Book Review: ‘Finding Bix,’ Brendan Wolfe

FINDING BIX: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend
Brendan Wolfe
University of Iowa Press
pp. 235, © 2017; paperback

This is the most recent book about cornetist/pianist/composer Bix Beiderbecke. It is written by a Davenport, Iowa, native, now working at the University of Virginia. Author Brendan Wolfe has a somewhat breezy approach and doesn’t make an effort to recite episodes in Bix’s life in a chronological manner. Also effort is made to discuss, in somewhat light overview, effect of Bix’s life and work on music up to the present day; hence, the significance of afterlife in the title.

Most of the readers of this review will have, a least, an idea of Bix, the musician and his music. To recapitulate briefly, Bix was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1905 and died of pneumonia complicated by alcoholism in 1933 at age 28. Why is he revered today by so many musicians? He was a talented cornetist, pianist and composer although he never read music proficiently and had help in transcribing his music for other musicians. He was a friend of Hoagy Carmichael and, according to Carmichael, the opening phrase of Carmichael’s Stardust was a phrase from Bix’s performance.

Wolfe spends a good bit of his book in the afterlife category and sometime mixes fictional characters along with actual ones. Although Wolfe is, at least, familiar with music because he mentions playing an instrument in high school band, he spends little time discussing Bix’s music itself. He writes, however, about Bix’s drinking and a couple of sexual escapades.

It is suggested that a reader see the more definitive biographies, Bix: Man and Legend ©1974 by Sudhalter and Evans (now out of print but readily available from used book dealers) or Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend by Jean Pierre Lion © 2007. Then read Wolfe’s book for comparison.

On a personal note, one connection I have with Bix is that his composition In A Mist is on my piano. I’ve played and enjoyed this lovely piece over the years. There are hints of reference to Debussy in this piece. He composed four other piano solos, but he only recorded the former one.

This book will be placed in the Jazz Room of the downtown West Florida Public Library for patron check-out.

On this blog, the reader is referred to a review of a two-CD set, A Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke. One CD is interpretations of Bix’s music by Echoes of Spring, a quartet in Germany with some supplemental musicians. The other CD contains music by Bix as he plays with other musicians under his own leadership or that of Frank Trumbauer or the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. That CD set is available for check-out at the Jazz Room of the downtown West Florida Public Library or available for purchase on the internet. Highly recommended!

Book Review: ‘Spirits Rejoice!’ by Jason C. Bivins

Spirits Rejoice!
Jazz and American Religion
by Jason C. Bivins
Pp.369 with photos and index
© 2015 Oxford University Press

This book explores the relationship between religion or spirituality and its influence, if any, on American jazz musicians. Little has been done in attempts to correlate these two. The book is written by a gentleman with interests in both areas. Jason C. Bivins is a professor of religion at University of North Carolina and an active jazz guitarist. He’s written reviews for various publications including Cadence, so he has good credentials in both areas.

The book is not an easy read. The first chapter discusses the relationship between spirituality and religion and quotes writers and theologians with which the average reader will be only vaguely familiar, if at all. Other chapters are a bit less opaque in that they deal with specifics and mentions jazz artists with which the reader will likely be familiar with some.

There is a preponderance of African-American musicians discussed here. Duke Ellington is mentioned in relationship to his three sacred concerts performed later in his life. And there is Mary Lou Williams’ example of giving up her jazz career, becoming a devout Roman Catholic and composing some masses, which have become famous.

Then there are other religions such as Islam, Sufiism, Rastafarianism, and some Eastern religions that are discussed. There’s a segment on Sun Ra and his Arkestra. In reading about him, it was hard for me to tell whether he was a complete charlatan or completely deluded. In conversation with the author, his tendency was to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him an “authentic American eccentric.” Also, there is mention on the use of music in Scientology but not enough detail is given for the reader to determine how and to what effect it is used.

There is a chapter called Jazz Communitarianism. The author talks about UGMAA, Union of God’s Musicians in Artists Ascension, founded by Horace Tapscott. There were similar organizations in Chicago and St. Louis. These arose in the late ’50s and ’60s and most have gradually diminished or discontinued with the passing decades.

My advice to the average reader: It might be better to leave the first chapter to be read last. Dig in to some specific examples initially and then read the more theoretical chapter about what other scholars have to say about the interrelation of music, religion and spirituality

Some of the religious and spiritual practices are difficult for this reader to understand. However, Rastafarianism would seem to appeal to a certain segment. They have a slave narrative and there is the practice of dancing and drumming all night, along with the use of marijuana.

Here are some excerpts from telephone and e-mail interview with religion professor and jazz guitarist Bivins, which will, I hope, give further insights into this book:

Your musical instrument(s) and performance experience:

Guitar, primarily electric. I’ve played in bands since I was 14 or 15, and by my early 20s I committed to playing jazz and improvised music almost exclusively. I’ve been on over a dozen records, and have toured in the United States. I am still an active performer and player (though mostly locally in North Carolina.

For whom, primarily, was this book intended; your experience, so far, as to the reception you’d hoped and expected?

It was written for a mix of academic and serious non-academic audiences, and for folks coming either with a primary interest in jazz or with a primary interest in religion. I wanted to teach scholars of religion more about jazz, and I also wanted to teach jazz folks a bit more about religion.

How has it, so far, been received by 1.professional academic religion professors; 2. musician colleagues

Very well received so far. Lots of good reviews, nice press coverage (including a full-page review in Downbeat), dozens of invited talks, radio interviews, etc.

Thinking of other instances where a professional has interest in two areas, is it possible that your musical colleagues think of you as a religion professor and the religion professors think of you primarily as a musician?

I think most of my musician pals just think of me as Jason, which I’m glad about. But they all know what I do and we talk about it, because they’re smart and curious folks. Most of my academic colleagues don’t think of me as a musician at all. In fact, I think most of them are probably totally unaware of it. That’s okay with me, although since I mention this in the book that knowledge is now probably a bit more likely.

Assuming that you have been reared in Christian faith and, further, that you currently hold, more or less to those tenets, what non-Christian faith is appealing to you as a musician and why?

I was raised Episcopalian, though not in a strict household. I’m not a member of any particular community right now, though I see plenty of appeal in a lot of traditions. The phrase “music is my religion” still sounds pretty good to me.

It is said that Martin Luther had some of his best theological thoughts while sitting on the toilet. What/where do you find musical or intellectual stimulation?

Mostly in literature, in nature, and to a certain extent in film too.

Do you have plans for any additional books along musical lines?

Not right now, but I’m certainly open to the idea. It might not be on jazz. Or it might just focus on a single musician rather than a bigger analytic study.

You mention the use of music in Scientology. However, in my reading, your book and elsewhere, I never got a strong sense of detail how music was used for this group (cult). Any comment or clarification?

I’m not sure Scientology itself is particularly musical. It’s just that at a certain moment of jazz history, a bunch of musicians (especially Chick Corea) found their principles useful in performance.

Any questions I should have asked, but didn’t?

Maybe “What interview do you regret not landing?” And the answer would be: Anthony Braxton.

One facetious comment from me: I wasn’t familiar with the details/beliefs of Rastafarianism but I can see how this would appeal to a certain element—night-long sessions of drumming and dancing with associated use of marijuana.

And the music’s good too! I recommend The Congos’ Heart of the Congos.

Another comment: My white jazz-fan friends frequently commented about the Ken Burns TV series on jazz—too much sociology. However, to me the series would have been incomplete without the social commentary on the social conditions of the times. Music and sociological conditions are, in my view, inseparable. Also, my associates all had criticism because their favorite performer(s) didn’t get more air-time. My comment, “I can’t wait until I see your version presented!”

I agree with you. If we take the music seriously, we have a responsibility to understand the bigger picture. That’s basically the motivation for my book.

Another comment, although you mention some white musicians who have been attracted to more obscure religious sects, what, in your opinion, was the motivation for such a transition?

Maybe just the allure of being an outsider.

Book Review: ‘Girl Singer,’ Mick Carlon

Girl Singer
By Mick Carlon
Leapfrog Press © 2015
pp. 164 paperback

girlsingerThis is the third novel in the jazzseries for juveniles. The reader follows a 19 year old African-American girl singer.In this fictional account, she meets real-life characters such as bandleader William “Count” Basie, Lester ” Pres” Young, drummer Jo Jones vocalists Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and saxophonist Buddy Tate.

In the course of the book, she encounters some racial prejudice herself. And she meets a friend, who as a Jew in Nazi Germany, had experienced that brand of hatred and oppression.

It is well-written and appropriate for middle and early high school students. As with Carlon’s previous books, it conveys the author’s enthusiasm for the music and its players.

Carlon’s previous novels for juveniles were Riding Duke’s Train and Travels With Louis, also published by Leapfrog Press. Carlon is ahigh school and middle school English teacher who lives on Cape Cod.

This novel will be available for check-out in the Jazz Room of Pensacola’s West Florida Public Library.

Book Review: ‘Pressed for All Time’ by Michael Jarrett

Producing the Great Jazz Albums From Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday To Miles Davis and Diana Krall
©Michael Jarrett, 2016
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill
pp. 303 with index

pressedforalltimeMichael Jarrett is a published author and jazz authority as well as an English professor at Pennsylvania State University at York, Pa. He looks at the way certain jazz recordings were made through interviews with their producers. He writes about his conversations about these recordings with some of the giants in the business—George Avakian, Milt Gabler, Orrin Keepnews, Michael Cuscana and Neshui Ertrgun, for example, and also many with which most are unfamiliar.

Jarrett recounts his conversation with Gabler about how Billie Holiday wanted to record “Strange Fruit,” which was popular with her multi-racial audience at NYC’s Café Society. She was under contract with Columbia which would not record it for fear of offending a portion of their customers. Gabler was able to get an exception from Columbia and recorded it on his own Commodore label. Ironically, it was pressed by Vocalion, which was owned by CBS, which also owned Columbia. The book covers recordings current to 2013. Some examples of recordings in the 2000s include Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Abbey Lincoln and Gregory Porter in 2013.

When recording tape came available, producers were then able to edit and splice, thereby saving time in the recording studio. One producer reported that he learned to edit by watching Rudy Van Gelder do it.

The format of the book is necessarily conversational. A subject heading might be the title of a recording and then conversation with one or more producers about that recording. There is usually a small photograph of the album cover. So that the reader of this review may conceptualize the format of this book, the titles of the four chapters are as follows:
Cutting Sides: Producing 78 RPM Discs, 1936-1949
Rolling Tape: Producing Jazz LPs, 1950-1966
Laying Down Tracks: Producing Multitrack Recordings, 1967-1990
Recording to Hard Drive: Producing Digitally, 1991-2013

There are also brief biographical sketches of the interviewee/ commentators since some may not generally be known by the average reader.

Mr. Jarrett kindly allowed me a telephone interview. Although he covered this in his book, he has interviewed record producers for jazz publications including Jazziz and Pulse, published by Tower Records. I asked how he reconstructed those interviews. He explained that he taped all the interviews then transcribed them. Hence, it was then just a matter of searching to find the ones desired.

This book is a valuable contribution to our greater appreciation of the artists themselves. If not for the producers the music would be only ephemeral. If one wishes to verify, the Jarrett’s interview recordings are on file at the library at University of North Carolina.

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.