Notes about notes
John Fordham listens to jazz players and critics sounding off.
A bloke at the next table in a jazz venue watched me taking notes one night some years back. After a while, he triumphantly passed over a note of his own, which read "jazz critics are about as relevant as having a time and motion expert in the bedroom while you're . . ." Well, you can guess the last bit. It led to quite a lively between-numbers debate, and cheered up the resulting piece no end.
The episode was symptomatic of a view about the making of jazz that, though less widespread than it was, still survives. The story goes that jazz is an intuitive, spontaneous and passionate music, born on the wing and vanished as quickly, its methods shared by word of mouth and private language and rarely written down, its unruly magic and sensuality untranslatable into anything as utilitarian as everyday prose. The late Miles Davis, who rarely consented to talk about his work unless dragged to it by record companies, was one of the most high-profile members of the no-comment school. Just listen to the music, Miles would say, that's where all the answers are.
Yet writing about jazz - autobiographical, confessional, observational, analytical, critical and much more - has gone on almost since the birth of this century's most inventive and influential musical development. Robert Gottlieb, a former associate editor of the New Yorker, has set himself the Herculean task of gathering a representative collection of this material together.
Doing justice to its richness and variety turned out to be such a formidable assignment that Gottlieb couldn't encompass it in less than 1,068 pages, and announces that his original principle - to include only the best prose on the subject he could find - had to give way to relaxing the literary standards in favour of embracing as many periods and personalities as practicable.
It was as well that he did. The result is a spectacular collection that, as they say, no jazz fan will want to be without. But the vividness and eloquence of the material so often reaches beyond the confines of jazz insiders' knowledge and the masonic rituals of the cognoscenti that anyone with half a waking interest in just about any kind of contemporary music will find much that's entertaining and enlightening about it. The pragmatism and gallows humour of itinerant musicians at the margins of mainstream culture has often made them wonderful interviewees, and about a third of the book - dealing with the early decades of jazz - is predominantly autobiographical.
A vigorous mixture of observation, reflection and anecdote in the hands of such eminent commentators as Whitney Balliett, Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff and Dan Morgenstern informs the reportage and criticism sections, and only unwavering devotees of the most avant-garde and experimental corners of the music will feel shortchanged by Gottlieb's disposition towards classic and mainstream jazz. The other significant gap is in the presence of women - hardly Gottlieb's fault however, rather a reflection of the condition of the business.
For many of the music's more casual admirers, the erratically informal jazz lifestyle has long been as big a part of the attraction as the music, and there's plenty to nourish that appetite. Louis Armstrong describes the famous night in 1918 when as a tremulous country boy he joins Joe "King" Oliver's pioneering jazz band following its move from New Orleans to Chicago - comforted by walking in on Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens and seeing him shift his foot in recognition from its familiar onstage resting place, his tobacco-receiving spittoon.
Armstrong also points out to fellow trumpeter Buck Clayton, while demonstrating a glissando trick with the valves, that if he was back in the more competitive jazz hothouse of New Orleans he'd keep the mechanism covered with his handkerchief. There's Duke Ellington's rarely aired interview with himself, which includes the line: "When I was a child my mother told me I was blessed and I've always taken her word for it", or pianist Art Hodes remarking that one of the good things about the 1920s was that the police didn't yet recognise the smell of marijuana, or Martin Williams' insight that Thelonious Monk's famous stagger-and-stumble around the stage when not playing was his way of conducting.
Though Gottlieb implies regret in his introduction that "the relatively sunny narratives" of early jazz are clouded by the "polemical attitudes" of musicians and commentators over the racial issue later on, he nevertheless doesn't sidestep racism in the jazz world. Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson (groundbreaking black recruits to King of Swing Benny Goodman's white orchestra in the Thirties) were, as Hampton observes, constantly taken for Goodman's valets.
With characteristic pithiness, Billie Holiday in 1954 records her opinion of New York's jazz boulevard, 52nd Street, in the days when the real creators of the economic boom on "The Street" had to sit outside in the alleys in the intervals because they weren't allowed to fraternise with white customers. "You can be up to your boobies in white satin", Holiday says, "with gardenias in your hair, no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be on a plantation". Or Art Blakey describing how you could tour the South all day without being able to get a glass of water "and if you did they'd sell it to you for a dollar a glass. And it would be hot as panther piss."
In the decades when classical conservatories wouldn't let jazz be played in the building, let alone put on the curriculum, jazz conservatories were band-buses, back-rooms and hotel lobbies, and that atmosphere is powerfully conveyed in these pieces. So is the sense of a personal improvising style being as quirky and unmistakeable as a physiognomy, which emerges in the best descriptive writing too, like New Yorker writer Whitney Balliett's sublime portrayal of clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, or Nat Hentoff's of John Coltrane.
But most of all, the abiding impression is that of jazz as a process, not a museum exhibit. "Jazz is not a what" the book quotes pianist Bill Evans saying to writer Gene Lees. "It is a how."
John Fordham's illustrated history, Jazz, is published by Dorling Kindersley, and his collected volume of jazz journalism, Shooting from the Hip by Kyle Cathie Ltd