A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now

Reading Jazz:
A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now

Edited by Robert Gottlieb (Pantheon Books, New York, 1068 pages, $37.50)

from Jazz Notes 9/1 1997

By Stanley Dance
Copyright © 1997, Stanley Dance

This huge volume contains over a hundred pieces selected, it would appear, to present good writing and a fairly comprehensive picture of the jazz scene. Editor Gottlieb admits in the introduction that he came "to jazz late in life," and this perhaps explains some of the anthology's surprises, besides the fact that the amount of material to choose from today is enormous. Newcomers to the music should find the book extremely enlightening, while others may be disappointed by arid stretches devoted to musicians of whom they do not approve. That is unavoidable, for in three-quarters of a century jazz has changed so often that almost no one likes all of it.

Ernest Ansermet's oft-reprinted 1919 observations on Sidney Bechet are here once again, and so, fortunately, is Ralph Gleason's warm remembrance of the now-neglected Lunceford band. Mary Lou Williams' autobiographical series from the 1954 Melody Maker is a valuable acquisition. It was, as I recall, completed with the help of Max Jones, one of the best British jazz writers, who is regrettably absent here. For that matter, it is astonishing how many others who have contributed significantly to jazz criticism and history go unrepresented, such as Ira Gitler, Barry Ulanov, John Chilton, Johnny Simmen, Don DeMicheal, Bob Rusch, Frederic Ramsey, Doug Ramsey, Jack Sohmer, Richard Hadlock, Bill Coss, Dom Cerulli, Burt Korall, Dave Dexter, John McDonough, and Alun Morgan. To claim that many of these are superior to some who appear more than once in this anthology would merely be to oppose personal taste to that of an editor undoubtedly more experienced in evaluating variety of content. The majority of his selections come from other books, many of which are still in print. Magazines, as an alternative, could profitably be the source of more collections this size. And assuming that the recycling industry continues (as with David Metlzer's 1993 book of the same title and Tom Piazza's recent collection of jazz liner notes), the question of writers' rights might now merit the further attention of the Jazz Journalists Association. Most of the permissions here seem to come from publishers, and at times, it is hard to avoid wondering whether the writers had been consulted.

For example, the prolific George Simon is not well served by a dated piece on the big bands that is alarmingly over-concerned with white bands and their mostly tiresome singers. Such famous bandleaders as Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Earl Hines, Claude Hopkins, Andy Kirk, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, and Lionel Hampton are not so much as mentioned, so to claim that this section "sets the Big Band scene" is more than a little extravagant.

Long ago, Don DeMicheal warned me in his editorial capacity of the risk in presenting interviews entirely in the subject's words. (The invisibility of the interviewer is surely desirable, if only as restraint on rampant ego.) But here, for example, Sonny Greer is credited with having written a piece originally printed as-told-to. Sonny didn't write a word of it, but he talked into a tape-recorder. After that, the tape was transcribed, the material arranged chronologically, and afterthoughts inserted in the proper places. The role of the interviewer is too consistently underplayed (just as Orrin Keepnews, in the final section, believes that of the record producer to be). Gottlieb's high opinion of Heah Me Talkin' to Ya is fully justified, but it is nevertheless a shame that the guys were never credited who had the foresight to interview for Down Beat all the musicians the book's compilers quoted.

Whitney Balliett has enough samples here to maintain his reputation as the best of jazz writers. While there is often much talk of this, as though jazz fans were terribly interested in literary values, it is sometimes overlooked that Balliett is a great interviewer, one who consistently elicits interesting facts and opinions from musicians. He does not neglect to picture them for his readers, to capture, as it were, the personality. So does Lillian Ross, another New Yorker writer, in her amusing account of the first Newport Jazz Festival.

The last is a good illustration of a purpose served by this anthology in preserving articles that should not be forgotten. There are some special ones, too, in the section devoted to criticism, where the uncompromising Hugues Panassié states his positions lucidly, Stanley Crouch defies the Miles Davis cult, Dan Morgenstern dumps definitively on a deplorable Armstrong biography, and a musician, Humphrey Lyttelton, does right by Bessie Smith.

But, Pantheon, there really ought to have been an index!

* * *

Since the foregoing appeared in JazzTimes, it has been pointed out to me that the Mary Lou Williams section of Reading Jazz was published in Max Jones' Talking Jazz (Norton, 1988), where he explained that it was the result of three weeks of interviews. He is also rightly credited as writer in Grove, but he is nowhere acknowledged by Gottlieb.

My own long interview with Sonny Greer was originally published as part of the liner notes to Columbia's LP package, The Ellington Era, Vol. II, where "as told to Stanley Dance" was part of a full-page heading. It was subsequently reprinted in both The World of Duke Ellington and The Duke Ellington Reader, but that scarcely puts it in the public domain! Dear Sonny, of course, wrote not one word of it.

There is, I believe, an issue here of considerable concern to jazz journalists and interviewers, one that has to do with legality, ethics, and common courtesy. Experience had led me to believe that writers consulted one another about such reprints, but apparently there is a new breed of, say, opportunists abroad.

[This review originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 1997 JazzTimes and is reprinted here with the permission of that journal's publisher. -- Ed. ]


C o m m e n t s

Reading Jazz 1 of 1
hman@jazzhouse.org December 02, 97

There's certainly good reading of jazz to be made available in compiilation/anthology form every year. We hope the JJA can become instrumental in supporting the publication of more up-to-date and wide-ranging collections. Watch these spaces!

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