What Jazz Musicians Read (The lost libraries of Impronesia)

There are projects which begin with a bold imaginative vision, only to founder on the reefs of overreach. This was just such a project.  It was during the first lockdown that an idea formed; triggered by an email exchange with a New York Jazz musician. During our communications, the discussions had shifted from music to books and we both drew comfort from that. The gigs had all vanished and musicians everywhere were suffering. We had lost Lee Konitz and Henry Grimes to the virus and the bad news kept coming at us like an out of control freight train. By common assent we realised that there was little use in dwelling on the horrors at the door, so we sought solace in the warm embrace of classic literature. 

The rebuke from my bookshelf

‘I see that you’ve been reading ‘Don Quixote’ he said, as I often post reviews of my reading material on Facebook. ‘It’s next on my must-read list’ he added. The discussion then shifted to plague literature as I had been reading ‘Samual Pepys Diaries’ to see how he navigated the 1665 London plague. That was followed by ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus and ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ by Daniel Defoe. The books were strangely comforting; proving that there is nothing new under the sun, just variations on ancient themes. Books like that, with the clarity of hindsight, can reveal what is currently obscured by proximity. 

What have you been reading I asked? He replied with an impressive list of books which ranged from ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’ by Thucydides to modern political biographies and sociological studies of the American psyche. 

At that point and without real evidence, I decided that Jazz musicians were voracious readers. It made sense due to the preternatural sparking of the improviser neurons. I further speculated that creatives may handle adversity better than others, as they possess a richer interior life. My own encounters with improvisers reinforced that view as they are overwhelmingly articulate, liberally minded and they understand the arc of history. What arose out of that was my big idea. 

That improvisation was not only fed by notes and imaginings but by artistic cross-connections; resulting in subliminal intertextuality. 

At the time I was conducting ZOOM interviews for the US-based Jazz Journalists Association website. As I interviewed the musicians I would glance over their shoulders to see what was on their bookshelves. What I saw reinforced my view. Convinced that I was onto something, I became the voyeur, hunting online for Jazz lockdown interviews and living room gigs: looking behind the subjects to the books in the background. Writers are obsessed with others reading habits and seldom grasp how uncomfortable it can make people.

My next step was to design a survey and this is where my vision crashed to earth. I have designed many surveys in my life, but for some reason, I forgot the basic elements. Survey basics 101: (1) ensure that the survey captures a wide enough sampling of your target demographic to be truly reflective of the group. (2) randomise the selection within target areas and don’t cherry-pick in order to get the answer you expect. (3) anonymise the forms and the returns to ensure that the answers that you receive are without prejudice. (4) choose the wording carefully and never preempt a conclusion by telling the participants what you expect to find. (5) never send out a survey just before Christmas. 

Apologies to Alberto Manguel for defacing his wonderful cover art

It is fair to say, that I not only failed to meet the basic design standards, but I also managed to scare off almost all of the participants. Even those who were normally happy to engage with me. It was the worst of all worlds from their point of view. Because they were replying under their own names, their choices were as follows: (1) risk looking like a geeky bespectacled barn owl. (2) risk looking like a dumb-arse in front of their intellectual peers. (3) tell lies, then risk exposure later when an ex-girlfriend called them out on the lie and mocked them on social media, posting pics of empty bookshelves.  (4) play it safe and pull down the cone of silence. 

Here is an overview of the replies: Only one musician fulfilled all of my expectations and his replies revealed both breadth and depth. A gifted European musician said he read manuals for relaxation and little else. He had no books on his plan-to-read list and confessed, that the only library in his home was his wife’s (I take that reply with a large pinch of salt owing to the many erudite references in his song titles). Another replied that he had read half a comic during the lockdown. Yet another prominent local musician, from whom I regularly receive erudite reading lists, went ominously silent. 

Hindsight is an exact science and the flaws in my methodology never occurred me until after I had sent out the survey. The results, such as they were, revealed a different story than intended. I had wasted a perfectly good theory on the altar of poor design. I still ascribe to the theory of subliminal intertextuality, but a better scholar than me will have to pursue that study. I have no doubt that it is real and my abject failure to nail it down will taunt me, every time I spot a clever literary reference in a Jazz tune or in an album title. 

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. His blogs also appear on the Radio13 website