Four Books by Leslie Gourse

Four by Leslie Gourse

The Golden Age of Jazz in Paris and Other Stories about Jazz
Xlibris, 2000
ISBN: 0738825921
Louis' Children: American Jazz Singers
Cooper Square Press, 2001
ISBN: 0815411146
Time Keepers: The Great Jazz Drummers
Franklin Watts/Grolier Publishing, March 2000
ISBN: 0531164055
Fancy Fretwork: The Great Jazz Guitarists
Scholastic Library Publishing, March 2000
ISBN: 0531164047

reviewed by W. Royal Stokes

copyright © 2002 W. Royal Stokes

Leslie Gourse has become, over the course of two decades, one of the more prolific chroniclers of the jazz scene. She has written biographies of Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Wynton Marsalis, and Carmen McRae, books on singers and women instrumentalists, and a dozen or so instrument surveys and mini-biographies for young adults, including an award-winning one of Billie Holiday. Her byline has appeared with frequency in some of the major jazz magazines here and abroad. She has also written on a variety of subjects in general-interest publications.

The first title above is a collection of essays and profiles written in the 1990s. An introduction relates how she "took a left turn" from her "background in an upper middle class, Jewish family" and became "a jazz writer, biographer, and historian." It is a revealing, often amusing, and thoroughly American story. Many of her fellow jazz writers will connect with her more or less accidental discovery of her life's work. This fascinated reader certainly did. Not to spoil so entertaining a tale, I leave it to her to tell it.

However, I will note that early in her journalistic career, after she had published a novel upon graduating from Columbia University, Gourse visited Paris, and the second chapter of The Golden Age of Jazz offers a splendid account of that city's role in nurturing American music, beginning with the warm reception in 1918 of James Reese Europe and the 369th Infantry all-black band and continuing in the 1930s with its enthusiastic welcome of Bricktop, Cole Porter, and Josephine Baker and into the post-World War II period when it became home, for lengthy stays, to Sidney Bechet, Memphis Slim, Johnny Griffin, A. T. Taylor, and many other jazz musicians. The chapter contains some acute observations as to why jazz was so well received in France and it compiles a cumulative catalogue of the city's myriad jazz nightspots across the decades.

One of the most affecting chapters is a tribute to the New York presence of Bradley Cunningham's eponymous "jazz saloon" and how it became, and remained for a quarter of a century, a main port of call for the jazz clan. While its musical fare was nominally piano and bass only, horn players often sat in during the evening's final set. The roster that accumulates in the course of the account leads one to believe that virtually everybody in jazz dropped in eventually. When the club closed after its owner's death in the mid '90s the loss felt was pervasive and deep.

Another moving story is that of Pharoah Sanders' struggles upon arriving in New York in the '60s -- he was homeless and near starvation for a period -- and the inner strengths and dedication to his art that pulled him through those rough times. Still another is that of the troubled relationship -- along with the complementary talents each brought to the organization -- of the leaders of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. The volume also has essays on women instrumentalists, "The Lost and Found Generation of Jazz Musicians" (that is, of the '60s and '70s), the role that their heritage plays in the jazz of Jewish musicians, and singers who have come to the fore the past two decades. There are also profiles of George Wein, Cedar Walton, Melba Liston, Dizzy Gillespie, Jesse Davis, Roy Hargrove, and Bobby Tucker.

Louis' Children, first published in 1984, has been updated for this reprint with a concluding chapter, "The View from January 1, 2000," that provides capsule profiles of a dozen and a half of some of the more prominent singers who have emerged -- or become better established -- since the early '80s, including Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra, Wilson, Diana Krall, Kevin Mahogany, Kurt Elling, and Harry Connick Jr. This dozen-page supplement, to which is appended a list of nearly 70 singers of the 1980s and '90s who have impressed the author, makes for a handy guide to the jazz vocal scene of the last 20 years.

The meat of this essential handbook to and survey of the jazz vocal art consists of its chapter-length appreciations of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, and other luminaries, along with chapters that bring together in each case several singers of, for example, the big band, Kansas City, scat, and bebop scenes.

Gourse has a good ear both for the sounds she is describing and for the prose in which she conveys those sounds. She has done her background research and she has fleshed out the stories with interview material of her own, when her subjects were still available, or that of others. The work is a valuable source book and is replete with great anecdotes and charming first-person accounts of coming up in the jazz life. I would think it especially rewarding for those determined to set out upon the career path Louis' children followed.

A commendable effort that Leslie Gourse has pursued for a decade or so has been her providing young people succinct, informative, and very readable jazz biographies and surveys of the principal players of an instrument. Previous to the third and fourth titles above she published young-adult biographies of Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Wynton Marsalis and volumes dealing with pianists, bassists, singers, and horn players.

Time Keepers may omit here or there a name dear to the jazz scholar or fan but in the main the important drummers are all included, about 75 of them. Baby Dodds gets his due as the greatest of the pioneers as does Jo Jones as the premier Swing Era big band drummer. Big Sid Catlett's virtuosity is recognized, and his masterful technique and subtlety of attack are nicely captured in a paragraph-long quote from a Whitney Balliett profile of him. The careers and styles of Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, Cozy Cole, Ray McKinley, and Buddy Rich are summed up, as are those of their successors in the bebop era, namely, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. From the free jazz and beyond period, we learn of Elvin Jones, Paul Motian, Billy Higgins, and Tony Williams. Latin percussion is represented by Tito Puente and Chano Pozo. In a final few pages attention is given to several women who have come forward in the '90s as significant drummers, including Terri Lyne Carrington, Cindy Blackman, and Diva leader Sherrie Maricle.

Fancy Fretters follows much the same pattern, with generous attention allotted to such key developers of the guitar's role as Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, and Jim Hall. Blues guitarists get a chapter that focuses on Blind Lemmon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and Big Bill Broonzy. Freddie Green and Allan Reuss are noted as two of the Swing Era's principal rhythm guitarists while Eddie Lang and Oscar Moore are pinpointed as a pair of that period's most creative soloists. Guitar players of the '80s and '90s who are profiled include John McLaughlin, Emily Remler, Pat Metheny, and James Blood Ulmer. Nearly a hundred guitarists find their way into the volume.

Both of these surveys are enhanced by photographs and contain an index, "Suggested Listening," and bibliography (including magazines) for "More Information." Reading either volume, a middle school or high school student would come away well informed on an instrument's place in the music's mosaic as it was passed along in the hands of its main players through the decades.

W. Royal Stokes is author of Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press,1991), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about their Careers in Jazz, also from Oxford.

C o m m e n t s

No comments yet. You can be the first.
[<<] [<] [>] [>>]