Commentary Magazine

Lives of the (Jazz) Artists

All art is in some sense autobiographical, if only because it is self-expressive—a fact that many artists are understandably reluctant to admit. Jazz musicians, however, are more forthright than others about the extra-musical matters reflected in their work, sometimes even to the point of suggesting an intimate connection between the sound of their music and the personalities of the men and women who make it:

The selfish or shallow person might be a great musician technically, but he’ll be so involved with himself that his playing will lack warmth, intensity, beauty, and won’t be deeply felt by the listener. . . . A person that lets the other guy take the first solo, and when he plays behind a soloist plays only to enhance him, that’s the guy that will care about his wife and children and will be courteous in his everyday contact with people.

The speaker is the alto saxophonist Art Pepper, writing in his 1979 memoir Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper. The naiveté of Pepper’s assertion is underlined by the fact that his book is the unintentionally revealing tale of a drug addict and small-time thief whose personal behavior bordered on the sociopathic, but who also happened to be one of the outstanding jazz soloists of the 1950’s. But what is significant about Pepper’s view of the relationship between art and personality is not that it is naive, but that he took the trouble to write it down—or, to be exact, to dictate it to his wife Laurie. For Pepper was one of a comparatively small number of famous jazz musicians to have published an autobiography, and Straight Life is one of the few such books to be more than superficially illuminating about its subject.

As a rule, jazz memoirs leave the reader asking more questions than they answer, and too often the questions they do answer are of interest only to their authors’ ardent fans. For this reason, the publication of A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson, written by Peterson in collaboration with the literary scholar and jazz journalist Richard Palmer, is a noteworthy occasion.1 It would have been so in any case, since Peterson is one of the most admired (if controversial) pianists in the history of jazz. But A Jazz Odyssey is exceptional not because Peterson has written a “tell-all” chronicle of his life in jazz but because he has chosen to write a very different sort of book, in the process challenging the tacit assumptions on which the vast majority of jazz autobiographies have been based.



While it is not uncommon for novelists and poets to write autobiographies, other artists are less likely to produce accounts of their life and work. More often, their writings consist of criticism, as in the case of Fairfield Porter, a great American painter who was also one of the finest art critics of the 20th century. A number of nonverbal artists, among them Mozart, Delacroix, and Van Gogh, have left behind either lengthy diaries or large runs of correspondence. But I can think of only two truly distinguished autobiographies written without assistance by indisputably major creative artists working in nonverbal media: Hector Berlioz’s Memoirs (1870) and Paul Taylor’s Private Domain: An Autobiography (1987).2

The situation is no different in jazz. Prior to World War II, it was unusual for jazz musicians to have gone to college—some had little or no formal schooling of any kind—and while many were capable of speaking memorably about their art, only a handful attempted to write about it. The exceptions included the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and the pianists Marian McPartland and Dick Wellstood, all of whom were gifted writers of prose. But these aside, only three well-known jazz musicians—Mel Tormé, Artie Shaw, and Louis Armstrong—have published memoirs written without the aid of a ghostwriter, and their efforts suggest some of the limitations of jazz autobiography.3

Tormé, a popular singer whose work became increasingly jazz-oriented from the 1950’s on, was also a part-time writer whose books included The Other Side of the Rainbow (1970), a reminiscence of his relationship with Judy Garland; Traps, the Drum Wonder (1991), a biography-memoir of the drummer Buddy Rich; and My Singing Teachers (1994), a collection of critical essays about other singers. But his most ambitious literary undertaking was It Wasn’t All Velvet (1988), a breezily written 384-page autobiography full of well-told show-business anecdotes. Unfortunately, the book was intended for a popular audience, and thus had more to say about Tormé’s love life than about his singing.

In The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity (1952), by contrast, the clarinetist-bandleader Artie Shaw scrupulously avoided the subject of his much-publicized marriages to Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Indeed, Shaw’s autobiography is unique among jazz memoirs in its aspirations to literary seriousness. (Two years after it appeared, Shaw retired from music to devote himself to writing.) But while it contains penetrating discussions of musical issues, the bulk of The Trouble with Cinderella is devoted to Shaw’s attempt to catalogue and analyze the devastating effects of what he calls “$ucce$$” on an ill-educated musician who at the age of twenty-eight suddenly found himself one of the most famous men in America. Hence, as its author intended, the book is of interest primarily as a study in the psychology of celebrity.

Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954), the best autobiography to be published by a major jazz musician, has even less to say about music than The Trouble with Cinderella and It Wasn’t All Velvet, albeit for a different reason. Beyond the simple pleasures of childhood reminiscence, Armstrong’s chief purpose in telling the story of his Horatio Alger-like youth is to pay homage to the 19th-century ethic of individual responsibility and deferred gratification that made it possible for him to escape the abject poverty into which he was born:

I don’t want anyone to feel I’m posing as a plaster saint. Like everyone I have my faults, but I always have believed in making an honest living. I was determined to play my horn against all odds, and I had to sacrifice a whole lot of pleasure to do so.

All three of these books are stylishly and compellingly written, and would be engaging even to a reader who knew little of jazz. Beyond their literary appeal, however, they are no less significant as primary historical sources—the only full-length autobiographies that present the reminiscences of important jazz musicians in wholly or essentially unmediated form.

It is thus all the more disappointing that, in Satchmo as in his other writings, Armstrong spends so little time talking about the actual process of music-making. And to turn to the ghostwritten autobiographies produced by other leading jazz musicians is to be similarly disappointed, and worse. Because we do not know to what extent their nominal “authors” have been responsible for their contents, their value as primary source material is questionable; nor can they be considered true works of literary art. Even in the presence of so gracefully poetic a narrative as the soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s Treat It Gentle (1960, with Joan Reid, Desmond Flower, and John Ciardi), or so seemingly individual a “voice” as that heard in the guitarist-bandleader Eddie Condon’s We Called It Music (1947, with Thomas Sugrue), one inevitably wonders how much credit is deserved by the ghostwriter.4

In any event, what is usually on display in these books is a bland, unrevealing voice that fails to convince on any level. Benny Goodman’s The Kingdom of Swing (1939, with Irving Kolodin), Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress (1973, with Stanley Dance), and Count Basie’s Good Morning Blues (1985, with Albert Murray) shed little light on the inner lives of their nominal authors, and still less on the music made by those remarkable men. No doubt, in some cases, they themselves were either inarticulate or unintrospective. But the problem this presents has often been compounded by the fact that most jazz memoirs are written by collaborators who are not themselves trained musicians. It is hard enough for musicians to describe what they do in nontechnical language. When laymen attempt to elicit such descriptions from them, the results are almost always unspecific and opaque, as in Duke Ellington’s tribute to Sidney Bechet:

Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz. He represented and executed everything that had to do with the beauty of it all, and everything he played in his whole life was completely original. . . . He was truly a great man, and no one has ever been able to play like him.

Small wonder, then, that the best parts of most jazz autobiographies often have little or nothing to do with jazz per se. It is true that when Art Pepper tells us about doing hard time in San Quentin, or Miles Davis describes how he was beaten by racist policemen outside a New York nightclub, we are hearing about experiences that may have been of the utmost relevance to their work. But the experiences themselves were not specifically musical, and it is left to the reader to speculate on the elusive alchemy by which they were transformed into art.



In recent years, several books about jazz have presented first-person reminiscence in a different format, one more closely resembling the oral-history interviews conducted by academic scholars.

A good example is Burt Korall’s newly published Drummin’ Men—The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years, a collection of critical essays about jazz drummers of the 1940’s and 1950’s into which Korall has incorporated lengthy excerpts from interviews with musicians of the period.5 Himself a trained drummer, Korall is musically much more comprehending than the average jazz journalist, and his use of interview material adds immediacy to his vivid descriptions of the playing of such key figures as Kenny Clarke, Mel Lewis, Shelly Manne, and Max Roach.

Books like Drummin’ Men are without question an improvement on the oddly faceless “memoirs” that dominate the first-person literature of jazz. Yet in the end, there is no substitute for the convincingly written full-length autobiography, whether ghosted or not, a fact of which we are reminded by Oscar Peterson’s A Jazz Odyssey.

At seventy-seven, Peterson remains an ambiguous figure, admired by audiences and most (though not all) musicians but held in something approaching contempt by many (though not most) critics. The first world-class jazz soloist to be born and trained in Canada, he made his U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall in 1949, immediately establishing himself as a florid, hard-swinging pianist with a highly developed virtuoso technique derived from extensive classical study6 Long a fixture at Norman Granz’s popular Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, he eventually became a star in his own right, though such critics as Whitney Balliett and Max Harrison (as well as Miles Davis, the most influential jazz musician of the 1950’s) dismissed his playing as glib and superficial.

Peterson, however, has little to say about his critics in A Jazz Odyssey, or about his sometimes tempestuous private life. Instead, he concentrates for the most part on specifically musical matters, which he explores in considerable detail. This preference for making musical points affects even his keenly observed portraits of other artists, as in the book’s delightful vignette of the night the tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips was misguided enough to take on Ella Fitzgerald, famous for her unsparing competitiveness in jam-session settings, or Peterson’s discussion of Fred Astaire, with whom he recorded in 1952.

In the latter case, Peterson goes beyond the mere evocation of a movie star’s off-stage personality to tell us about Astaire’s approach to singing:

Dancing, his time was so strict that he could make an accompaniment sound early or late; his vocal time, however, was very loose, uninhibited, and unmeasured. I found the best way to accompany him was to give him a long harmonic chord-cushion and let him take his natural liberties with metronomic time. . . . For all his rhythmic feel, Fred was not naturally attuned to jazz phrasing, and it was at times perilously easy to throw him via the wrong intro or a misplaced fill. We learned to gauge our ad-lib lines around and behind him very carefully, giving him enough time to hear his place of reentry coming up; we also stuck firmly to the normal harmonic clusters, as any kind of “modern” dissonance could phase [sic] him or make him worried about his own intonation.

I quote this passage at length both because it is characteristic of Peterson’s approach and because it is uncharacteristic of jazz autobiography in general. 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 scrutiny not only in their own right but for the perspective they offer on his own remarkable technical achievements.

Most valuable of all are Peterson’s discussions of the groups with which he himself has been associated, especially the much-admired trio he led from 1953 to 1958 with Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on bass:

I was able to initiate musical directives via my playing that would indicate to Ray and Herb exactly how much rhythmic steam I wanted behind me. . . . [M]y articulation on the piano would sometimes deepen, thereby indicating the need for a heavier “walking” type of time behind me. Another enabling device was the repeat of a definitive rhythmic figure that would serve as a gathering point for all of us. Many times, were you to be close enough to the Trio on stage, you would hear Ray say something like “O.K., Herb, let’s tighten him up!”

Passages like these make an implicit point about the nature of autobiography. A memoirist need not be capable of turning his life’s story into a work of literary art to produce a book of permanent value. But that book will succeed only to the extent that it tells us about his work—the sole claim an artist has on the attention of posterity. Otherwise, it amounts to little more than gossip.

A Jazz Odyssey is far from artful (though never less than readable), but 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. The result is a memorable contribution to the literature of jazz, and one can only hope that other musicians interested in telling their stories, whether on paper or into a tape recorder, will take it as a model.



1 Continuum, 382 pp., $29.95.

2 To this list one might also add Virgil Thomson’s Virgil Thomson (1966) and the autobiographical writings of the American composer Ned Rorem, though Thomson now seems likely to be remembered more for his criticism than for his music.

3 The bassist-composer Charles Mingus wrote a third-person memoir, Beneath the Underdog (1971), which reportedly underwent drastic editing prior to publication. In addition, a number of less widely known jazz musicians have written excellent autobiographies, among them the pianist Don Asher’s Notes from a Battered Grand (1992) and the bassist Bill Crow’s From Birdland to Broadway (1992). No less satisfying in their unpretentious way are some of the better ghostwritten memoirs by journeyman players with no pretense to literary talent: the clarinetist Barney Bigard’s With Louis and the Duke (1986, with Barry Martyn), the pianist Hampton Hawes’s Raise Up Off Me (1974, with Don Asher), the trumpeter Max Kaminsky’s jazz Band (1963, with V.E. Hughes), the bassist-manager John Levy’s Men, Women, and Girl Singers (2000, with Devra Hall), and the tenor saxophonist Arthur Rollini’s Thirty Years With the Big Bands (1987, with Barbara Gideon, Mary Fritchie, and Elizabeth Buley).

4 In the case of Miles Davis’s Miles: The Autobiography (1989, with Quincy Troupe), serious questions of authenticity have been raised by critics and scholars, while other ghostwritten jazz memoirs, most notably Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues (1956, with William Dufty), are now generally acknowledged to be substantially inauthentic.

5 Oxford University Press, 308 pp., $35.00. Of similar interest is Korall’s Drummin’ Men—The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Swing Years, originally published in 1990, which will be reissued by Oxford in November.

6 Among the best of Peterson’s many albums currently available on CD are The Oscar Peterson Trio at Zardi’s, recorded live in 1955 with the guitarist Herb Ellis and the bassist Ray Brown (Pablo 2PACD-2620-118-2, two CD’s); Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded in 1957 with Ellis, Brown, and the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (Verve 827 826-2); Night Train, recorded in 1962 with Brown and the drummer Ed Thigpen (Verve 821 724-2); and My Favorite Instrument, an album of unaccompanied piano solos recorded in 1968 (Verve 821 843-2).


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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