for pleasure, I’m glad to say that I found it surprisingly pleasurable to read.

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