The Golden Age of Jazz Biography

The Golden Age of Jazz Biography

Q. from James Hale in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 02:38 pm]
Good evening, everyone.

Welcome to the first Jazz Journalists Association online forum for 2003.

This evening, the topic is jazz biography.

Are we truly in a Golden Age of jazz bios?

What does it take to write a comprehensive, entertaining biography?

What are the pitfalls? The pleasures?

What are the stories behind the stories?

How do you sell an idea for a jazz bio? Who’s buying? Which jazz artists attract interest, and which don’t?

Hopefully, over the next three hours, we’ll cover it all and more.

This evening’s panelists (some of whom will be joining us in progress) are:

Donald Clarke: author of Billie Holiday: Wishing On The Moon.

Leslie Gourse: author of biographies of Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Wynton Marsalis, and Carmen McRae, and others.

Howard Mandel: author of Future Jazz and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Lara Pellegrinelli: doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Harvard University and a frequent contributor to JazzTimes.

Lewis Porter: author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music, editor of A Lester Young Reader.

David Ritz: author of Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott and Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, and co-author of Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story.

Alyn Shipton: author of Fats Waller: Cheerful Little Earful and Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie.

Stephanie Stein Crease: author of Gil Evans: Out of the Cool.

W. Royal Stokes: author of Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians About Their Careers in Jazz.

John Szwed: author of Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra and So What: The Life of Miles Davis.

Paul Tingen: author of Miles Beyond: Miles Davis, 1967-1991.

Scott Yanow: author of numerous books, including Swing, Bebop, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Classic Jazz and Trumpet Kings.

  A. from W. Royal Stokes in Silver Spring, MD [Jan 21 - 07:56 pm]
   I should say it is a Golden Age of jazz bios. When I began reading in the jazz literature in my teens in the 1940s, there were the autobiographies of Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Mezz Mezzrow, and a few others. Now there is an annual flood of jazz biographies and autobiographies. I am currently much enjoying Oscar Peterson's Jazz Odyssey and looking forward to several others awaiting my attention next to my reading chair, namely Richard Sudhalter's biography of Hoagy Carmichael, Gary Giddins' of Bing Crosby, and Leslie Gourse's of Art Blakey. Incidentally, if you deign to step aside from jazz for a few evenings for a fascinating story as well as many rewarding insights into a corner of American culture that overlaps into jazz and blues history, check out Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg's Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone, the biography of the great country music stars of the 1920s and 1930s, the Carter Family. W. Royal Stokes
  A. from Pres in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:03 pm]
   Royal's got an interest point -- about the golden age of *autobiographies.* Maybe the first couple books "by" Louis Armstrong weren't, really; we know Stanley Dance ghosted Duke's Music Is My Mistress, and Farah Griffin has demonstrated how Billie Holiday's by Duffy was a clip job (he didn't even meet her!), and wasn't it Bernard Wolfe who ghost-wrote Mezz's Really the Blues? Mingus' Beneath the Underdog highly fabricated, Miles' autobio still a matter of controversy . . . Count Basie as told to Albert Murray was reviewed as heavily bowlderized(sp?) . . . I guess we can trust Danny Barker, and Wynton re the Sweet Life on the Road, eh? Royal's other point, at least the one I infer, is about how the book ought to situate its subject within the cultural context. i.e, the Carter Family, or Gary's Bing thing. Which jazz bios do that best?
  A. from Scott Yanow in Burbank [Jan 21 - 08:07 pm]
   Hi there. We are in a golden age of jazz bios. There are so many to choose from. For facts and consistent adventure, it's difficult to beat John Chilton's Sidney Bechet. The recent books on Mary Lou Williams and Chet Baker, though the latter is sometimes depressing, are quite superior. Jazz biographies seem to be getting more and more accurate in general, showing that quite often the truth is more fascinating than the legend.
  A. from lewis porter [Jan 21 - 08:09 pm]
   Yes, I agree with Royal that there is a lot going on in jazz biography these days. It seems to me there is a lot of good research going into those bios too, which I feel is important. In a sense there are two kinds--the autobios, which I collect and always find fascinating, and the bios, which we also need--because an autobio doesn't give us all the names and dates we might want, and might not cover all the topics we'd like to see covered. (By the way hello to all my friends on the panel and apologies in advance--my moving date was changed to TOMORROW at 9am so I will have to leave and resume packing after a few minutes!) Lewis
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:09 pm]
   Welcome Scott. I've always liked Chilton's book on Coleman Hawkins, too. It's almost *too* rich in historical detail, but makes a great reference.
  A. from Lara Pellegrinelli in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:21 pm]
   I don't know, Golden Age is very strong. Certainly, though jazz biography is coming of age with coverage of most of the major figures at this point. Some are of course better researched than others, something that can be a difficult process.
  A. from Lara Pellegrinelli in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:45 pm]
   Well, now that I know that it's going to post (I tried twice before without success)... Maybe I tend to be a naysayer about such things, but I think biography in any field is something that tends to build. It's great that we have all this work going on, BUT I think it often takes successive attempts to really, fully, accurately document the life of any major figure. And that, of course, the significance of someone's work may change over time. Do we really have enough distance to fully appreciate what a Miles Davis did for the music? And does that story change with successive generations?
  A. from Pres [Jan 21 - 08:53 pm]
   Perspective is a powerful tool, but let's take Miles for an example. Say in 2045 *all* music sounds like Miles circa 72. If we don't have Paul's book or John's, can a researcher be clear on anything that went down then? Maybe *all* the ideas would be attributed to MD, and Teo would be left out of the On The Corner story. Don't bios of characters as complex as, say, Thomas Jefferson depend a lot on eyewitness accounts? And then interpret from there, about what the person's affect has been on the ages?
  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:19 pm]
   Sure, and often those first accounts can set the tone for what's to follow. But I'm thinking of, for example, composers in the classical tradition who may have been wildly popular in their day, or dismissed in their day, only to be rediscovered and made important later. Are these books being written primarily for audiences today or for posterity? I know they aren't mutually exclusive, but certain approaches certainly belong more in one camp than the other.
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 09:24 pm]
   Lara, true, and some books are closer to being definitive than others. For example, a book I mentioned elsewhere in the forum: John Chilton's The Song of the Hawk. It would be difficult to come up with something else to say about Coleman Hawkins, or provide a different perspective on his career/life/music. Different authors bring different skills, different approaches. And it's difficult to find two readers who agree on what makes a good bio.
  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 09:26 pm]
   The point on the ongoing re-evaluation of classical composers is an interesting one (Tchaikovsky springs to mind), and tends to suggest that there really is no such thing as the 'definitive' biography, but only another interpretation (which, of course, is good news for all the aspiring bio-writers out there).
  A. from Pres in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:29 pm]
   Pops bless the editor who signs up a bio on an artist who is unknown in our day and age but deserves somehow to be discovered for the ages. I guess Herbie Nichols is the example in our era, but then, AB Spellman did the basic work on Nichols in the '60s! And would 4 Lives in the Bebop Business have been published if not for the other three lives? That is not to say there aren't legit topics now that are being ignored, overlooked, because they don't conform to our current view of the music. The entire fusion era other than Miles has been dismissed as irrelevant (except for Milkowski on Jaco). The Chicago AACM scene is woefully underwritten, and there are some wonderful stories and fascinating people (Muhal Richard Abrams, the Art Ensemble, Wadada Leo Smith). For that matter, black urban blues after Wolf and Waters is unexplored in book form (though Routledge published interviews from Living Blues, a bio of Little Walter, and a new one of Chuck Berry). And what of the great women jazz artists -- who's digging them up, besides Leslie Gourse, Linda Dahl, Sally Plaxton? An in *depth* bio of Carla Bley. Kudos to Mr. David Ritz for engaging Etta James and Aretha Franklin . . .
  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:33 pm]
   Not to mention all the MAry Lou Williams research going on right now. She seems to be a great example of this.
  A. from Stanbridge in TO [Jan 21 - 09:38 pm]
   My next vote is for Hal McKusick - I have a feeling there's an interesting story in there somewhere...
  A. from Donald Clarke in Austin, Texas [Jan 21 - 10:16 pm]
   If we seem to be in a golden age, there are several reasons. For one thing, despite the constant complaining of publishers, there are more bios than ever being published, so that the number of good ones must be increasing. Secondly, I think standards have risen. Biography in general is perhaps in a golden age; I find that people like Meriwether Lewis, Ben Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt etc come alive more than they did in times past--they are allowed ro be human--and the same is true of jazz subjects. Also, writers like Gary Giddins and Lewis Porter have served their time as journalists or academics or whatever and they have the research skills, the judgement and the overview to write better books about Bing Crosby or John Coltrane than we have ever seen before. We are able to be sympathetic without being sensational: when I was writing about Billie Holiday I was well aware that I could tell truths that couldn't have been published 40 years earlier. And finally, perhaps the research is easier now. The internet and library access is quicker and easier, scholars are instantly available to one another by email, and the recordings are widely available: when I was a kid we thought all the classics were out of print forever and would have to be collected second-hand.

I am immensely grateful for any number of books that have come along in the last decade or so, about Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Andy Razaf, Sun Ra, all kinds of people; and then there is the stuff out of left field: entire books about classic albums; Friedwald's The Song Is You, entirely about the Sinatra recording sessions; and Dick Sudhalter's Lost Chords, one of the richest books ever written in our field, effectively a great many biographies gathered together... There are more good books than time to read them.

  A. from leslie gourse in new york ciyy [Jan 21 - 10:25 pm]
   I don't think we are in a golden agae of jazz biographies; I think we were in something like that for a while, but in general biographies are not the main attraction in any part of publishing these days, and one has to have a very commercial subject to persuade a publisher -- a major book publisher -- to go ahead. Now I believe the university presses and the small presses are more interested in jazz biograhies than they used to be, and a committed biographer who has a way to support him or herself aside from the biography at hand can find a publisher. So yes, there are more opportunities to publish jazz biographies than there used to be. It seems that way.

To write a comprehensive, entertaining biography, which is what I always try to do, rather than a primarily critical work, I always seek out the musicians my subject worked with. It becomes more and more difficult to do this, to interview them, because so many of them have died. Sparky Tavares, who was Nat Cole's road manager for years, was like manna from heaven. If I were to try to write Nat's biography now that Sparky is dead, and Spark y knew Nat better than anyone, I would not have the same information or corrections in my work or insights into the subject. And he is just one example. The same goes for Johnny Miller; I really don't know if he is still living, but I believe I got to him through another musician who is not living now , and in general all the trails become harder to find. (It's time for people to write biographies of thee Cedar Walton and Wayne Shorter generations, becausee there are relaiable sources. But publishers don't have the interest. )I love to interview people who lived through events with the subject. So having Billy Taylor to tell me about the early days with Art Blakey in one case and Monk in another was invaluable. So for me, that kind of help is iincredibly important. You can't make it up, you can't use hearsay, you can't theorize these tales. You need people who lived in the situation.

I use whatever relevant material comes to hand to make my story entertaining, and I believe I have been criticized for that, for aiming to write entertaining biographies for a wider audience, but that is what I like to do, to write about the man, or woman, as well as the music. I believe I write a social, economic, and cultural history of the times in which they lived and worked.Of course I also like to let people know what the artists sounded like. I think it was invaluable for Whitney Balliett to mention Billie Holiday's staccatto (or stacatto--I can't spell that word readily) notes. That made Billie's sound come alive on paper. I think it's important to have the sound translated into words to the degree that the author has the skill to do that. I don't believe in writing analytical treatises; that is the business of the musicologist, and a musicologist is not an entertaining biographer-storyteller usually. There are many ways to approach an artist, and an author should decide what he or she wants to stress or what he or she would be best at amphsizing. Also, I think authors should persuade themselves to leave out material that makes the book too long and too nitpicking and even dull in the end. A dull book even if it is chock full of facts persuades readers to skip huge passages and even gives jazz writing a bad name. Try to get a jazz book reaviewed in the New York Review of Books, an you have a case. In part the problem is that the heads of that publication are into poets and that sort of thing, and musicains are a breed apart for them, especailly jazz musicians. So anything a writer can do to make a book readalble and wel written might be alble to help the case of jazz literature. I don't think it is comletely legitmized yet.

So that I won't be criticizing a fellow, living writer, I'll criticize Miles Davis for repeating himself three times at least in every paragraph and cursiing all along the way. It became overkill and boring. Some of my fellow writers have their own ways of becoming turgid and obscure. We can take lessons from Louis Armstrong, who knew how to tell a story. Maybe some of this -- what's needed -- is story telling talent and common sense and a sensitivity to the reader. You have to reach out to your friends, the readers. Have mercy on them. My own writing teacher in college, who was one of the people in the new criticism movement, used to tell me that readers are stupid. I don't know about that. But don't write sentences that you can wrap around a redwood tree trunk three times. Now that's not a rule, some writers can write very long sentences and do a great job. There are no rules. But common sense siupported by technical know how and story telling ability are paramount. So now I'm repeating myself.

So I guess I am talking about pitfalls by this time, to some extent.

Sometimes there are stories behind the stories, things that I have to hide, and to the extent that I can hide things without throwing away facts, I accommodate my sources. I know very well why Gonilla, Nat Cole's girflfriend, wanted her identity kept hidden, and I accommodated her. I know that someone else who traveled with Cole told me stuff that might not have been as true as it was entertaining; I couldn't be sure, and so I let my common sense prevail. Or my moral awareness. For another example, people said some demeaning things about maria Cole and motherhood, but the speakers botched up their kids's lives so much that I had to take their opinions with a grain of salt. One woman had a son killed in prison and a daughter thrown out of a car and killed that wa yin Los Angeles, and so that mother could not criticize Maria to me; I kept my mouth shut,; I know when a person's judgment isn't all it should be. Oh, I have endless criteria that guide me by now, after having spent so many years interviewing people, and I spent quite a lot of years interviewing peoplee before I ever started to write jazz z biographies. So the more experience you have in interviewing people and doing research and the better you are as a reporter -- for the type of work I purport do -- the more authoritative your book can be. And then there are simply amusing and/or educating things that have happened to me in my pursuit of the stories of people's lives. I have learned so much about life from musicians. I am really in their debt. Please forgive my typographical errors.

I really don't know how you sell a jazz biography. I thnk that with any kind of writing or subject, unless you come from a very well connected background, you have to persist on your own beyond all reason. Of course, if you ara going to pick an obscure artist -- obscure in rhe perception of the general public -- and try to convince the major publishers to publish you, you are silly. It gets more difficult to sell jazz biograhies. For one thing, the publishers haven't put much effort into the marketing of the onex they published in past years, and then they blame the writer. Anyone who loves the product he or she is trying to sell -- and I mean the business people, not the writers -- can sell jazz books well. So the result is anyone trying to sell a jazz biography now for a good advance has a tough row to how in the adult marketplace.

I think people with independent means, or steady jobs, will find it easier to publish a jazz biography of value with a small press, because the advances are so low that they make it very difficul for someone relying on writing for a lliving to turn out a good book.

I thnk I've already said that. No need to repeat myself.

Sometimes it takes years to sell a jazz biography. If you want to try to do it, just stay with it.

  A. from Donald Clarke in Austin, Texas [Jan 21 - 10:34 pm]
   Then of course there are always people writing nonsense for their own reasons: that Tchaikovsky was blackmailed into committing suicide; that Shostakovich was a communist stooge; that Bill Dufty never met Billie Holiday.

Among the pitfalls of writing a biography is knowing what to leave out. You can tell in a good biography that the writer knows more than he's putting in: the half-truth, the unsupportable gossip, the sensational for its own sake can be left out, but it might shed light so that the author feels more confident about handling the subject. (At least he/she knows what the subject had to put up with!)

Among the pleasures? The excuse to listen to the records over and over again. Trying to do justice to someone whose work you love. Meeting people who will share their memories with you, sometimes making life-long friends in the process. Getting a compliment from a reader when the work is done.

  A. from Donald Clarke in Austin, Texas [Jan 21 - 10:49 pm]
   Leslie and somebody else touched on something important: putting the subject in her/her social and historical context. I had written a couple of other books by the time I wrote about Billie Holiday; next I wrote about Sinatra, and by then I was aware that what I was really writing about was the problem of being an American in the 20th century. Okay, I think that Sinatra was far more worth writing about than, say, Andy Williams; but the reader is going to want some guff about Sinatra the man, and so the question is: who do you become if you are born into a certain immigrant family in Hoboken in 1915? What, if anything, does that have to do with your art? If you're a musician, what did you hear when you were growing up? You have to try to recreate a world so as to increase the reader's understanding. I thought Giddins and Sudhalter did that very well in their books about Crosby and Carmichael.
Q. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 02:39 pm]
We’ve been bruiting the idea that this might be the “golden age” for jazz biography. Today, the consumer has more jazz bios to choose from than ever before.

What’s your take? Is it easier to sell a jazz biography to a publisher these days? Is the market better? Are the jazz bios themselves better?

  A. from Alyn Shipton in Oxford UK [Jan 21 - 06:09 pm]
   Speaking as a publisher (I'm still the music editor for Continuum) I'd say it's no easier than it's ever been to sell adequate copies of even the best jazz biographies. If an author pitches to me, then I'm looking for a convincing case for originality, new research, opr a figure who has not been covered adequately before. In the current season, John Chilton's book on Eldridge and Iain Cameron Williams bio of Adelaide Hall both fit the latter category, and, indeed, bith have original and interesting things to say. Chilton, as well, has the track record of being a dogged and accurate researcher.
  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 07:19 pm]
   "Bruiting"?! Now there's a word you don't hear much anymore... (Good one, James!) Following on from your questions, and accepting that we may well be in a 'Golden Age' (quantity alone attests to that - we'll leave 'quality' for later...), my first question is fairly simple: what's changed? Were people not writing jazz biographies before? Or were they writing them and not getting them published? Is jazz 'in'/'sexy' now? And wasn't it 'in'/'sexy' before?

  A. from Scott Yanow in Burbank [Jan 21 - 08:11 pm]
   I don't know if it's easier to sell a jazz biography these days then in the past. But with the passing of time, the present has become the past and now there is more to choose from than there was in 1960. And I think definitely the jazz bios are better in general now than they were decades ago.
  A. from lewis [Jan 21 - 08:16 pm]
   Alyn (hello Alyn!) is of course quite right that selling a bio is not so easy--for ex., Freddie Hubbard, who is a big name to ME at least, when last I spoke with him, had not yet found a publisher (nor, I think, a coauthor) for his proposed autobiography.
  A. from Pres H in Apple [Jan 21 - 08:17 pm]
   At IAJE, I went past a bookseller's table that was full of those old slender volumes about Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll, Louis, by Chris Albertson (wasn't it?), Martin Williams, etc. I think those were the great men and women who HAD to be biographied/mythologized, in the '40s when paperbacks had just sprung up, and the '50s when jazz was the hip topic of Esquire mag and Norman Mailer besides us just plain listeners. Now we're competing with bios of Shania Twain and the notes of Kurt Cobain. The celebrity culture doesn't recognize our heroes, except for those who've already been celebrated, canonized. How can we create new giants? Or is it the task of the record co.s, and we're just supposed to tag along? Hail to Graham Locke for his work on Braxton, Szwed for Sun Ra, Hadju for Strayhorn, Litweiler for Ornette. Look at what Peter Levinson has done for Harry James and Nelson Riddle! But can anyone afford to research and write the life of charismatic, globetrotting, genre-hopping Don Cherry before its too late to get to many of those who played with him? Or Mr. Cecil Taylor: will he let his story be told?
  A. from john szwed in ct [Jan 21 - 08:37 pm]
   What this is not a golden age of, is jazz bio reviewing. First, reviews in jazz mags are almost non-existent, and because of this, it amazes me that non-jazz mags review them as much as they do. Second, many reviewers are patronizing light-weights who fancy themselves knowlegable about the music, and haven't a clue about what it takes to put a bio together. As a result, their reviews are too often either of the "this is how I would have written it" variety, or the restatement of the musician's life story type.
  A. from Lara Pellegrinelli in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:52 pm]
   But John, how many CD reviews are also of the let's-regurgitate-what's-on-this disc variety or ones that are written by muusically unknowledgeable people who don't know what it takes to play the trumpet? What is specific to biography in these situations?
  A. from szwed in ct [Jan 21 - 09:43 pm]
   Jazz bio reviewers tend to either accept whatever the writer says, and paise it; or suggest that they have as-yet-undisclosed knowledge that would have made a REAL book; or they correct minutia and ignore the main themes of the review.
Q. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 03:01 pm]
Unlike writers who chronicle the lives of politicians, athletes or business leaders, jazz biographers face the additional challenge of dealing with the music of their subject.

How do you balance the music and the musician?

  A. from Alyn Shipton in Oxford UK [Jan 21 - 06:15 pm]
   Yes, it's true that dealing with the music is an additional challenge, but often jazz musicians leave far less behind than politicians or business leaders when it comes to the conventional documentary tools of the biographer like letters and diaries. I was taken to task by Doug Ramsey in Jazz Times for my Gillespie bio not matching up to other Brit writers like Michael Holroyd on Bernard Shaw or Lytton Strachey. Suffice it to say that Shaw's daily output of postcards was probably greater than Diz's from his entire lifetime. For jazz musicians, the music often becomes the postcards of their lives, recorded on the fly wherever they happen to be... Balancing the music and the life depends on the nature of the life. I suspect someone who led a life that frequently took them into other areas (military service, politics, sexual scandal) might have a different music/life balance from a character who did little other than play their horn and stay in hotel rooms.
  A. from Pres Howard in office, NYC [Jan 21 - 07:48 pm]
   I think an author must be very talented indeed to be able to hold the attention of his or her editor with writing about music over the course of a 200-plus book. The author must be a fine musician, at least in the sense of listening comprehension, to tell the story of how the music itself develops, and how it amplifies or is amplified by the life. I'm not sure if I really know many examples that do the music justice; perhaps Lewis Porter's Coltrane book, which has the musicological edge. Or Paul's and John's recent books on Miles -- both tell the story of this or that recording and/or performance, this or that addition/subtraction of side players, reorganization of repertoire . . .but it's very hard to dig in and make the meaning of the musical incident to the people involved clear.

Also: As jazz listeners, I think we tend to nod our heads and say 'Oh yeah, I heard that music but I didn't know those were the circumstances around it.' Do we hear the musicians' music differently after reading the life?

  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 07:56 pm]
   One of the comments I see a lot on various jazz mailing lists is that the recent spate of books haven't dealt enough - or in enough depth at least - with the music. Certainly, Lewis' Coltrane book is the example most often cited as a book that balances both historical biography and musical analysis, though I would certainly put Stephanie's Gil Evans bio up there, as well. I don't think these comments are only coming from musicians, but rather people who listen deeply. I just wonder if the limitation is coming from authors or from publishers, and perhaps the latter's perception of the marketplace. It would be interesting to see Lewis' input on his experience with the Trane book.
  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 08:10 pm]
   Hey Howard! (And hello Alyn - we haven't met, although I think we're both involved in the long-running EPMOW saga.) Howard's last question is one I find especially interesting - the extent to which a knowledge of the life of the artist affects our view of the work. There are several figures for whom the suicidal and/or tragic life has served to 'fix' the reading of the work in a particular way - Van Gogh, Rothko, Kobain (allegedly), and Ian Curtis spring readily to mind. Given the often 'darker' side of jazz (allow me the shorthand...), is there a fear that a focus on the minutiae of the life, rather than 'enhancing' the music, can serve to reinterpret it in a negative fashion?
  A. from Paul Tingen in Scotland [Jan 21 - 08:14 pm]
   I'm intrigued by James writing about music as an "additional challenge," because I would hope that music is the reason a jazz biographer would be interested in writing a biography in the first place!

Having said this, writing about music is not straightforward, and certainly how to balance the music and the musician is one of the major conundrums for a jazzbiographer. In my book on Miles's electric period (Miles Beyond, the Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991), I struggled with this quite a bit, since there was so much to say about this previously rather neglected music, yet many aspects of Miles's life and personality were absolutely relevant to the book. For instance in the way he led his bands, or how drug use and relationships with women influenced his music.

I think every biographer will have to make a decision very early on whether his or her book is primarily going to be chronicle of the work his or her subject is known for, or a description of the personality behind the work, and hence the focus will predominantly be on talking to family and friends and lovers and so on. I think it's hard to genuinely walk a middle way.

  A. from the Pres in same place [Jan 21 - 08:22 pm]
   Alan asks: Is there a fear that a focus on the minutiae of the life, rather than 'enhancing' the music, can serve to reinterpret it in a negative fashion? This is a question for the biographers: have dull people made interesting music? Can any minutiae serve to dampen our interest in what we take as interesting listening?
  A. from Paul Tingen in Scotland [Jan 21 - 08:35 pm]
   Just to pick up on the point James made about complaints that "the recent spate of books haven't dealt enough - or in enough depth at least - with the music," I was quite surprised to read this on the Miles Davis list. Certainly Miles's autobiog contains a lot of detail on the music, as does Ian Carr's book on Miles's music of '45-'67. My book describes the music of 1967-1991 in sometimes painstaking detail, so I wonder what these folks are missing, exactly. Have you heard more about this, James?

What I think this issue throws up is the problem of how to write interestingly about music, and not turn a book into a kind of trainspotting musicologist's guide. I would suggest that the answer is in telling stories... Behind every session, every new direction an artist takes or creative decision an artist makes, every piece of music, there are stories. Describing these can be interesting in their own right, and will hopefully also throw different light on the music. As someone wrote to me a while back: if a biography makes you go back to the music and listen to it from a new perspective, the book has done its work from a musical point of view, even if one might disagree with the particular perspectives offered.

PS. Like Alyn (hi Alyn), I'm jumping in early, since it's way past normal bedtime here in the UK, and so I will log off before too long as well...

  A. from Pres in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:39 pm]
   Paul, thanks for your book -- obviously a labor of love. When the life and the music are both as rich as Miles's there's a lot to look into, and I appreciate how you and John too have contributed to our thinking about him.
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:40 pm]
   I invited the Miles List members here tonight to voice their views, so maybe one or two will pipe up.
  A. from Ashley in still NJ [Jan 21 - 08:47 pm]
   Balance is certainly the right word . . . and I believe it comes down to knowing one's audience -- who one is writing for.

Perhaps it stemmed a bit from one-too-many shabbat dinners when I'd be asked to explain (again and again) who Miles was, what instrument he played, etc. -- that I decided there could (should?) be a readership for jazz bios that went beyond the usual fanbase.

But to be able to do it in a way that didn't dumb down the text and make it read like junior adult writing was another guiding directive . . . allowing the language of music to explain itself in context could well invite an otherwise layman -- the self-conscious outsider -- into the "club."

The balance of music and musician is a line-by-line, word-by-word thing that has to be created as one writes . . . and gets edited.

  A. from lewis [Jan 21 - 08:49 pm]
   I feel it is very helpful for authors to have at least a little musical literacy in order to a write about a musician--so one can understand things the artist says, and so one can understand the "life." (I require my grad students in my jazz history MA program to have some literacy--no need to be pros, though some are.) I've seen for example writers assume that a musician had an "artistic reason" for recording without a drummer (B Goodman) or piano (Trane) when the reason was simply that the cat didn't show up or was fired! As for publishers, Michigan was great with my Trane book and gave me pretty much free reign. On the other hand, Oxford and U of Illinois had previously rejected it on grounds that it was too technical. In general presses flee when music notation is mentioned! (Again, my apologies--will have to resume packing momentarily.)
  A. from Paul Tingen in Scotland [Jan 21 - 08:50 pm]
   Thanx Pres, a labour of love indeed! It all kind of started with me having wondered for two decades how on earth Miles put his 1972-72 music together... then I was offered a book contract and thought 12-18 months would do it. It took me 36 months in the end! :)
  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 08:59 pm]
   Hi Paul. I'm curious: when you say 36 months, do you mean pretty much full-time? Or were you working for a living too? (Actually, there's a general question in there for all the bio-writers involved tonight: given the amount of time and research involved, how difficult is it to keep body and soul together throughout the process?)
  A. from HowMan in Village [Jan 21 - 09:02 pm]
   How difficult to keep working while working on a book? Oh, just a bit. Helps if you don't have any bills, or have someone else to pay them, I'd say. One thing is you shouldn't have to worry about such mundanities if you're going to immerse yourself in something intense and worthwhile. But one does have to, doesn't one? A little pressure never hurt a writer, did it?
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 09:36 pm]
   So . . . behind every great writer there is a nagging deadline, right Howard?
  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:37 pm]
   Yeah, and God help us with documentation in the age of email. Is anybody going to save that correspondence?
  A. from Howard in listening to Yo Miles! [Jan 21 - 09:46 pm]
   Ashley -- Behind every great writer something or someone is nagging, yeah. It can be a spouse, a bill-collector, or one's parents demanding accomplishment . . . one's own ego or pushy agents/editors. Other than present company, I know of few models of writers who simply *love* to compose and do so at their leisure.
Q. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 03:25 pm]
Ken Burns proved that the “great man” approach to jazz history sells. Traditionally, the bookshelves have supported that theory, as well. What’s the prospect of getting more in-depth studies of lesser-known or less-charismatic musicians?

Is it possible to sell biographies of artists who aren’t household names?

  A. from Alyn Shipton in Oxford UK [Jan 21 - 06:19 pm]
   If you've got fed up with me being first on all these answers it's because the UK is five hours ahead of you guys, and I can't stay around for much of the discussion... But yes, it is possible to sell lives of the more obscure. This goes for biographies (Billy Tipton springs to mind) and autobiographies, of which I've published several, such as Roy Porter, Buddy Collette and Marshal Royal who were not exactly household names, but whose lives have sold well. Actually Collette and Porter both sold better than Teddy Wilson's autobiography, even though Teddy is the bigger name.
  A. from Pres Howard in office NYC [Jan 21 - 07:42 pm]
   Hi Alyn -- I'm glad you're here and hope you can stay on just a little while . . . it seems to me you're pitching some of the more traditional musicians to trad lovers, and I'm not at all sure that market exists in as focused a manner in the US. Certainly the publishers here aren't going to go gaga over a Buddy Collette bio, unless it's pitched by Robert Caro . . .Billy Tipton is the old fascination with sex and duplicity . . .
  A. from Scott Yanow in Burbank [Jan 21 - 08:16 pm]
   I believe that it all depends on how interesting the story is. If there is not a story that can hold one's interest, why would it be published? The major greats of jazz have their accomplishments and fans, but for the lesser-known players, it all depends on what they did. Would the Conte Candoli story be as compelling as Chet Baker's?
  A. from Ashley in NJ [Jan 21 - 08:35 pm]
   Of course – it all depends. If Gore Vidal suddenly decided he needed to pursue the Charlie Christian story – you know we’d hear about it immediately. Till that happens – and to hear it from some editors – even Duke and Miles are still not household names.

I believe the answer ultimately lies with the writer. Whether its to be a purely academic treatment of say, Herbie Nichols, or a full-blown, 360-degree accounting of Eric Dolphy (or some approach in-between) I’ve found that most editors are concerned with the writer-ly aspects above all else . . . can the writer pull it off, research-wise and length-wise? Can he/she develop and stick to a "voice" that compels the reader along? How much editing, "cleaning up" and other involvement will be necessary, putting a demand on the editor’s time and energy?

As editors search out the answers to these questions in the book proposal in front of them – and the writer’s body of work – it really does depend on the writer to convey his/her own abilities while arguing the unique and perhaps universal attributes of . . . yes, maybe Don Cherry.

  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:36 pm]
   Ashley! Glad you made it. I didn't announce you because I wasn't sure you'd make.
  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 08:47 pm]
   (Hi Ashley) I love the idea of Gore Vidal on Charlie Christian! How about Tom Wolfe on Jimmy Dorsey? Or Allan Bloom tackling the long-awaited Cecil Taylor bio? (I hope there are publishers out there listening...)
  A. from Ashley in NJ [Jan 21 - 08:50 pm]
   Hi James, Alan, and all . . . thanks -- I'm glad I could make it.
  A. from lewis [Jan 21 - 08:54 pm]
   Before I go, and a little off topic, my favorite Billy Tipton story. I read this in the NY Times--they asked the son, How do you feel about the fact that it turns out your father was a woman? The son replied, I'll always love HIM just the same. (TRUE STORY--confused young man!) Lewis
  A. from Paull Tingen in Scotland [Jan 21 - 09:01 pm]
   Ashley wrote: "I’ve found that most editors are concerned with the writer-ly aspects above all else . . . can the writer pull it off, research-wise and length-wise?"

I would second what Ashley wrote here, I did not feel at any stage that my editor tried to push me into directions that he felt would make the book more commercial. I suspect the jazz book market is too small for a book purely to be published because of the subject and/or angle. The editor's first concern will be: 'can he or she do it?' And I'm guessing that the capacity to tell a story is paramount, and that a well-told story of a less-known musician will still see the light of day. Interesting question someone asked there though: can a 'boring' person make interesting music? Has anyone written a biog on someone whose music they find fascinating, but whose life and personality made them fall asleep?

Q. from Virginia Schaefer in Arlington, MA [Jan 21 - 04:59 pm]
I have a detail-level question that I'll take advantage of this forum to ask: Can you tell me anything about Peter Pullman's upcoming book on Bud Powell, like when it will be published? The only email address I could find for Pullman is no longer good. Thanks.
  A. from Pres in NYC [Jan 21 - 07:53 pm]
   Don't know. That's been spoken of for a long time. The bio that I'm aware of just coming out are Howard Reich and William Gaines' new life of Jelly Roll, from Da Capo very soon (I've got bound galleys, and so far so good); I understand our members Michelle Mercer and Martin Johnson have projects that are in various proposal stages . . .
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:00 pm]
   Yes, and then there's Stanley Crouch's bio of Bird, which he was doing readings from five or six years ago. Where's that?

Also, wasn't Peter Keepnews doing a Monk book?

  A. from the Pres in you know [Jan 21 - 08:05 pm]
   Don't ask about Peter's Monk book -- he's definitively put that project away. As for Stanley's Bird: I think John Szwed told me some of it was published in a paperback edition of another of Stanley's books, a collection. Wait 'til John comes on, he knows the story.
  A. from John Szwed in Connecticut [Jan 21 - 08:18 pm]
   Actually, Crouch published an interesting chapter of what looked like it might be from a Miles bio in the paperback version (only) of Always in Pursuit. But no Miles bio will be forthcominbg from him that I know of. My best guess is that the Bird bio is only up to the the early '40s.
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:20 pm]
   "Up to the early '40s" meaning that the book will only cover that much, or that Stanley's only that far into it?
  A. from john szwed in ct [Jan 21 - 08:25 pm]
   My sense is that Crouch is only up to 1942.
Q. from Bill McDonough in Beverly MA [Jan 21 - 08:15 pm]
I've only seen 5 msgs - am i missing some? The thing that always intrigues me is, who's buying all these books? From a writer's perspective do they actually make any money or serve more as a calling card?
  A. from System in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:22 pm]
   On your first Q: Only five questions have been answered yet. A few more have been asked, but won't show to the public until one of the guests answers them. There are fresh answers being posted to even the earlier questions - check the [^] key to see where the discussion is currently hot. Your second I'll leave to the expert guests.
  A. from Pres in office [Jan 21 - 08:29 pm]
   The buyers are listener/readers/students -- the same people who read the jazz magazines ought to be targeted as buyers, for instance. But cynical me: the books make the writer an advance, which is *something,* however slight. Do they leap out of the box and actually sell? Well, how's the publisher's distribution, marketing and promotion? I think some of the books are published for purposes of prestige for the house.Some of them are published because they'll sell *enough*. If one hits on the right subject, concept, and approach -- gee, the book might sell . . .
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:32 pm]
   Howard: I'll be even more cynical. At least here in Canada, publishers will do book they *know* won't sell strictly to get government grant money, and show that they're actively pursuing new authors/new books. It's their way of showing good corporate citizenship, etc.
  A. from Stanbridge [Jan 21 - 08:39 pm]
   Damn that public funding! To paraphrase Benjamin, the work of art in the age of government funding becomes the work of art designed to attract government funding. But I'm not sure that that's necessarily cynical. Opportunistic, certainly, but that's not to say that good work might not still come out of that situation. (Now whether it sells, and whether or not it's aggressively marketed, are other issues).
Q. from Scott Yanow in Burbank [Jan 21 - 08:19 pm]
Here's an interesting question/challenge: What jazz musicians are deserving of biographies but have not received a definitive one yet? I would say Joe Venuti's life would make for a great book if it's not too late to dig up information on him. I'd love to know the true story behind all of his famous practical jokes.
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:23 pm]
   Howard mentioned one in an earlier post: Cecil. I think Wayne Shorter is another obvious choice. Paul Bley deserves a bio that fleshes out his autobio of a couple of years ago.
  A. from Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 08:32 pm]
   How about George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Lacy, Carla Bley, Julius Hemphill, Joe Harriott, Chris McGregor, John Stevens, Derek Bailey (in no particular order)?

  A. from Pres in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:36 pm]
   I'd like to read about Lester Young. Charlie Christian. Wes Montgomery. Cannonball Adderley. Eric Dolphy (the one we have is good as far as it goes, maybe no one can go further). Don Cherry, as I mentioned in a previous post. Betty Carter -- I know there's one out, I haven't seen it yet. Bob Wills. Annie Ross, won't you write your memoirs? Tad Hirshorn is working on the Norman Granz story. How 'bout Les Paul? Henry "Red" Allen. Arsenio Rodriguez. Tony Williams. Django.
  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:09 pm]
   I just posted an answer somewhere else about the Betty Carter bio - Open the door, by Bill Bauer. A really impressive job.
Q. from Steve Wilson in Covington, Wa. [Jan 21 - 08:35 pm]
IRT richness in historical detail, These are my favorite types of Jazz bio's. My most recent reads are Bergreen's Louis Armstrong, Shipton's Groovin' High, Tingen's Miles Beyond, and Szwed's So What. All very good to me. I have been reminded lately though that it would be very nice to read more musical analysis as well. I don't think I'd enjoy just musical analysis though. Somewhere between Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz, and Gourse's Straight No Chaser

  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:06 pm]
   Steve, then you might check out Bill Bauer's Betty Carter bio. I think he does a really exemplary job of getting into the music through the course of her life. He might have dug deeper into her personal life, but decided to respect her wishes and those of her family.
Q. from rachel porter in rye, new york [Jan 21 - 08:37 pm]
hi this is rachel porter, lewis porters daughter, i am 11 years old and i think this discussion is rather interesting even though I don't know much about it, My dad just wanted to inform everyone that his computer is having technical difficulties and he will try to be back on in a minute but he might now get back on at all. Thank you- Sincerely Lewis Prter's daughter- Rachel POrter
  A. from System in NYC [Jan 21 - 08:55 pm]
   As the computer system here, I wish your daddy's computer a speedy recovery.
Q. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:37 pm]
Another, unannounced, panelist has joined us. Ashley Kahn. Author of Kind Of Blue and A Love Supreme.
  A. from Howard in right here right now [Jan 21 - 08:43 pm]
   Ashley deserves a lot of credit for re-conceiving the jazz book. Whether we consider what he's done "biographical" or not seems irrelevant, except perhaps in some purist sense -- it certainly contains the research of biography, the context and the story element, taking a crucial slice of the musicians' professional lives as the grain of sand which shows the world in its expansive detail . . .
Q. from Paul Tingen in Scotland [Jan 21 - 08:42 pm]
I have some questions regarding the biographer's relationship to the artist and/or his heirs. Do people prefer to read/write authorized or unauthorized biographies? Is it an advantage or disadvantage to know one's subject personally? And, having heard many stories of awkward artists' estates (I certainly was given a very hard time by the Miles Davis Estate)... how have other biographers dealt with this?
  A. from Pres in yeah [Jan 21 - 08:48 pm]
   maybe it's a personality thing, but I can't imagine how it could be a disadvantage to know one's subject. At least to have met them face to face. To have a real, firsthand sense of the person. If we're writing travelogues, isn't it considered crucial to have visited the places?
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 08:51 pm]
   There are certainly two schools on this. Jack Chambers is a learned man and a respected professor, but I can't count the number of people I've heard take exception with his Miles book because he didn't do any interviews with his subject. On the other hand, there's Eric Nisenson, who turned out an interesting book on Sonny Rollins strictly on the strength of interviews with Sonny and a lot of his own listening and thinking - no other sources.
  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:02 pm]
   As for authorized/unauthorized, you may have certain advantages or disadvantages with either. I think when we're reading an authorized bio, we may expect that some of the details someone would rather have forgotten aren't going to make it in. They tend to present rosier pictures. But to have one authorized doesn't necessarily mean that it is verified or accurate. (I'm thinking of the recent John Zorn documentary which he signed off on, but never watched.) All sorts of scenarios are possible, it's just helpful to know what the relationship of the author to subject is in the most detail possible so you can evaluate your source.
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 09:10 pm]
   Good question(s) Paul. My experience: persistence, persistence and proximity. And more persistence . . . that's what counts in accessing living musicians, surviving sidemen and/or estates. There was NO way I would have done ALS without the participation of the Coltrane family . . . which was as much needing interviews and information as it was about respecting the oh-so-heavy spiritual aspect of the project . . . without Alice's blessing it wouldn't have happened.

Lara's point is a good one too . . . I think there is almost NO instance when the subject of study (or whomever or whatever survives) should not be approached. You never know what you'll get . . . or not. But it's easier to edit out the too-rosy-to-be-true memories than explain afterwards why one didn't pursue an obvious research path.

Did I try to reach Teresa Brewer -- Bob Thiele's widow -- while researching Impulse Records? You betcha. Any luck -- not yet . . .

  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 09:11 pm]
   Oh yeah -- and given my last comment I wanted to add that your residing in Scotland speaks volumes on your level of diligence and commitment, Paul.
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 09:14 pm]
   Ashley: Maybe you can go a bit further into your approach to someone like Alice Coltrane, who has stymied more than one potential Trane biographer. I think that would be quite helpful for would-be biographers who are JJAers.
  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 09:20 pm]
   Ashley: As an expatriate Scotsman, I can assure you that residing in Scotland requires considerable diligence and commitment at the best of times... (or worst of times...) But your point on Paul's work is well taken. Here's another naive 'practical' question: the type of research you describe sounds expensive - does a typical book contract readily cover those costs, or is it a constant negotiation with the publisher?
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 09:23 pm]
   Hey James. Wish I knew the formula / secret / whatever . . . somewhere between common sense and doggedness, whining and winning personality -- that's the best I can come up with. In Mrs. Coltrane's case, the fact that I had written one book already, in which I spoke of her late husband, did not hurt. That I was willing to fly out to LA also helped.
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 09:30 pm]
   Hi Alan . . . having only enjoyed my brief forays into Scotland (from what I recall) -- I can only say I enjoyed what I saw (and tasted . . . oh, Aberdeen!)

As to the question of funding . . . from my limited experience, once the deal's done, the writer's on his/her own. All research costs (phone, travel, etc.), editorial services (translating, transcribing, etc.), supplies (tape, recording equipment), even licensing of images inside the book (bookcovers are still the responsibility of the publisher) is in the writer's hands . . . needless to say, nailing down a good deal at the outset -- or having an agent do it for one -- is important. Part oft he process is factoring in all these hidden (or not so) costs . . .

  A. from Alan S in Toronto [Jan 21 - 09:35 pm]
   Ah, Aberdeen - my home town! So the initial budget is extremely important, yes? I know from my own research experience (as an academic) that costs can easily get out of hand - it must be difficult to actually feel that you're making a living too...
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 09:38 pm]
   Aberdeen... Alan, you and Bukka White. His was warmer, but alas, no haggis.
  A. from McStanbridge in TO [Jan 21 - 09:43 pm]
   Och, always with the cultural stereotyping...
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 09:45 pm]
   Yup Alan -- even when writing for a large publisher, the advance fast disappears as the research phase marches on . . . while writing both ALS and Kind of Blue I found myself penning features, trying to spin off some of the research/interviews into other article ideas just to keep the revenue stream . . . streaming. Can't imagine how I would've done it with a teaching job -- or some other full-time gig -- simultaneously.
  A. from Paul Tingen in Elgin (50 miles from Aberdeen [Jan 21 - 10:05 pm]
   Jumping back in from having been away feeding the baby... (talk about 'pressure' to any parent who works and gets up every 2 hours at nite to feed a baby. Needless to say, if this little one had been born during the writing of my book, it would still be awaiting publication.)

I'm going to sign off soon, but just to elaborate on a few of the points made (which overlap a question Alan asked in another thread), yes, once the contract is signed the writer is on his own. A first-time writer is lucky to get an advance, but even more experienced writers will rarely get advances that will cover living and other expenses for the whole duration of writing. In my case my 36 months amounted to about to about a year working full-time (the last 6 months up to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week), but I also for a long time continued my regular job as a music journalist. My advance didn't even cover me for the first year. Thanks for the kudo, Ashley... but not all of the book was done in Ecosse... I spent a year in the US (some of it in NY, most of it in California) researching and in part writing the book...

To return to the topic of this thread, I would agree that if a subject is still alive, interviewing the person, or at least attempting to, is essential. The pitfall can be that one may get too close to one's subject, and lose one's objectivity, or is at the receiving end of pressure to write more rosy. Alternatively, and I've had this experience with a a couple of favorite artists I've interviewed over the years, sometimes one may unexpectedly find the artist intensely unpleasant as a person, and this can get in the way... either cloud one's objectivity, and/or make the writing of the book/article, and/or listening to the subject's music, a lot less fun.

  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 10:14 pm]
   Ah, Elgin! So many happy memories... Interesting response, Paul - as you said, a labour of love, indeed. Does the experience make you want to write another one, or was that a one-off?
Q. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:30 pm]
I've been wanting to ask something as someone who would love to see more detailed info available on most musicians than is readily found in the Grove or other references. Does anyone think it would be possible to sell bios/autobios of lesser known musicians in the tradition of indie/self-produced records? By this I mean bypass the normal publisher/distribution scenario and have artists sell bios with their CDs at gigs, on websites, etc? Do small limited printing that goes right to the fan base? Or am I totally dreaming? (OF course someone would have to be willing to write them.)
  A. from Pres in my little desk [Jan 21 - 09:37 pm]
   Interesting idea about small print runs . . .I had some experience with 1stBooks, a print-on-demand house, which required small set up fee (under 1 grand got you a presentable book, either hardbound or trade paperback style) and no minimum inventory. Do we want the artists we've written about selling our authorized/unauthorized bios off the stage, as if they're promo pamphlets? Distribution of books is a job in itself . . . still I think it can be done, and successfully, if word of mouth is good. And if there is indeed a market that can be tapped, retail-wise. Like bios of the trad jazz players, at trad jazz fests?
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 09:42 pm]
   I have the feeling there are some small-run/private bios out there - especially more in-depth/less commercial ones. Someone on the Miles List recently posted about a Booker Little study that's making the rounds... full of transcriptions and analysis. Not the kind of thing that the general public would read, but surely a trumpeter's dream.

Lara makes an excellent point, but funding is a big issue, depending on the type of book you're doing. That said, you could certainly see an as-told-to book like Miles' autobio working in the way you imagine.

  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 09:54 pm]
   No, Howard, not like promo pamphlets. But I have bought CDs and video documentaries at club shows. Every once in awhile you see someone with a methods book for sale. Ashley, I was sorry to have missed the Joe's Pub event, but how did that work with the sale of books at a musical event? (I had suggested something of the sort to Stephanie Crease when they did the Gil Evans tribute back in May, that maybe she could combine the performance with a reading.)
  A. from Howard in the aeire [Jan 21 - 10:04 pm]
   Lara, I'm all for books being sold where there's live music. Also where there's food for sale. When Future Jazz had just come out, I sold copies at a JVC Jazz Fest concert by John McLaughlin at Symphony Space. I sold maybe 6 or 7 copies, and it was fun doing so. Not much profit to show for the investment of time, but so what. Of this I'm convinced: authors must sell their books, because the publishers can't be depended to. The JJA has helped set up readings and signings, and ought to continue to do so on a more regular basis. Volunteers, contact me at the above e-dress.
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 10:12 pm]
   Hey Lara: Sorry you missed the event too . . . as it turned out, we (meaning myself, my publisher and Verve Music) wanted to focus on the music itself and since it really was Ravi's gig that we were buying tickets to . . . we opted to downplay the promo aspect and not sell (or giveway CDs or anything.)

But in general I've found that selling books is a hard-sell even at readings in bookstores; most publishers won't make the effort to help set them up outside of a writer's hometown because 10-20 copies sold at each event is not worth it. At clubs where folks are already hit by cover and minimums . . . a $20 to $30 charge for a book (or whatever the price would be) is a lot to ask.

I think the idea of putting together a book is not a bad one . . . but like many music-makers out there who find themselves playing the role of artist and record compoany, the question is do you want to be a writer and a publisher . . . and how far are you willing to take the latter (multiple titles? harcovers? presence in Borders and on

  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 10:13 pm]
   Well, might we theoretically come up with a distribution system that would sell our books for us at the Blue Note or some like venue? Or put them in the hands of the people who sell the same artists' CD's at their gigs? I've always wondered how many copies of Live at the Village Vanguard Lorraine has sold from behind the bar.
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 10:25 pm]
   Lara: Additional -- as opposed to just alternative -- distribution is the key here I believe . . . but unfortunately most clubs aren't retailers and don't have the experienced manpower necessary to take stock, keep it safe and secure, display it and manage all the accounting. I think this is when the internet comes into play . . . and all those online chat and listserv groups are just waiting to hear about a new book on some less-than-household musician. There's the channel that best falls into the alternative category.

Manufacturing the book -- that's another thing -- and what I was addressing in my last post . . .

  A. from HMan in global [Jan 21 - 10:25 pm]
   The practical aspects of what Lara's suggesting are surmountable. I have 150 copies of Future Jazz here in my office, in boxes of 25 -- having bought out the remainders from Oxford when I saw them being sold at Coliseum cheaper than I could by them myself. I've peddled one box to a local bookstore, and have tried to deal others, to Borders directly in Ann Arbor, to one of the booksellers I met at IAJE. . .so far, no takers. Luckily, I've got the space to store them. I won't sell them to the Blue Note on consignment, and have to tally the sales figures monthly. But if they'd buy a box outright at my excellent price, and if they'd buy anyone else's overstock the same way . . . then they'd be a bookstore! I encourage it.
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 10:29 pm]
   That's true -- the Blue Note is one of the few clubs with a dedicated retail stand . . . and I recall Shelby -- the night manager at the Jazz Standard -- once speaking of wanting to set up a kiosk in their downstairs lobby to sell music, books, T-shirts, etc.
  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 10:39 pm]
   And one would think it would certainly be doable in the context of festivals.
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 10:49 pm]
   I don't think festivals would work. I've talked to CD stores that have booths at festivals ... they're experienced retailers and they have a difficult time dealing with the festivals. Asking most festivals to set up a book outlet wouldn't go far. As Ashley says about clubs, they just don't have the infrastructure or experience to do it.
  A. from Pres in the cold, inside [Jan 21 - 10:51 pm]
   JJA experience at the Newport Jazz festival in the year we did the day-long symposium was frustrating: Barnes & Noble, I believe, had the franchise on books at the fest site, and wouldn't stock the books by JJA authors in attendance (maybe we didn't appraise them of our presence in time). At the Chicago Jazz Fest, Tower Records one year sold books from its CD booth -- in New Orleans, there's a happening bookstore tent at the Fairgrounds, again run by one of the local franchise retailers. When your book has just been published, the publisher's marketing director MIGHT be willing to make sure its in stock someplace like that, if they're not busy with some placing some other book. A year or two later, forget it; or rather, do it yourself.
Q. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 09:31 pm]
To the panelists in general... what are the biographies (jazz or otherwise) that you'd send other writers to for inspiration? In other words, what are that biographies that influenced you, or help set the bar for where you wanted your work to go?
  A. from the Pres in office [Jan 21 - 09:43 pm]
   One of the first adult bios I read was Howard Fast on Citizen Tom Paine. I haven't returned to it, but it make a strong impression on me. Another one I read as a young teenager was W.A. Swanberg's Citizen Hearst, which packed quite a punch, it seemed so vast in its overview. On the other hand, I've read a lot but not all of Mr. Clemens and Mr. Twain, and always feel there's something about Twain that isn't being told, almost as if on purpose; a whole layer of life which the bio is ignoring. I like Mr. Jelly Lord, Morton telling his stories and then Lomax debunking them in alternating chapters.
  A. from Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 09:53 pm]
   Off the top of the head: the Ambrose bios on Nixon are remarkable pieces of work; Gary Wills on Reagan is fascinating; Kershaw's Hitler is mind-boggling in its detail and scope; and Steven Smith did a nice job on Herrmann. And the recent book on Lenny Bruce by Collins and Skover (which I'm only half-way through) is a great read.
  A. from Ashley [Jan 21 - 09:59 pm]
   Conversations with Picasso by Brassai . . . allowing the maestro's own words and actions to paint an effective self-portrait.
  A. from Lara in NYC [Jan 21 - 10:09 pm]
   I've had a lot of fun reading autobiographies in the past year or so, though I can't say that I've read many outside of jazz. Personally, I tend to find the subject as writer (or ones that are ghost written in teh subjects voice) tends to be more engaging than many of the 3rd person narratives. If you're looking for great reading, I'd suggest Ethel Water's His Eye is on the Sparrow (my personal favorite in that you get a real window on living poor and black at the turn of the century; way out of print), Anita O'Day's High Times, Hard Times, and HAMP! These three are amazing in the way they convey the voices of the artists. I've tried to develop voice - both in the artists I've interviewed and my separate voice in teh way I frame them - in the shorter magazine profiles I've written.
Q. from Eric in New York [Jan 21 - 09:49 pm]
I think this fits into the discussion. What is the level of musical analysis that should be in a musical biography. I am constantly appalled at the lack of basic musical information shown in jazz biographies. I often attribute that lack to a sense that the writers are writing for a general audience. But beyond oversimplification, there is just misleading musical analysis in almost every jazz bio I have read. Out of courtesy, it is probably best not to make citations (though I would be glad to), but this is an ongoing problem. Do you all agree/disagree with the idea that musical biographies should be musically informative and accurate?


  A. from Pres H in the zone [Jan 21 - 09:57 pm]
   This is the loaded question, I guess. But there can only be one answer: Yes. Bios of musicians should be musical informative and accurate. Bios of scientists should be scientifically informative and accurate. Bios of authors should be literate and accurate. Then we get to the mix of what's most important and how is it best expressed. There's the rub.
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 10:01 pm]
   Eric: Lewis Porter addressed something like your question in subject line #4, before he had to return to packing up his house.
Q. from Jason Gross in New York City [Jan 21 - 10:28 pm]
When I was watching Ed Harris' bio-pic POLLOCK, I was wondering why certain artists are deemed worthy of being documented. Someone like Mark Rothko, who was also a great artist, will probably not get a film made about his life because he wasn't an extravangant character as Jackson Pollock was. For this same reason, we see films about Beethoven and Mozart but not Tchaikovsky or Brahms.

I'm wondering if any of the authors here feel that a similar standard is applied to musical biographies and the choice of subjects?

  A. from Pres in Wherezit [Jan 21 - 10:41 pm]
   I think Ken Russell directed a film about Tchaikovsky, starring Richard Chamberlain. I don't know what he made up. Of course, writers seek drama in the lives they want to tell. Stephanie Stein Crease was brave to take on Gil, because he was a quiet guy, unassuming. And far from a big selling, household-name artist. He just happened to have witnessed a lot of music, and had a mysterious hand in much of it. Same with Nick Catalano taking on Clifford Brown -- a beautiful guy whose life was cut short, 45 years ago. Sharony Green made her bio of Grant Green about her own dramatic discoveries of a world she hadn't previously known. All lives have the drama, but can we make that drama evident to the reader? And connect it to the music that draws us in the first place? Sex, violence, excess have become saleable, maybe they always have been. Solid, systematic endeavor for its own sake is hard to present as exciting, though the results may stirs us forever.
  A. from Alan Stanbridge in Toronto [Jan 21 - 10:42 pm]
   A minor aside, but if you want to see an extravagant movie on Tchaikovsky (this is the second time I've mentioned Tchaikovsky tonight - go figure...), I can do no better than recommend Ken Russell's The Music Lovers (1971). But yes, it's a fact that extravagant/tragic lives are good box-office - whether that translates directly into the arena of book sales is a moot point.
  A. from Stanbridge in TO [Jan 21 - 10:45 pm]
   Ah, Richard Chamberlain! So many happy memories...
  A. from Stanbridge Again [Jan 21 - 10:48 pm]
   Sorry, I seem to be hogging this thread, but Eastwood's Bird is a good case in point here. Am I correct in thinking that the critical response from the jazz community was primarily negative?
  A. from James in Ottawa [Jan 21 - 10:53 pm]
   Re: Eastwood's Bird... yes, I think most people would agree that it looks at - and falsely dramatizes - a small handful of colorful events from Bird's life and gives no context for what made him a genius.

Pollock has many of the same problems, though Ed Harris seems to have at least tried to give an idea of why Pollock mattered... that breathtaking panorama shot of one of his works.... stunning!

  A. from Pres in Wherezit [Jan 21 - 10:55 pm]
   Yes, primarily -- but was there any community that enjoyed Clint's bio of Bird? Let's not get into bio-pics, Alan; I think we've done that in a previous forum, talking about Lady Sings the Blues and the Five Pennies and Young Man with a Horn and all. If jazz biographies in print indulged in that degree of maudlin mythology, it would be anything but a golden age.
  A. from Alan S [Jan 21 - 11:01 pm]
   Yeah, the Zinc Age of Hollywood bio-pics. (What, you mean you don't like Steve Allen as Benny Goodman? That great moment when the audience stops dancing and starts listening? That exact moment when jazz went from being a popular music to an art music? What's wrong with you?)
Q. from James in Moderatorville [Jan 21 - 10:54 pm]
We’re approaching 11 in the East. This has been fun, and I hope enlightening for those tuning in.

For latecomers, you can keep posting… this will all get cleaned up and archived.

Thanks to all who participated, and in particular Alyn Shipton, who had a tragedy in his family to deal with, Paul Tingen, who was up WAY LATE at night in Scotland, feeding the baby, and Lewis Porter, who has to move first thing in the morning.

And thanks to Whit for making the technology run smoothly.

Our next forum – in early February – will address Latin jazz and what that encompasses. Should Brazilian jazz have a separate category in the JJA Awards? What about Afro-Cuban jazz versus that from the Dominican Republic? Should be steamy, in more ways than one.

Join us if you can. Stay tuned to for details.

  A. from System in NYC [Jan 21 - 10:57 pm]
   This will be translated into a single transcript by about 11:30 EST.
  A. from System in Net [Jan 21 - 10:59 pm]
   Meanwhile (until 11:30), lingering guests are welcome to continue on the answers, if they like. New questions, though, probably won't be passed to them, as the moderators have done their duty for the event.
  A. from Pres in sleepy time [Jan 21 - 11:00 pm]
   Thanks to James Hale for organizing this forum -- after the next on on what constitutes Latin Jazz, the JJA will hold one asking our members to lobby each other for (no negative campaigning) their nominees for the Jazz Awards. The archived forums remain live -- I'm posting a note from mystery novelist Jon Jackson to the Jazz & Fiction forum in a day or two. Thanks, panelists. Live the life you love.

C o m m e n t s

Really The Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow 1 of 3
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December 16, 03

I'm looking for an edition of Mezz Mezzrow's book, Really the Blues that I bought when I was 13 yrs (1964) -- a dime-store type of paperback with a picture of sultry woman in a nighty. I bought it cause I thought it would be "dirty" and got more than I bargained for as it introduced me to the smoky counter culture of 1930's and 40's jazz musicians.

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