Classic Jazz: A Personal View of the Music and the Musicians
Classic Jazz: A Personal View of the Music and Musicians
by Floyd Levin
University of California Press, 2000
ISBN: 0520213602
375 pages

by Dan Kassell

copyright © 2000 Dan Kassell

Classic Jazz is about "traditional American Jazz" over 50 years, classic New Orleans jazz and the artists who performed it in New Orleans and on the West Coast, "about jazz -- its present, its past, and its evolution" as Milt Hinton wrote on the book jacket. "A treasury of information conveying the passion and the soul of musicians and the music," Benny Carter writes in the forward, "throughout the last 40 years the dynamic duo of Floyd and Lucille Levin, a familiar site at musical events in Los Angeles and elsewhere, have always given their support and encouragement to performers and promoters. You will read about their work in the founding of jazz societies, the production of jazz events and the creation of honors to musicians including the annual Benny Carter Award." As Levin explains in his preface, "the term 'classic jazz' will cover . . . ragtime, blues, New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, dixieland, traditional, swing and mainstream," and in one sentence he summarizes the music's cornerstones: "While technical ability is essential," he states, "the vital elements are sustained beat, combined spontaneous improvisations, and freedom to use imagination, ingenuity, and taste."

Classic Jazz's release coincidently coincides with Ken Burn's Jazz series in explaining not only the early history but by inference what's happening right now, because by following the examples of these seminal jazz players, young jazz artists can discover how to successfully perform swing jazz today. Among its historical highlights: Louis Armstrong's lyric to "Keep off Katie's Head" (the original title of "Sister Kate") "referred to Kate Townsend, a Basin Street madam," Kid Ory reported during a 1950 radio interview with the author. Written in 1918 and sold for $50 to Clarence Williams, the original lyric Ory thought "too dirty" to sing was "the first jazz hit of the 1920s," but was recorded for the first time by Ory in 1959. See page 71 for the unexpurgated lyrics.

There's also articulate reporting of Duke Ellington's Sacred Music Concert, New Orleans, 1970, with an as-if-you-were-there description and quotes of the Duke's words from "In The Beginning, God" to the exciting finale, "Praise God and Dance." Information on the origin of Leonard Feather's phrase "the School of What's Happening Now." James P. Johnson's pronouncement that "he played jazz long before any of the Crescent City Bands traveled north." (Levin adds, "If a true birthplace of jazz must be identified, I think Jimmy would claim Harlem for that honor. . . . Those Harlem stride players created an exciting brand of music, blending ragtime with the blues to produce a rhythmic pattern. . . .")

Remembrances through Scott Joplin's "only white pupil" Sanford "Brun" Campbell of ragtime's many revivals. News of the discovery of Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton's last compositions, written for a 1940's rehearsal and now housed in Bill Russell's Historic New Orleans Collection, first performed at the 1998 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Eubie Blake's description of why ragtime was "low down -- and wasn't art." Floyd's decision to publish Jess Stacy's notes about Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke's early appearances on the Riverboat Capitol is historically valuable, too.

Occasional gems of description: "He was a very imposing figure seated on a high stool blowing his King B-flat cornet with a wad of chewing gum bulging from his cheek -- always immaculately attired, a brilliant shine on his shoes and often torrid tones, among the most recognized sounds in jazz were also immaculate. . . . William Edward 'Wild Bill' Davison . . . made every ballad his own, inevitably ending it with his trademark -- a low growling, insinuating coda that was the musical equivalent of an innocent wicked wink" (originally published in the Los Angeles Times). Choice statements Artie Shaw made during a California State University lecture: "Jazz is an attitude; I much prefer just calling it music - American informal music."

The influences of New Orleans musicians on classic jazz "celebrate the lore of old New Orleans and the people who keep it alive." So Levin's book includes biography or personal observations of Danny Barker, the Jazz Troubadour; Lorenzo Tio, Jr., clarinetist of the Crescent City; historian Bill Russell, and a 1948 interview with Louis Armstrong (Floyd concludes "Satchmo established guidelines that still govern the way pop tunes are played and sung"). In a chapter called "Ambassador Satch," he witnesses a fan's sign during the funeral's motorcade through Queens that read "We Loved You Satchmo."

To explain the revival of "Jazz on the West Coast" Levin includes memories of late 1930s' radio broadcasts, an on-the-scene report of the Palormar Ballroom fire (which won the Best Article Award,1997, from the International Associatoin of Jazz Record Collectors), Les Konig's Good Time Records contribution (the label's now a Fantasy imprint), Turk Murphy's influence in San Francisco, trumpeter Pete Daily's influence as a model for Jack Webb in the film Pete Kelly's Blues, the Association of Southern California Jazz Club's presentation of "Hello Louis" on July 3, 1970 that finally included Bob McCracken, and a few pages on early musicians who performed in Floyd's own jazz series "A Night In New Orleans," co-produced with Barry Martyn during the '70s. Also, reed specialist Rick Fay recounts how his friendship with Mat and Rachel Domber resulted in Arbors Records.

The final chapter chronicles Floyd's efforts to raise funds for a statue for Louis Armstrong in New Orleans envisioned by Danny Barker (and first championed by Clark Terry), the saga of planning "Hello Louis" for a 70th birthday tribute in Los Angles, and the delivery of Elizabeth Catlett's statue to Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans.

As a new century begins Floyd Levin's Classic Jazz remains a captivating summary of the musicians who kept the founders' tradition alive.


C o m m e n t s

Classic Jazz-book by Floyd Levin 1 of 1
Don May 28, 01

I found this wonderfully written and illustrated book called "Classic Jazz from my local library. I took it with me on a mini vacation...and could hardly put it down. He is truly such a gifted writer that paints vivid illustrations on the early years of jazz and its amazing players (both famous and those that didn't have the limelight...but are equally as beautiful human beings with amazing stories and talents.

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