Commentary Magazine



• 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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