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Eric Nisenson: 1946-2003
Eric Nisenson
writer

Born: February 12, 1946 in New York, NY
Died: August 15, 2003 in Malden, MA

Miles, Trane, Rollins biographer

by James Hale
Copyright © 2003 James Hale

James Hale

Some people falter when faced with a terminal disease; others rise to the challenge. Eric Nisenson chose the latter course, using the last decade of his life to focus his energy on writing several books. On August 15, at age 57, he lost his long battle to kidney disease.

The son of a prominent inventor, Jules Nisenson, who worked well into his 90s before dying last spring, Eric Nisenson developed a love of jazz in his teens. He had an equally strong attraction to words.

Born in New York City, he was raised in Rye, New York, and majored in English at NYU. Moving to San Francisco after graduation, he combined his two passions as a freelance contributor to alternative publications, including The Berkeley Barb and Heliotrope.

After returning to New York City in the early '70s, Nisenson began working as a college textbook editor and struck up two influential friendships, with music critic Robert Palmer and jazz bassist Walter Booker. Booker, who, in addition to work with Sarah Vaughan and Nat Adderley, operated a recording studio, offered to introduce him to Miles Davis, Nisenson's teenage idol. Against all odds, Davis and Nisenson became close friends, a friendship that sustained through the late '70s, when Davis was a virtual recluse in his townhouse on Manhattan's West 77th Street. Although he often found himself pressured into the role of reluctant errand-runner - with the errands including drug deliveries - Nisenson provided one of the few intellectual stimulations Davis pursued in those years. At some point, Davis decided that Nisenson should write his official biography, but their collaboration was slowed by the trumpeter's drug and health problems. Eventually, in 1982, Nisenson published a personal take on Davis' life entitled 'Round About Midnight.

By that point, Nisenson had been expelled from Davis' inner circle as part of a purge instigated by Cicely Tyson, but until his death he savored a comment by Davis that was quoted in the second edition of 'Round About Midnight in 1996: "I love (Eric). He reminds me of Gil Evans, a white guy with no prejudice."

In 1993, Nisenson published another highly impressionistic biography of a jazz icon, Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest. Shortly after its publication, he moved with his father to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he faced the increasingly difficult task of dealing with leukemia and the liver and kidney disorders related to its treatment. A large man - six-feet-four and more than 200 pounds - he hated the fact that the medications prescribed to him caused his weight to balloon out of control and his energy to plummet. Except for occasional train excursions to Manhattan and hospitalizations, he was essentially housebound for long periods. The Internet provided a welcome outlet, and he maintained an ongoing correspondence with a wide range of people including Italian guitarist and Miles Davis researcher Enrico Merlin, writer John Cottrell and university librarian Bill Kenz, who provided research help for several of Nisenson's books. He also maintained close ties to numerous musicians, particularly composer George Russell and bandleader Bill Kirchner.

In 1996, he made a rare trip to deliver a research paper at the second annual Miles Davis Conference at Washington University in St. Louis.

During his final years, Nisenson contributed occasional articles and reviews to magazines like Jazziz, The Jazz Report and DownBeat, but increasingly his emphasis was on larger projects. In 1997, he published a controversial take on the neo-conservative movement spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, Blue: The Murder of Jazz. Three years later, The Making of Kind of Blue appeared. Overshadowed in North America by Ashley Kahn's similarly titled book, the work found a better reception in Europe, where it won the $10,000 Frankfurt eBook Award.

The year 2000 also saw the publication of a third jazz biography, Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation, a book that delighted Nisenson for the opportunity to work closely with the saxophonist, who was initially reluctant to participate but ended up writing an enthusiastic foreword and granting the author extensive access.

Moving with his father to Malden, Massachusetts, outside Boston, to be closer to his brother Peter, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, Nisenson struck a similar collaborative agreement with pianist Dave Brubeck for a book that remained unfinished at the time of his death.

Increasingly in later years, Nisenson's interest began to expand beyond jazz to Brazilian music, and in 2002 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to research a book on Brazil's musical and cultural revolution, work that was just underway when he died.


James Hale
Editor of Jazzhouse.org.

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With 3 reader comments, latest October 20, 2007