Book Review: ‘King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue’

Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue
By James Layton and David Pierce
Media History Press
1725 Grand View Ave.
Severn, MD 21144
©2016, pp. 303

This elegant book, 8 ¾ x 11”, comes at a time when the 1930 early Technicolor movie about Paul Whiteman and his band is undergoing a revival. The authors have documented the making of this movie in painstaking detail. There are elegant photographs, many in color. The index is complete so that one can find his/her favorite musician easily in the text or photographs.

Whiteman’s band comprising 20+ musicians was at its peak about the time of the making of this movie. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue had been commissioned for performance at Whiteman’s 1924 concert at Aeolian Hall in NYC.

Many of the outstanding jazz musicians of the time were associated at one time or another with the Whiteman band. Bing Crosby got his big break with Whiteman. Both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey played with Whiteman. Some of the others included Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Frank Trumbauer and, of course, arranger Ferde Grofé.

Interestingly, even though the elegant movie featured America’s most famous band at the time, it was not a commercial success because the timing of the release couldn’t have been worse because of the severe economic depression.

The movie has been restored using the most modern techniques and is currently being shown in a few cities at art museums and other similar locations. In contact with Mr. David Pierce, one of the authors, I learn that the movie will not be available for release in movie theatres or on DVD in the near future. Mr. Pierce indicates that the book is for sale through their company, address above, with signed and numbered copies. It is also available commercially through Amazon and other outlets, but not signed and numbered.

This book will be will be available for reading at the Jazz Room of the West Florida Public Library.

Readers are encouraged to view the two volume biography of Whiteman written by Don Rayno, which is also available in the Jazz Room.

Book Review: ‘Travels with Louis’ by Mick Carlon

Travels with Louis
By Mick Carlon
Leapfrog Press LLC © 2012
pp.245, paperback, 5”X7½”

lifewithlouisThis is the second book of its kind by author Mick Carlon. His previous book, Riding on Duke’s Train was about a young African-American boy who is befriended by Duke Ellington and is invited on tour.

This book has a similar format. Young Fred lives with his family in the New York neighborhood of Corona Queens. He is introduced to Louis Armstrong by his father, Fred senior. Through a series of adventures, young Fred has opportunity to play his own trumpet with the encouragement of Mr. Armstrong. Within the story-line, little Fred encounters, and overcomes, some racial prejudice and meets some famous musicians such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and poet Langston Hughes and Civil Rights leader John Lewis.

Throughout the book, various famous songs are mentioned as well. This book is suitable for juveniles ages 8-14.

In the foreword, the author expresses appreciation, among others, to Jack Bradley who was a longtime assistant and photographer for Louis Armstrong. Bradley’s Armstrong collection is now on display at the Armstrong House and Museum in Queens, NY. This book is autographed by Mick Carlon.

Vickers and Jazz Pensacola thank Jack Bradley for donation of this book which will be placed in the Jazz Room of downtown West Florida Public Library for circulation. Two copies of Riding on Duke’s Train are available in the library system as well.

Book Review: ‘Love for Sale: Pop Music in America’ by David Hajdu

LOVE FOR SALE: Pop Music in America
David Hajdu
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux ©2016
pp. 307 with end notes and index

loveforsaleAuthor of this book, David Hajdu, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. He’s music critic for The Nation as well as a songwriter and librettist. His biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life (1996) is the definitive work, so far, on this jazz composer/pianist and Ellington alter ego.

The current book approaches American pop music from a unique perspective. He begins with popular music presented primarily as sheet music and live performance. From there he covers the music as presented on radio and on recordings. There are numerous examples and anecdotes including Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and others.

The author also weaves in technological advances and their influence on the direction of the music—records 78 rpm to LPs to CDs to streaming audio and video. Interestingly, he weaves in some of his personal history, too. His mother worked in a fast-food place in New Jersey. She would bring home the discarded 45 rpm discs from the jukebox. He recounts also musical anecdotes related to his vocalist-wife and his son.

So, in my opinion, the book is successful on several levels. It tells a good story and at the same time gives an excellent overview of how popular music evolved over the last century. Having been a Hajdu admirer since reading Lush Life, I eagerly await his next work.

This book will be available for readers in the Jazz Room of the downtown West Florida Public Library, Pensacola.

Book Review, Interview: Martin Torgoff's 'Bop Apocalypse'

Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats & Drugs
By Martin Torgoff
Da Capo Press ©2016, pp. 393 with bibliography and end notes

bopapocalypseMartin Torgoff—journalist, author and film-maker—has taken a unique point of view in this book. He has covered the use of recreational and hence illegal drugs in the U. S. since the 1920s until beginning of the 21st century. He has juxtaposed the use of drugs specifically as it relates to jazz musicians with special emphasis on musicians post WWII.

In reading the book, I noted that his references to interviews with jazz musicians, prominent jazz writers begin in the 1990s. In fact, just about every important jazz writer was interviewed. Acknowledgements at the end of book and a brief mention in the text, explain that his researches for a previous book—Can’t Find My Way Home; America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000 © 2004—began a stepping-stone to the present volume. He wanted to expand a chapter which he called Bop Apocalypse, which became the basis for the present volume.

Bop Apocalypse covers in some detail the approach of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics approach to recreational drugs—marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crack cocaine, and peyote. It was Harry Anslinger, chief of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who chose to focus on jazz musicians especially as he felt that they were influential in popularizing these drugs to the populace. It was noted that the Anslinger file “Marijuana and Musicians” included Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and others. The Federal Narcotics hospital and prison in Lexington, KY had such a rotating clientele of jazz musicians that they had a great jazz music library and an always outstanding jazz band.

Torgoff also details the influence of Beat Generation authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

Bop Apocalypse is scheduled for release in mid-January 2017. The book will become part of Jazz Pensacola collection at West Florida Public Library and be available to its patrons. The value of that Jazz collection is now $19,000.

Interview with Mr. Torgoff is as follows:

NV: You have interviews with jazz musicians and jazz writers beginning in 1990s. How did you select those? Was it for your preparation for earlier book, Can’t Find My Way Home?

MT: I knew I needed to write about icons like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, but I wanted to be able to do it from a point of view that was completely authentic, with a real understanding of the meaning of drug use and addiction in their lives and music. I was very fortunate to be introduced to the great saxophonist Jackie Mclean, one of Bird’s protégés, by my friend Jeff Levenson, who’d been jazz editor at Billboard for many years, and it was Jackie who was gracious enough to take me deep into his life of music and drugs and the whole bebop scene. I couldn’t have done this book without him. It was Levenson who also introduced me to many of our preeminent jazz writers who did interviews for the book, like Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, and Ira Gitler, along with figures like Orin Keepnews, who worked with scores of brilliant heroin-addicted musicians like Bill Evans.

How did your previous writing experiences lead to writing this book, Bop Apocalypse?

MT: Much of the research and interviewing for this book was done in the early 90s, as I prepared my last book, Can’t Find My Way Home, which contained a chapter on the bebop era and the Beat Generation called “Bop Apocalypse.” I was so fascinated by that period and had done so much research and writing on it but had only been able to use a fraction of the material at the time. I’d always wanted to publish a book-length version of that chapter which went all the way back to the early twentieth century and the roots of jazz, fleshed out with a more complete cast of characters. This, at long last, is that book. Whereas,Can’t Find My Way Home told the story of how the use of illicit drugs went from the underground to a mass experience that one in four Americans have come to know, and how that has shaped the cultural landscape of this nation. This book tells the story of the underground itself—in essence, how the use of drugs entered the DNA of modern American popular culture in the first place. This book is largely the story of the evolution of jazz and its relationship to the Beats: the first time that drug use coalesced with music and literature, becoming a central element in the creation of an avant-garde American voice and underground cultural sensibility. Drug-using musicians like Charlie Parker were models for aspiring young writers and poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who, in turn, incorporated the use of drugs into a new literary aesthetic. Ginsberg and Kerouac were both obsessed with jazz and wanted to write just like the jazz musicians played; breakthrough experimental works like On the Road and Howl could no more been written without the use of drugs than they could have been written without jazz. During these decades, the use of marijuana and other substances became a truly interracial and multicultural nexus of American experience. Call it what you will—words like insurgent, transgressive, and oppositional have been used to describe it. It was the use of drugs by the Beats that provided the contexts for their use by the whole counterculture that emerged during the 1960s ; in hindsight it was nothing less that revolutionary because it became a vital part of the development of an alternative vision and pursuit of freedom that have shaped our cultural landscape ever since. Of course, it also had a very destructive side as well.

In your researches and interviews, what did you hope to find, but didn’t?

MT: I really wanted to interview William Burroughs for the book. He was getting quite old and living in Lawrence, Kansas, but he is such a strange and remote figure that it became an almost impossible undertaking, as even people close to him like Allen Ginsberg were cooperating with. I’ll never know what doing an interview with him might have added to the book, but I know it would have been a very memorable experience.

What would you wish readers of this book, Bop Apocalypse, to take away as a learning experience?

MT: For one thing, I hope that I’ve been able to humanize addiction for the reader, and to show how this book has real relevance to what is going on today. Although a century has passed since marijuana first appeared in New Orleans and heroin powder became available on our streets, I see this as a living history in the truest sense. Seventy-five years after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed and the era of pot prohibition began, Colorado and Washington became the first states in American history to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use in 2012; a Pew poll reported in 2014 that 75 percent of Americans believe the repeal of marijuana prohibition is now inevitable. Predictions that up to a dozen states will have legal marijuana by 2017 suddenly do not seem all that far-fetched. It could never have happened without the tiny group founded by Allen Ginsberg to legalize marijuana called LEMAR (Legalize Marijuana), which Ginsberg helped start after more than fifteen years of experience with the substance during the 40s and 50s and deciding to challenge Harry Anslinger and the whole regime of pot prohibition—a bold and reckless thing to do in the late 50s, especially for a gay Beat poet who smoked marijuana as Ginsberg did. At the same time, a new wave of heroin has arrived. Since the arrival of heroin in the Harlem of the 1940s, any uptick in the population of heroin addicts in America is reflexively labeled an “epidemic” or “plague,” and each one has its own identify. This one is serious and notable for fatal overdoses, which have tripled in three years to more than eight thousand a year. It’s a strange version of a heroin war that has plateaued for years on an epidemic of prescription opiates. But unlike heroin epidemic of the past, in this one an antidote called naloxone, which can be injected or used as an atomizer, has been distributed to police, emergency medical workers, clinics, and laypeople to reverse overdoses and save lives. In this heroin epidemic, the national attitude toward drug addiction seems entirely different The police chiefs most affected did not use military metaphors to urge get-tougher polices and longer jail sentences but called for treatment. “Paradigm shift,” “tipping point,” “crossroads”—such are the terms being commonly used to describe momentous changes like marijuana legalization and the unprecedented use of a harm-reduction strategy like naloxone by police, and their implications for drug policy,. But as the battlefield for of the war on drugs begins to lift a little after forty years, forty million arrests, an over a trillion dollars spent, the first thing that one sees is the vast wreckage of disproportionately black mass incarceration. Despite the fact that every study ever done shows that all races in this country use drugs at remarkably similar rates, in some states black men have been incarcerated on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than whites (as many as 80 percent now have criminal records in our major cities.) To increasing numbers of people outraged by the injustice of these disparities, it appears that African Americans have been typecast and targeted—as if they were the culprits being pigeonholed and held accountable for the whole American experience with illicit drugs—and even as a movement for prison reform gathered increasing momentum during the Obama administration the question of how and why it happened this way must be asked. My belief is that any understanding of it at all requires going back to the early part of the twentieth century, when the templates of modern drug law, policy an culture were first established, along with the concomitant racial stereotypes. Back to the time when the whole culture war over the use of drugs in America first began. It was, after all, the racial component of Harry Anslinger’s wars on marijuana and heroin that marked the beginning of the institutionalization of racism in the drug war, and it’s hard to imagine that the crack statutes of the 1980s, or the aggressive stop, frisk, and search practices in minority communities since, could have ever been possible without Harry Anslinger. The era covered in this book is fascinating and controversial period that teaches us much about the conflicts and questions that surround drugs today. It is my sincere hope that by looking to the past, we will be able to make more informed decisions as we fad3 the challenges of the future.

What question that a skilled interviewer should have asked, but this one didn’t?

MT: How have drugs effected the music of jazz itself? It’s a two-part question. The first pat is about how drugs may have effected the playing of the music itself—an intriguing question that comes up over and over in the evolution of the jazz of this era. It’s something I discussed with some of our most prominent jazz writers, critics and musicians, and although one can have fun conjecturing, it’s something that can never be answered with any absolute certainty because very few of them actually talked about it. The possible effects of marijuana were many on the jazz of the 1920s, from limiting inhibition and increasing one’s ability to improvise and experiment to stretching time and changing metrical structure, to experimenting with melodic phrase, slurs and offbeat syncopations that became the cutting-edge sound. Louis Armstrong, the man who would become jazz’s first and most influential soloist, singer, personality, folk hero, and one of the most beloved entertainers in the history of America, was a life-long pothead. This was the first instance when an association was made between an artist being high and his “chops”—indeed, his very musical personality–and there can be no doubt that the marijuana he smoked on a daily basis has to have has a very important impact on how he experienced and played music. Also on how and why so many other musicians picked up the practice of smoking it. Likewise, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young one of the greatest musicians of the Swing Era and the man who invented “cool jazz” and the whole cultural notion of what “cool” really meant, was a devoted pothead, a was Billie Holiday, who literally pioneered the art of jazz singing. One is tempted to make parallels between their personalities, the effects of the marijuana they smoked, and the musical innovations they became known for—the way Lester used space and in the sweet splendor of his playing; the way Billie sang like a horn, slurring, singing off the beat, groaning low from the back of her throat. Did that come from being high on reefer as a girl back in a brothel in the Fell’s Point neighborhood of Baltimore as listening to her first scratchy jazz records on a gramophone? This really the first book to pose those kinds of questions. Of course, by the mid-1940s Billie Holiday was also a full-blown heroin addict, which brings us to the second part of the question, because from that time until 1960 the music was shaped to a remarkable degree by the comings and goings of musicians into and out of their addiction to heroin.

Any personal drug experiences that you are willing to share for publication?

MT: My own personal journey through the experience of drugs began the first night I smoked pot as a teenager on November 4, 1968, and it ended at the age of thirty-seven as an addict and alcoholic who needed to change his life. When I emerged I felt like I’d lived through something very significant. As I wrestled with the meanings and consequences of drugs in my own life, I began thinking about how they had changed and shaped my generation, and that led to thinking about how they’d changed and shaped the entire pop cultural landscape of America. It was the beginning of a 25-year odyssey through this subject—a classic case of a writer whose life becomes the work and whose work becomes his life. Early on I realized that the subject of illicit drugs was a great way to tell the American story—although it is a subject that is grossly misunderstood, often demonized or romanticized, and highly charged with emotion and ideology. Despite the fact that the use of drugs has now been deeply embedded in the cultural DNA of this country for generations, I am continually astounded by how ignorant people are about them. This is because we live in a society where there was never supposed to be a drug culture in the first place, where the prohibition of drugs has been the law of the land or over a century—and where so many of us for so many reasons do not talk openly and honestly about them. As a result we suffer from a kind of cultural amnesia about them, where real knowledge about them is not passed on and each generation now seems destined to go through its own journey through them and find out for itself what they mean, often making the same mistakes. All of this makes it a very significant subject for me. As a writer I’m always looking for ways to tell the American story, and the story of drugs is a fascinating way to try and do it.

CD Review: 'Ain't That Right!' by Adrian Cunningham

Ain’t That Right! The Music of Neal Hefti
Arbors Records © 2014

hefti-coverThere’s a saying, “Any book is new until you’ve read it.” This could apply to recordings as well.

Here’s a CD from 2014 from Arbors Records featuring multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham playing the music of Neal Hefti. It’s a small-group recording with Australian native Adrian Cunningham on clarinet, tenor saxophone and flute. Wycliffe Gordon plays trombone on four of the thirteen numbers. The rest of the ensemble includes pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer Chuck Redd.

Pensacola area residents had opportunity to see Cunningham and Wycliffe Gordon live performing with Pensacola Symphony this New Year’s Eve. Gordon was the featured attraction and he brought his small group, which included Cunningham, pianist and drummer. Our own area bassist, Steve Gilmore, filled in for the scheduled bassist, who was unable to attend. Gilmore reported a superb overall performance both from the symphony as well as the Gordon ensemble. He indicated that Gordon had written all the symphony charts as well.

Back to the description of the CD. Gordon performs on these numbers: The Odd Couple; Shanghaied; Lil’ Darlin’ and Zankie. Other numbers are Scoot, Girl Talk, Barefoot in the Park, It’s Awfully Nice to Be With You, Ain’t That Right, How to Murder Your Wife, Suspicion, I’ve Got Love and Cute.

I’m pleased to report that Rachel Domber, head of Arbors Records, tells me that she intends to record Mr. Cunningham again this year! We’ll let you know when that CD becomes available.

CD Review: 'Summer Breeze' by Greg Murphy

Greg Murphy, piano
Whaling City Sound, New Bedford, MA

murphyGreg Murphy is a seasoned pianist and composer who has assembled a great team for this, his fourth CD as leader. It’s a mix of jazz compositions by outstanding artists as well as Murphy’s own well-honed compositions. Trio work includes bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Kush Abadey.    

Wheeler has recorded with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and jazz musicians, among whom are, Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller and Russell Malone. Drummer Abadey is in his early 20s but his resume is outstanding. He has recorded with Wallace Roney, attended Berklee School of Music and had recorded with Terrance Blanchard, Barry Harris and others.

Trumpeter Josh Evans joins the ensemble on most tunes and does an outstanding job. Corey Wilson joins on a Murphy composition, A Reason To Smile. Vocalist Malou Beauvoir is featured on A Reason to Smile, Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady and the Seals and Crofts composition, Summer Breeze.  

Besides those listed tunes, composition other than Murphy’s are Miles Davis’ Solar, Wayne Shorter’s Fall, Sonny Rollins’ Solid and Leo’s Lullaby by Scott Robert Avedon. The other six tunes, completing the dozen on the album, are Greg Murphy compositions.

To this reviewer, the smooth and tuneful execution and rhythmic piano suggest influence of George Shearing and Dave Brubeck.  Well done, Greg Murphy. We look for your next output.