Monday, April 14, 2008

Jazz writer

I’m often dipping into a wonderful book called Visions of Jazz, by Gary Giddins. He is my favorite writer on jazz, and was one of the primary “faces” in Ken Burns’s documentary of that name. This book is essentially a collection of essays on musicians and their music, arranged chronologically. It makes up a kind of history of jazz, told through the styles and “visions” of these men and women. It’s altogether terrific.

In his chapter on Louis Armstrong, he gives this wonderful summing up of Satchmo’s effect on the scene when he came east from Chicago in the mid-’20s: “He found New York a backwater of ornamental virtuosity; he left it a swinging cosmopolis.” Is there a word for “magisterial” that leaves out the implications of pomposity? As a writer, I’d like to be Gary Giddins when I grow up.

Among his many virtues, he also has a talent for ferreting out illuminating quotes by others. At the beginning of his Armstrong chapter, he inserts this:

I’d rather hear Louis Armstrong play “Tiger Rag” than wander into Westminster Abbey and find the lost chord.
—Edward, Duke of Windsor

I agree with that. —Louis Armstrong

This doesn’t tell you anything about the music, of course. The Duke of Windsor wouldn’t be my guide anything but determined asininity. But aside from being mildly amusing, it tells you a little about the zeitgeist that allowed or even forced the duke (not the real Duke, of course) to say what he did. And it tells you a bit about Armstrong. Giddins wrote a fascinating book about the early Bing Crosby, and essentially frames it with this, from Artie Shaw:

The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States.

For recent generations, at least, the idea of Bing Crosby as hipster is odd, to say the least. That’s the point, of course.

I can’t really do Giddins justice, so I’ll give you a taste instead. He’s talking about Armstrong’s skills as an accompanist to singers (who else would write about this?). He goes through Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and other blues and jazz icons. Then he writes this: “Yet Armstrong was never more ingenious than in backing the worst, like the incomparably hapless Lillie Delk Christian, whose ‘Too Busy’ is an epiphany of cross-purposes. She chirpily slogs through the first chorus without the remotest hint of swing, but after an instrumental passage in which Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Noone pinch themselves awake, Armstrong sneaks up on her with an impromptu scat vocal that rattles her into action.”


No comments: