Book Review: ‘Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond,’ Doug Ramsey

Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond
By Doug Ramsey with foreword by Dave and Iola Brubeck
Parkside Publications, Inc. Seattle

There was a sign in our hospital medical library which read: “Any book is new until you’ve read it.”

Certainly this can also apply to Doug Ramsey’s elegant biography of saxophonist Paul Desmond (11-25-1924 to May 30, 1977). The book has been out of print for several years and I obtained my copy through interlibrary loan. It is an oversized book, clothbound at 10” x 11”. The paper is high-quality and the photographic illustrations, some two pages, are equally elegant.

Ramsey and Desmond were friends for a long period. After Desmond died, the editor of Parkside Publications sought out Ramsey and persuaded him to write the book. Ramsey has a musical background and was a writer, so it was a fortuitous fit.

The book details how Desmond was only child whose father was a musician-composer in the San Francisco area. His mother had some psychological issues such that Paul was sent off to live with relatives from elementary school age until his late teens. His father suggested that he switch from violin to clarinet. Then it was a logical move to alto saxophone.

Of course, the author goes into detail about Desmond’s long association with Dave Brubeck and family. Most readers likely are familiar with that musical combination and recordings.

Lesser known, however, are the personal traits of Desmond. Whereas, Brubeck was a dedicated family man, Desmond was a very private person. There was an early marriage for Desmond but for various reasons, it didn’t work out. There were no children by that marriage and long thereafter Desmond was the man-about-town with multiple romances, some serious and some extremely casual. In this area, Desmond was a private person. For example, many of his acquaintances never knew that he’d been previously married.

Desmond made the move from the San Francisco area to New York where he spent his remaining years. He enjoyed his friendships with both musicians and writers, sometimes telling casual acquaintances that he was a writer. And, in fact, he was a prolific correspondent, carrying his Olivetti portable typewriter with him even on his foreign trips. There are several photos of Desmond in Europe carrying the portable typewriter case.

There was a period of time when Desmond left Brubeck and performed with small groups. Interestingly, usually these were with guitarists—notably Jim Hall and Canadian Ed Bickert.

Desmond was a heavy smoker, several packs a day, as well as a drinker who could play well while “in his cups.” Lung cancer accounted for his decline and death at age 52.

Although this book is out of print, there are occasionally copies available in the used book ads, some priced at $100 or more. I read that the electronic version is available for around $15.

Thanks to Parkside Publications and author Dave Ramsey for this “labor of love.”

Book Review: ‘Superstride: A Biography and Discography of Johnny Guarnieri’

A Biography and Discography of
Johnny Guarnieri
by Derek Coller
pp. 253, Jazzology Press $24.95

This 6”x9” book, like the subject, is small in size but packed with good things. British author Derek Coller has done an excellent job of summarizing the life of pianist/composer Johnny Guarnieri (1917-1985.) Baseball was Johnny’s sport of choice and each of the nine chapters in the book is entitled with a baseball theme.

Please allow a personal reference: Little did I imagine when I was a teenager just at conclusion of WWII and dancing to Summit Ridge Drive–small group recording at Artie Shaw’s address of same name as the tune with JG playing harpsichord–that I’d get to see/hear him perform in person in Mobile, Alabama, in 1983, two years prior to his death.

JG was born to an Italian immigrant family in Manhattan. His father was a classical violinist and musical repairman and was descendant of the famous Guarnieri family of violin makers. His father hoped he would continue in the family tradition as a violinist, but, instead, JG took to the piano with his father’s blessing. JG had small hands, which make for a disadvantage in playing stride piano in the style of James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller. But Johnny overcame the small-hands disadvantage. In the ’30s and ’40s, he had opportunity to perform with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey.

Johnny had poor eyesight, which got him a deferment from draft during WWII, during which time he made many recordings for Armed Forces Radio. During the ’40s and ’50s there were recording engagements, radio work as well as performances. Johnny’s personal habits were of clean-living, so he was spared some of the difficulties of drugs and alcohol that plagued many of his colleagues. He was an inveterate pipe-smoker, however. And, during those times, he could smoke on the job. One of the “tricks” mentioned in the book — and I observed it myself during his Mobile, Alabama, stay — he’d re-light his pipe with a match while his left hand played arpeggios. Unless one were looking, it would be unlikely that the ear would detect that only the left hand was playing.

There was a second marriage during JG’s New York and subsequent New Jersey residence. Then he moved to the Los Angeles area in the ’60s. It was hoped that he’d get more studio work, but it didn’t meet his expectations. However, performing and recording opportunities came his way and there was opportunity to tour both the U.S. and Europe. One long-time engagement was a restaurant-lounge on LA’s Ventura Blvd. called Tail of the Cock. The book details some of JGs regular attendees — musicians, movie-stars and others. Pianist Johnny Varro, now living in the Tampa area, was one of his substitutes when he toured. In my recent conversation with Varro, JV reported, “Yes, and Johnny G. would substitute sometimes for ME when I needed to be away from my gig for a while.”

During the Los Angeles years, JG was a frequent visitor to the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (and its subsequent slight name-change). There was a special event called the Pianorama where the jazz pianists with the varying bands at the festival got to play solo piano for short periods. Sometimes JG might be the master of ceremonies or share with pianist/bandleader Bob Ringwald. As an occasional visitor there, myself, the Pianorama was a special treat for me.

The biographical portion of this book is only 125 pages, but it is packed with interesting facts and has multiple photos of musicians and bands with whom JG performed. The remainder of the book contains discography, tributes from fans and protégés including Herb Mickman, “Vinny” Armstrong and Jim Turner.

For the musical scholar, pianist virtuoso Dick Hyman has a short piece about his interactions with JG and has included some musical transcriptions as examples of JG’s expertise.

Author Derek Coller, now in his ninth decade, has produced a valuable and interesting addition to our jazz history. Somewhere up there, JG must be smiling and playing great jazz piano.

Book Review: ‘Sophisticated Giant, The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon,’ Maxine Gordon

SOPHISTICATED GIANT: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
By Maxine Gordon
University of California Press © 2018
pp. 279

This biography of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923-1990) by his wife Maxine was written after his death and was a fulfillment of a promise she made to complete his life story.

Most people will remember that Dexter was the star of a 1986 movie “Round Midnight.” This movie was about a U.S. expatriate in France a decade or so after the end of World War II. In some ways, it was also a reflection of Dexter’s life in that he lived in Copenhagen, married a Danish woman and had a son with her. In actuality, the inspiration for the movie was a pianist with mental health issues, Bud Powell, who had spent time in France and had a Frenchman as his friend and protector. There are interesting details about making of the movie. American movie director Martin Scorsese had a bit part in the movie and predicted, accurately, that Dexter would be nominated for an Academy Award. And that prediction came true. Dexter didn’t win that year, not being a Hollywood insider. But, just to be nominated, especially since he wasn’t a trained actor, was a great accomplishment.

Dexter was the son of one of the first African-American physicians in Los Angeles. His childhood was comfortable and he had musical friends and went on the road in his late teens. There was a brief prison term and when the opportunity came for him to go to Europe, he seized it.

As stated, there was a period of marital stability with a Danish wife and a son born to that couple. But, when they moved back to the U.S. and his life became that of traveling bandleader, the marriage failed and his wife and child moved back to Denmark.

In the course of time, he needed an assistant who could help with the accounting and other details of travel and band personnel. That’s when he acquired the services of Maxine who became his manager/partner and, subsequently, wife. She had a common-law marriage to Woody Shaw and their young son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, came to live with Dexter and Maxine when they married.

Dexter had wanted to write the story of his life and had made some notes but never got that far along. Maxine promised that she’d make an effort to complete the work. This required additional study and effort — quite a remarkable story in itself. For more details on Maxine’s life and work see:

Prediction: If you read this interesting book, likely you will have the urge, like me, to watch the movie, “Round Midnight,” again.

Book Review: ‘Jeru’s Journey: The Life and Music of Gerry Mulligan’

Jeru’s Journey
The Life and Music of Gerry Mulligan
By Sanford Josephson
Hal Leonard Books, pp.213 © 2018

Jeru’s Journey is the first definitive biography of Gerry Mulligan. Most jazz fans likely know him as an outstanding baritone saxophone player but he was much more than that — arranger, composer and even a sometime theatrical actor. Author Sanford Josephson has done an excellent job of researching Mulligan’s work and career as well as interviewing many of Gerry’s musical collaborators.

In a telephone interview with the author, I learned that he had interviewed Mulligan in 1981 for a newspaper article that became a chapter in his 2009 book Jazz Notes: Interviews Across the Generations. Other valuable source material was the Library of Congress. Mulligan’s papers are deposited there along with his jazz instruments. There were a series of fourteen audiotapes that Mulligan had produced with an interviewer that were lent to Josephson by Mulligan’s wife Franca.

Mulligan’s career is succinctly laid out by the author and supplemented by comments from his collaborators.

The purpose of a book review is not to reveal the entire contents of the book but merely to provide an overview and enough insight for the reader to determine whether or not to proceed further. For those interested, the book will reveal intriguing aspects of Mulligan’s personality. For example, he had a relationship with theater and movie actress Judy Holliday. Mulligan played the part of a priest in the movie “The Subterraneans,” based on the Jack Kerouac novel. He also played Judy Holliday’s blind date in the movie version of “The Bells Are Ringing.” Mulligan was happy and comfortable with most styles of jazz, as well as other music. His musical associations were widespread from Dixieland, Bop to Classical.

Allow me two intriguing examples from this book. Mulligan had met New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta on an airplane flight. Mulligan was invited to play the soprano saxophone part on “Bolero” at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. A few days earlier, not having the music beforehand, Mehta had whistled Mulligan’s part over the phone. He only saw the music on the evening of the concert.

Some time after Mulligan’s death, there was to be a celebration of Mulligan’s life and career at the Library of Congress. Saxophonist Scott Robinson was scheduled to perform a piece on Mulligan’s baritone sax. He brought his own reeds and mouthpiece to play on Mulligan’s instrument. Following the trial run, he put his own mouthpiece and reed along with Mulligan’s instrument in the large airline traveling case. The staff assured him that he wouldn’t have to carry that bulky case; they’d set everything up for his performance. When it came time for Robinson to get ready to play, to his horror, he discovered that his own mouthpiece and reed were not on the horn but Mulligan’s own mouthpiece and a 25 year-old cracked reed! However, much to Scott’s relief, he got through the piece without incident!

Recommended. Josephson and Hal Leonard are to be thanked for the effort to bring Mulligan’s life and work to the present and future generations.

This book will go to the Jazz Room of the West Florida Public Library for its patrons to enjoy.

Book Review: ‘Jazz Greats Speak’

Jazz Greats Speak;
Interviews with Master Musicians
Roland Baggenaes, Author
Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Pp. 139; paperback
© 2008 by Rowland Baggenaes

There was a sign in the medical library of the hospital in which I practiced; it stated: Any Book Is New Until You’ve Read It. And, that may also apply to this review.

The author Roland Baggenaes is Danish and the interviews of 17 jazz artists were conducted from 1972 through 1987. The interviews were originally published in Coda magazine. Interviews are conversational in style, perceptive and informative. Each interview is preceded with a brief biographical sketch, obviously written later for the book since a number of the interviewees had died in the interim.

The names of most of the interviewees will be familiar to American jazzfans. Less familiar, perhaps is Marie-Ange Martin, a guitarist who grew up in Paris. Pierre Diorge, guitarist-bandleader-composer and clarinetist-saxophonist John Tchicai are both Danish.

The 14 Americans interviewed are Dexter Gordon, Stanley Clarke, Duke Jordan, Jackie McLean, Mary Lou Williams, Howard King, Red Rodney, Marc Levin, Benny Waters, Warne Marsh, Mal Waldron, Ernie Wilkins, Sahib Shihab and Lee Konitz. There also are photos of all 17 interviewees.

This is the kind of book that might best be read one or two interviews at a time and then seek out a recording or two, YouTube or other source. One possible economic drawback is the expense of many of the Scarecrow Press books, which are academic and not mass-market. This is still in print with list price at $51. One may be able to find, however, a lower-priced used copy for significantly less, as I did.

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

Book Review: ‘Good Things Happen Slowly,’ Fred Hersch

Good Things Happen Slowly;
A Life In and Out of Jazz
Fred Hersch
Crown Publishing Group
© 2017 by Fred Hersch and David Hajdu, pp. 308

Most readers of this column would have, at least, heard of pianist/ group-leader/ composer Fred Hersch. He is now a 61 year old artist who tours and performs world-wide, usually as trio but sometimes solo. He credits his longtime friend Columbia U. journalism professor David Hajdu for assistance and encouragement in writing this book. And, Hersch mentions that he also collaborated with Hajdu when the professor was writing his excellent biography of Billy Strayhorn.

Hersch tells about growing up in a Cincinnati family where he was the younger of two sons. He showed an affinity for piano at an early age and was encouraged by his grandmother. His parents were not especially compatible and father was somewhat aloof.

There are essentially three interwoven themes in this well-written book: Hersch’s musical education and career, his homosexuality with complicated issues with HIV/AIDS, and his experimentation with various recreational drugs. These are presented in a straight-forward, non- flamboyant way and I would not hesitate to recommend this book, for example, to an inquisitive high school student.

Permit me a personal reference here. In the early ‘90s, I attended a meeting of the IAJE ((International Association of Jazz Educators.) As most readers know, it declared bankruptcy in 2008 and has fortunately been supplanted by Jazz Educators Network. At the IAJE convention, there were many activities throughout the complex from early to late. Fred Hersch was scheduled for a solo piano concert at 10 a.m., not necessarily a favorable hour for most musicians. However, when I looked around the room, I recognized many famous performers who had come to hear him play, reinforcing my own opinion of Hersch’s excellence as both pianist and composer.

As stated, Hersch details the important portions of his jazz education and performance, his personal life and his struggles with HIV/AIDS in a straight-forward way. His life-threatening infection secondary to reduced immunity because of AIDS required a two-week medically induced coma. During which time, of course, he was essentially unresponsive. However, he had vivid dreams. He fortunately survived and was able to recall and set these to music and collaborated with dramatic and graphic artists to produce a DVD called, of course, “My Coma Dreams.” Shortly after being released from the hospital and not being completely recovered,–he still had a stomach feeding tube inserted through the abdominal wall– he was able to give a concert in NYC. This was attended by his many musical friends who were not professionally engaged that evening. This performance, of course, was heart-warming for both the performer and the audience.

Hersch also discusses his own experimentation with recreational drugs. He also discusses some of the culture and habits of his colleagues. I never thought of this until I read it, but if one is a drug user and his leader is also, it’s impolite not to offer the leader some. Hersch reports that he had a tape-recorder on the piano and would tape some of the sessions. One evening, when he was “using” he recorded the session. Then later when clear-headed, he listened and realized that he had not performed as well as he had imagined during the evening. Subsequently, he reported that he always performed “clear-headed” thereafter.

To understand fully the significance of the book title, one needs to read the book. I shall not reveal it here.

Hersch’s many recordings, his multiple awards and educational history are all documented and easy to find on the internet. This book, the DVD of “My Coma Dreams” and many Hersch’s CDs are available for circulation in the Jazz Room of the downtown West Florida Public Library.