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Robert Palmer 1945 - 1997by Eric Nisenson
Copyright © 1999 Eric NisensonFirst publication: Jazz Notes 9/4 1997
As most of you already know, Robert Palmer, who died this past autumn at the age of 52, was not exclusively a jazz writer. His territory was the entire range of what he called "vernacular" music: blues, rock, funk, "world" music, and, very importantly, jazz. Critics who do not specialize in jazz rarely are able to write about it convincingly. After all these years of listening to and reading about jazz, I usually have a pretty good sense of whether or not a book or article about jazz is written by somebody who truly knows and understands this music. Even long before I met him, I always felt that Bob knew the jazz field as well as anyone else writing about it. And after I met him and we became close friends, his knowledge and insights about jazz - as well as many other fields - almost always were sharp and true. As a writer he was almost always brilliant, truly sui generis. But as a human being he was even more impressive.
I realize there are many who have heard the rumors about him and who have jumped to conclusions about the kind of person Bob was. And there have been a few who have written obits about Bob who never really knew him but, based on shadowy knowledge of his character, have nevertheless written about him as if they had been close intimates. Like all of us, Bob had his demons and he wrestled mightily with them. But he was so much more - as a person - than just a weakling victim or the kind of tortured self-destructive genius which has become a shallow and misleading cliche in our culture. Those who knew Bob well remember him as being a gentle, brilliant, complex, caring, and kind man, always generous with his knowledge, and always a bringer of light to to our lives. I always worried that a sensibility as rare and finely tuned as Bob's could not survive in the muck of our world. Sadly, my fears turned into reality. But what Bob did give us while he was here is the equal to that of our greatest artists: a profound understanding of what our life in this world is all about.
Talking about music with Bob was one of the great joys of my life. We would begin by discussing, for example, a new reissue of Lester Young, and from there Bob would jump to Albert Ayler and from there to a new Eric Clapton album, or a new album of Arabic vocal and oud music and maybe switch all the way back to Johnny Dodds. Yet the conversation was not as disjointed as it may seem: Bob was always able to find fascinating parallels between all these various kinds of music. His enthusiasm was as vibrant as his erudition was deep.
One of Bob's greatest contributions to jazz criticism was his ability to trace elements of the great American music back to its African roots. To Bob, the fact that blues, rock, jazz, and even country and western music all had this African kinship meant that the differences between them were far more artificial than is commonly thought. For instance, he showed very clearly that jazz was one of the key forerunners to rhythm and blues and rock. I remember one piece that he wrote for the New York Times that was a comparison of reissues of Thelonious Monk and Jerry Lee Lewis. Bob found some fascinating similarities between the two pianists/composers - for example, their eccentric, percussive approach to piano playing was very similar to certain African musical techniques. Most jazz purists would find such a comparison absurd and I have to admit that I too had a bit of a problem with that one. I told Bob that although I of course greatly enjoyed Lewis, Monk's music was far more profound and intricate. But Bob approached music on a far purer plane than I could - the openness of his spirit was so remarkable.
Bob produced three masterpieces during his life. One is his book about the Delta blues, Deep Blues, which is inarguably one of the greatest books ever written about American musical culture. Then there was his book about the birth and development of rock, Rock and Roll: An Unruly History, the best, and most readable, history of rock. And the third masterpiece was the innumerable pieces he wrote for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Down Beat, and numerous other journals as well as countless liner notes. Bob's widow, Jo-Beth Burton, is going to put together a compilation of his best pieces; it should be a very long - and very great - book.
One of Bob's favorite jazz musicians was the relatively obscure tenor man Tina Brooks. I had never paid Brooks much attention until I met Bob. He especially loved Brooks' Blue Note album True Blue, a record of exceptional bluesy lyricism. Bob wrote the liner notes for the booklet that accompanied the Mosaic boxed set of Brooks' albums (most of them never previously released) and at the end of those notes he revealed why this music, and all the music he loved, was so important to him: ". . . [The] more we are bombarded by the same lower-common-denominator music, and the same canned "news," the less we listen. An artist of Tina Brooks' stature would have had a better shot, at least enough recognition to keep going, if enough people had been listening. As a people, as a world, we have forgotten how to listen. And if we don't start listening again, one day some fool we never bothered to listen to is going to be in the White House and giving the order to nuke the commies. And then there will be nothing to listen to at all or anyone to listen."
Bob Palmer was not just one of the greatest writers on American and "world" music, he was also one of the finest persons I have known and one of the best friends I ever had and I will always love him like a brother.