LIVING THE JAZZ LIFE:
Conversations with Forty Musicians
about Their Careers in Jazz
W. Royal Stokes
Oxford, 278 pages, $27.50
reviewed by Don Rose
Ever wonder how Slam Stewart began humming along with his bass-fiddle bowing?
"I was working with a group around Boston in a couple of clubs," Stewart told jazz journalist W. Royal Stokes. "The group had a youngster playing alto sax in it and he also doubled on violin. When he took a chorus on the fiddle he used to sing the same note in the same register....I got the idea of humming and singing along with my bass, right? I tried it and found that I couldn't hum or sing in the same register that I was playing on the bass. So I raised my voice one octave...and that's how I started....So I've kept it all these years."
That's one of the many rich little anecdotes that run like a vein of gold through Stokes's new book, which brings together a series of interviews he conducted with a wide variety of players over the course of several decades. Some of them came from the public radio show he once hosted, others were ancillary to stories and reviews he was writing for publication in places such as Down Beat and Jazz Times.
Stokes, who edits "Jazz Notes," the quarterly of the Jazz Journalists Association, is the author of the highly regarded book "The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990." Here he lets the subjects speak largely for themselves, telling their personal stories, be they male or female, big-name stars such as Diana Krall and Jackie McLean--or lesser-known figures such as the Australian multi- instrumentalist James Morrison and blues pianist James Maxwell.
The guiding thread of this somewhat oddball assemblage of oral histories is how each of the artists wound up in the world of jazz. Arbitrarily divided into chapters on saxophonists, pianists, composers, string players, vocalists and blues artists, it also includes sections on musicianly families, foreign-born jazzers and a couple of high-profile comedians—Steve Allen and Bill Cosby—who relate to the jazz world, though Allen obviously could have been included among either composers or pianists.
I found the chapter on composer-instrumentalists especially fascinating, in large part because they deal more directly with the creative process. Jimmy Heath says he gets ideas almost any time of day or night, "but they usually flash and go away." Now he carries a pocket tape recorder with him to set them down. Gerry Mulligan, on the other hand said "I have no luck at all with tape recorders. They've been absolutely no help to me in a compositional way. What I'm curious to look into are some of the new computer possibilities, the kinds of things that you write directly on the computer..."
Then Joanne Brackeen tells Stokes, "I don't have any method of composition....other than I sit down at the piano and do this. I don't write away from the piano. As a matter of fact, my hands often create something that could never have thought of." Then, she says, she puts it on tape. "That's how I capture it, and then later on, of course, you have to write it out."
Pianist Marcus Roberts and violinist Regina Carter both discuss the value of playing Charlie Parker solos on their instruments: "If I learn it off the record," says Roberts, who eschews writing the solos down (in Braille), "then I get all the nuance; I can study the nuance and I can study the soul and the amount of blues feeling and the real, true organic technique that's being displayed." Carter, on the other hand, transcribed the solos carefully every day "until I got it and was able to play it...And from doing that I started to understand a little bit of what people were trying to tell me."
In his introduction Stokes makes no apologies for omitting a trumpet chapter and disclaims any effort to be historically comprehensive. These are simply the stories he chose to relate. There is thus little shape to the book—or even the chapters themselves—so you can dip into it episodically, anywhere along the line, and come up with some little item of interest or amusement.
I was touched, for example, to hear the great flutist and tenor-man Lew Tabackin talking about his days as a scared Jewish kid in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, where he had to walk past the Catholic high school on his way to public elementary school. "They [the Catholic students] were so repressed they were ready to kick ass, especially if you were a Jew...it was a trauma almost every day...being from a minority group. Those were the days when Blacks and Jews had a feeling of brotherhood out of necessity."
Lots of gossip here as well: Ramsey Lewis tells how his first trio couldn't cope with the success of its hit "The In Crowd," which forced its breakup. Dee Dee Bridgewater talks about her on-going problems with drummer Mel Lewis while she was singing with the band he co-led with Thad Jones. Ultimately there were problems with Jones as well, stemming perhaps from jealousy or competitiveness, leading to her quitting. More expectedly, there are the complaints of several women who felt gender discrimination hampering their careers.
Everybody's got a story and most of the stories have a point. Several figures, such as Mulligan and Allen, have passed on since their interviews, adding to the value of this collection. It should go on your shelf next to that other fine book of oral histories, "Hear Me Talkin' to Ya."