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

Cover Art and Rattle Jazz




Rattle Records stands out from the pack for a number of reasons and not least because of the label’s presentation. Most independent labels like Rattle run on a shoestring and to hold their own in a difficult market they need a strong identity. While the music and the technical aspects are paramount, the cover art is also important. So, the recording artist is the expert when it comes to musical content, but seldom so when it comes to cover art design. Fortuitously, Rattle has an over-arching concept when it comes to cover design, much like ECM does.


The guru interpreting the musician’s desires while at the same time remaining true to the broader design concept is UnkleFranc. With his (or her) help the artwork is shaped. Rattle Records occupies a unique position in New Zealand contemporary music and the visual brand is clearly a factor. Someone purchasing a pop playlist on Spotify may not care about design, but the arts-minded folk who love Rattle certainly do. 


With the arrival of music streaming, the interconnectedness of music and the visual arts largely faded into obscurity. What began as grand theft under Napster became petty theft under the various digital models and what passed for cover art morphed into pixilated blobs the size of postage stamps. Audiophiles cared but the average music consumer did not appear to. As the old model faltered, the race to bottom gathered pace. The proliferation of new platforms like Apple, while nowhere near as bad as Napster paid risible royalties to the recording artists.


There were other consequences as well, the downloading and streaming industry had effectively severed the relationship between the consumer and cover art/liner notes and high fidelity music. In a newsletter to new recording artists, a major label pointed out that liner notes and recording details were no longer compatible with music presentation. Statements like that are woefully disrespectful as the creation and marketing of music is a collaborative enterprise. It matters who the musicians are and where the album was recorded or mixed. The presentation also matters.


Throughout this period the CD and the newly revived LP were the hold-outs and it is worth noting that no analogue or digital medium has lasted as long as the Compact Disk. The fault for the decline in CD sales does not lie with the streamers or the disruptor technologies, the fault lies with the industry, who failed to adapt. The industry answer was to demand a bigger share of a shrinking pie and the ship sank slowly under its own inertia.


If the good news has been slow in coming, the rise of the independent labels and the arrival of artist-friendly digital platforms like Bandcamp has offered hope. These are mostly run by musicians or committed curators (unlike the big three who own 80% of the industry, Sony BMG, Universal, Warners). On Bandcamp, you can buy an LP or CD and download or stream in HiFi. The artist also gets a better percentage, control is localised and cover art and liner notes are available. 


I urge anyone reading this to visit Rattle on Bandcamp. If you don’t already own a copy and you like the look of the album cover, check it out. All of the information is there underneath the cover art. Listen to samples, read the liner notes and then buy in whatever form suits you. For me, this experience recaptures the lost lamented joy of browsing in record stores and then rushing home to try out the album out on your HiFi. All of the album covers I have posted here are attributed to UnkleFranc with the exception of ‘The Troubles’ cover which was designed by Fane Flaws. 


Footnote: An odd research study was undertaken to investigate the relationship between music and the visual arts. The study wanted to see if personality traits were a determinant of musical preference. A questionnaire using the ‘Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking’ was used and the results were as follows: The majority of study participants identified themselves as liking either Classical or Popular Music and most of those indicated a preference for paintings with landscape images. The majority also indicated low preferences for Heavy Metal, images portraying violence or for world cultures (?). Classical music listeners related positively to all visual art images. Heavy Metal lovers liked all visual art images except for landscapes. Popular music lovers identified most positively with visual art religious images (? Madonna) and Jazz Lovers were cool with all visual art images except religious images (attribution, Sage Journals).



The albums in the order of appearance: (1) Zoo (Tom Dennison) (2) Secret Islands (Jim Langabeer) (3) Ace Tone (Ron Samsom) (4) Good Winter (antipodes) (5) UM… (yeahyeahabsolutlynoway) (6) The Troubles (7) Fiddes vs Tinkler (Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra) (8) East West Moon (Jonathan Crayford) (9) Edge of Chaos (Dixon Nacey) (10) Shuffle (Manins, Samsom, Benebig, Lockett)

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. 

Auckland Jazz Festival 2015 – part one

AJO @ Festival logo This is the second Auckland Jazz Festival and what incredibly tasty offerings there are in the programme. The event runs as a fringe festival and this is absolutely the right approach; no corporates making stupid unhelpful suggestions, an intense focus on the best of Kiwi improvised music and international acts with an established connection to New Zealand. The ‘best kept secret’ ethos is a good model for this music and it’s true. In a nutshell the festival tells an all but hidden story; the story of a vibrant diverse Jazz scene, with more than enough talent to wow discriminating audiences. The biggest downside of fringe festivals is that they run on air. Good attendance can mitigate this. With no significant up-front advertising budget, the role of the sponsoring clubs, bars, galleries and local record labels is vital. Those venues and the labels (Rattle in this case) need our support and appreciation. While Auckland has an unfortunate track record of failing to support the arts, the winds of change are in the air. The gigs on offer are diverse and interesting and Auckland will increasingly want a piece of this magic. 12080125_10154517770924815_4684211624996739413_oThe festival opened on the 14th with a duo of respected Australian musicians, ‘The Prodigal Sons’. P J Koopman (guitar) and Steve Barry (piano) are expats who left New Zealand long ago to work in Australia. Both are fondly remembered by Kiwi audiences and both are now firmly established in Sydney; polished musicians speaking each others language. The years of hard work and performance in diverse situations giving them particular insights. Barry has been widely acknowledged for recent albums and although widely engaged in academic pursuits recently, it is good to see him on the road again. These guys can really swing their lines and do it while spinning out fresh ideas. No tempo deters them, but it was the medium and slow tempos that showed us their best. The two original compositions which particularly impressed me were by Koopman; ‘Working Title’ and ‘Major Minor’. On these tunes the exchanges between the two were breathtaking. They engaged two fine local musicians for the gig and with the talented Cameron McArthur on bass and Andrew Keegan on drums the gig was superb. McArthur and Keegan were there every step of the way and as pleasing as the headliners.

During solos the shared experience and friendship of guitarist and pianist spoke loudest. I always look for humanity in music and it was most evident during these personal exchanges. On ballads and in particular on standards, Steve Barry has few peers. I like his more complex compositions and enjoyed those, but like many younger musicians he plays few standards. When he does he chooses well and pays them deep respect. On Wednesday they played ‘Isfahan’ (Strayhorn/Ellington) and ‘Skylark’ (Carmichael/Mercer). The latter in particular communicated that wonderful Strayhorn magic. A burst of particularly loud applause followed that number and rightly so. An excellent beginning to the Jazz festival. JoCray electric (5)On Thursday the Jonathan Crayford Electric Trio featured. It is no secret that I rate Crayford highly and I would go to see him perform anywhere. Arguably one of our top Jazz exports to the world and undoubtedly one of the more innovative musicians on the scene today. No Crayford project is a half-hearted affair, as this musician lives music in the fullest sense. His musical outpourings are sublime but it goes deeper than his excellent musicianship. Crayford’s vantage point on the creative life is unusual and deeply focussed: few others share his perception.

When he returns from New York or Berlin he brings the road life with him; a teeming wealth of fresh experience populated by people, places and planets; pouring from his consciousness and into his deep improvisations. Every project has total commitment and every project draws you deeper. Gifted communicators allow us to glimpse what they see and Crayford has that power, especially if you pay proper attention. He has one foot in the everyday world and one in the realms beyond our imaginings. JoCray electric (15)Powering the gig were legendary analogue machines, the sort that live on in spite of themselves. A Rhodes and a Hohner Clavinet D6 fed through an array of pedals, a talk box and other electronic marvels. In Crayford’s hands these spoke afresh, as the listener travelled backwards and forwards in time – simultaneously. whether playing solo piano or music like this, it is always about the groove. He has an un-hurried and methodical way of diving ever deeper into grooves. Unpicking them until you realise that an infinity of corridors yield to his probing. There is nothing of the technocrat here, just deep and uncompromising sonic vista of immense beauty. JoCray electric (8)The third gig I attended was the Norman Meehan/Hannah Griffin/Bill Manhire/Colin Hemmingsen night, ‘Small holes in the Silence’. I was particularly delighted with this offering as I had not yet seen them perform together. Their collaborations are marvellous creations; ever seeping deeper into the consciousness of art-music and poetry lovers. This gig had special written all over it. Meehan is a gifted composer, academic, pianist and author. Everyone on the Australasian Jazz Scene has marvelled at his scholarship when capturing the essence of Bley or Nock in print. He was clearly the right person to shepherd this project, as his touch and pianist lines have the cadences of a poet. He understands the value of space, modulation and sparse voicing. Often allowing a feather light touch to communicate the loudest of truths. Above all he communicates without undue ornamentation. These are the poets attributes and the Jazz musicians attributes. Finding a new way to tell a story, pushing at the edges of grammar and understanding what to jettison in order to find the clear air. AJO @ Festival Meehan (6)Hannah Griffin has an astonishingly purity to her voice, bell-like, adamantine. She evokes the history of the song form. It is as easy to imagine her singing a bards lines in a medieval castle as in a modern setting. She brings the sensibilities of vocalists like Joni Mitchell and like them she serves the words and the music. She interprets but in subtle ways. This is truly an art music ensemble and the words and mood are at their very heart. With each notes passing the essence of the words remained and this is a tribute to the arranging. The other ensemble member is Colin Hemmingsen, a former NZSO principal and Jazz musician. Hemmingsen is a saxophonist who doubles on winds. His bass clarinet playing is fabulous, conjuring the warm woodiness in that especially resonant instrument. The choice of instruments, and voicings was of vital importance here. The conversations needed to convey conviviality. After each reading the ensemble gave their interpretation of a Manhire poem, voices blending, not competing, the words left as pure residue for contemplation.

The Meehan/Griffin/Manhire projects have been well recorded by Rattle Records NZ and these are all available from the Rattle site (see below). This was the launch of ‘Small Holes in the Silence’ – the tile referencing the poem by ‘Hone Tuwhare’AJO @ Festival Meehan (10)Bill Manhire is one of New Zealand’s favourite poets and experiencing him reading in a subterranean jazz club is a unique experience. A reading augmented by fine musicians lifts the experience to the sublime. Manhire is a towering figure in New Zealand literature. A much-loved poet laureate, anthologist and literary standard-bearer. Showcasing to the world the essence of who we are, speaking in that deliciously self-effacing Kiwi voice that we value so much. His poems telling our stories as much as they tell his own. He is us in ways that we wish we could express. He is the poet we aspire to. His poem ‘The Hawk’ moved me deeply. Speaking of vast landscapes and human interactions from a poets vantage point. I also loved his ode to the great Cornish poet Charles Causley, a sly humorous and deftly crafted piece that conveyed deep affection. Above all it captured the ballad form and I could not help thinking of Housman. Two poems however caught me unawares and they were by a dear friend long departed, Dave Mitchell. Mitchell has all but faded from memory and it delighted me to hear him paid his dues. In his younger years a sweet-natured friendly man, in latter years troubled and ill. The reading from ‘Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby’ is what I will take away and hold close – the gentle flames of our lost poet rekindled by a master orator. AJO @ Festival Meehan (8)  Capturing Manhire in musical form required sensitivity; without that the nuances of breath would be lost in the complexities of a sonic landscape. The sets reminded us that poetry and music are natural collaborators. A lyric is a poem accompanied by a lyre. From the Gilgamesh onwards it has been so, the appearance of separation an illusion, the connection archetypal. It is good therefore to see them coupled in this way and by these people.

This blog is syndicated on the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) website and supports the Auckland Jazz Festival and Rattle Records


Alternate realities – ‘dreamsville’


Image by roberthuffstutter via Flickr

The opening line of J.P. Hartley’s Edwardian based novel ‘The Go Between’ begins with the words, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there“.     I was mindful of that quotation when I recently spotted a link to a Jazz, culture and poetry blog.   The link was named ‘Like…Dreamsville’.   My first thoughts were of the ‘Mancini’ composition as played by ‘Grant Green’, ‘Wes Montgomery’ and ‘Pat Martino’ – all evocative renditions of the oh-so-slow groove anthem of that name.

As it turned out the site was not about the song but something altogether more ephemeral – the strange world of the 1950’s ‘Beatnik’.   That term ‘Beatnik’ has been so successfully parodied  that it can never appear less than corny and the establishment of the time delighted in making it so.    As a quasi-cultural movement it looked lame and contrived and so it was meant to look.

It portrayed the apparent boredom and ingratitude of American youth.    A youth in the process of rejecting the ultra-materialistic values of their ‘elders and betters’.    I suspect that the term ‘Beatnik’ was eventually allowed to die of embarrassment, as nothing kills a movement quicker than being absorbed into the popular consciousness as a joke.     ‘Mr Magoo’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island’ abetted in this (see ‘Like…Dreamsville’).

Lurking behind that was the voice of  the ‘Beats’ and what the mainstream press were so desperate to undermine was almost certainly the ‘Beat Generation‘.   That was another entity entirely.     Unlike the ‘Beatniks’, the ‘Beats’ were not a media invention (even though the name was probably ably assisted by the liberal media of the day).  The conservative establishment had long felt that a dangerous counter-culture existed in the orbit of Modern Jazz, Modern Art and Modern Poetry/Post War Literature.   This was a harder nut to crack, because the gifted writers, musicians, poets, philosophers and artists were perfectly capable of rising to the challenge and turning the ridicule right back on so-called civilised society.  I refer to the likes of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Snyder, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Kaufman, Kessy, Baraka, Pollack, Watts and many others.   Into this mix add musicians like Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry the Hipster, Charlie Ventura, Paul Horn, Chico Hamilton and Charlie Parker.

The ‘Beat Generation’ used Jazz as its soundtrack and a lot of the hip vocabulary arose directly out of that music.   The new lexicon that arose was later twisted to become a weapon.   Like the ‘Hippy’s’ that followed in their wake, the ‘Beats’ danced to different drummers than their straight counterparts.    They were more likely to follow the slightly bemused Dr. D.T. Suzuki (Zen Buddhist author), Tang Poet ‘Han Shan’ or Lao Tzu than any home-grown Christian leader.    The poets, BeBop and the homeless freight-car hopping pilgrims had an infinitely higher currency than a suburban homebody.

This restless generation had open ears, open eyes and they moved to deeper rhythms than the static of suburban life .   Finding the ‘beat’ of life was an end in itself.     I confess that I was one of the youth who identified with the ‘Beat Generation’ and I am quite unrepentant.   More than 50 years on I still identify strongly with their cause.

In San Francisco, home of the ‘Beats’, poetry was a real commodity.  Signs saying, ‘poets wanted’ could be seen in the windows of  Jazz bars.    Pokey little book shops like ‘City Lights’ held regular poetry readings and ‘On The Road’ captured the hearts and minds of a footloose generation who looked beyond the material for deeper meaning.  This wave of anti-materialism was felt to threaten the post-war security and so the ridiculous hipster alter-ego was created – the ‘Beatnik’.   The joke even extended to Gilligan’s Island and Mr Magoo.

Do visit the ‘Like…Dreamsville’ site and try to reclaim the best part of that dream; at this distance the laughter is ‘coolsville’.   For those who like time travelling read ‘On The Road’ or read ‘Howl’ while listening to 1950’s Miles Davis.

Where did the suffix ‘nik’ come from?   Probably Sputnik.   Did terms like ‘cool’ survive?  yes … it is still way cool.


Touching greatness: ‘Jazz Life’ Photography

When a musician reaches higher than other mortals to give us a glimpse of an unknown truth, we marvel at the invention and the daring.  It is human to seek connection with greatness because we want to experience that sound again; weighing up what we have witnessed and desiring to understand it better. In the hands of the most gifted practitioners of the Jazz arts this connection can be made through photography, painting or the print media.  If the ink, paint or emulsion is spilt for the sake of it then the magic is not communicated, but if the photographer is William Claxton and the wordsmith is Joachim Berendt then we are deeply enriched. In 1960 Claxton and Berendt undertook a massive road journey in a Cadillac; traveling the highways of America and capturing the ‘Jazz Life‘. Berendt is a respected musicologist and between them they recorded something else; an unvarnished glimpse into the America of the time.   This is Americana in print and it gives a deep context to the music.

When viewing Claxton photographs we feel that we can almost touch the soul of the artist and while some of the portraits are deliberately posed they still convey the deepest sense of casual intimacy.  This is the very essence of greatness that we have been seeking and we feel lucky to have these images, this music and these stories in our lives.  It makes us part of the Jazz Life; insiders.

This is a truly great book in all senses of the word. It stands knee-high in its slipcase and weighs enough to have been the subject of warnings by physiotherapists.  Once it has been safely transported home (using a heavy haulage transporter) and the (momentary) feelings of guilt at outlaying so much on one book have been overcome, get a friend to help you lift it onto the table.

The joy then unfolds page by wonderful page; touching greatness through the eyes of William Claxton.  A journey into the heart of the American Jazz Life

Disclaimer: I certainly did not outlay the $1,500 per copy that the TASCHEN collectors edition sells for at Amazon, but I refuse to say what I actually paid on the grounds that could get me into trouble at home if I did.

Anna & Gil Scott Heron

De ware Wax Poet is dood: Gil Scott-Heron

Image by Marco Raaphorst via Flickr

Last week I received a tweet from my daughter-in-law, which informed me in her exquisitely succinct micro-blogging language that Gil Scott Heron was dead.   Her post read: ‘RIP Gil:( I just found you and now you’re gone‘.    I was surprised that Anna knew of him as he was a jazz poet hipster famous in the 70’s for his activism in the black consciousness movement.  The micro-link on her tweet lead straight to a video of his most famous poem: ‘The Revolution will not be Televised‘.    It must have made quite a few god-fearing white folk squirm at the time, as it was a Black-Panther referencing radical call to action.  There was a lot more to Gil than that as he inadvertently started a poetry/music revolution.   He is widely regarded as the father of rap – judge for yourselves!   He traveled around festivals and clubs and was especially beloved in Europe – Last week the BBC headlined their news reports with his demise and Jazz radio stations in London and New York devoted the whole weekend to his music, poetry and legacy.

I have since learned that a new generation found him, embraced his music and now mourn his passing – the more things change the more they stay the same.    Remember Angela Davis, black activist lawyer with the wonderful hair; darling of the radical human rights movement – she now reviews for Jazz Times.  The ‘revolution’ may not be televised but brothers and sisters, it will be ‘tweeted’ and disseminated on ‘Facebook‘.

Quality Jazz writing: canonical literature

Jazz exists omnipresent in the minds and lives of those who follow it devoutly and listening with open ears is the best way to follow the stories.  Jazz however has also spawned many offshoots and some are closer to the spirit of the music than others.   Art, literature and dance have all been in lockstep with this music, but of those literature has probably served Jazz the best.     Jazz literature is a vast field and to compile even a half way decent bibliography would be a herculean work.   I suspect that it would need a Tom Lord (online Jazz Discographer); time, patience and the wisdom of Solomon.

Almost everyone engages with a chosen art form by sampling the tried and trusted and if they are brave enough they allow themselves to be lured into the unfamiliar.    While the familiar may be the best place to start in reading Jazz, trawling the margins can also yield surprisingly satisfactory results.

Jazz has inspired wonderful prose and the most obvious example is the work of Whitney Balliett (‘American Musicians‘  ‘Collected works‘) published by Granta.    Balliett, primarily an essayist , cuts to the heart of the matter and he seldom over sentimentalized his portraits.   When writing of Bird he said “He was obsessed by his music and he was obsessed by the pleasure principle” or ” He had grown up in Kansas City where the blues is in the light and air and he knew how – with whispers and asides and preaching phrases – to take his blues down as far as Bechet, Art Hodges and Buck Clayton“.  This is wonderful writing.  Gary Giddins is another gifted and prolific writer and two works stand out for me.  His well known ‘Visions of Jazz ‘ Oxford University Press, is a masterpiece of Jazz writing and and a must have for anyone who loves Jazz.   It he covers the first hundred years of Jazz in a series of essays.   His more recent ‘Jazz‘ co authored by Scott DeVeaux (Norton) is brilliant, as it invites the reader into the heart of iconic tracks spanning the history of Jazz.   It also has sections covering Jazz in film, types of drum kits and varieties of trumpet mutes etc.  This highly interactive approach to history is appealing and instructive; even to those who feel that they are well informed.   It almost gives us the musicians eye view of how the music works (which song form etc), but without taking away the mystery.    I can’t go further without mentioning the enjoyable and indispensable ‘The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings’ by Morton & Cook.    I have no hesitation in including this as quality Jazz literature because the writing is so good and often tempered with outrageous or subtle humour (e.g warning Kenny Garret  that if he went too far down the smooth road he could ‘lose the last five letters of his name’ or referring to the diminutive Jarretts 70’s Concerts as portraying ‘an uneasy giantism‘).  The writing is honest, insightful and often using grown-up words like ‘elided’ which had me rushing for my dictionary.  Morton & Cook’s final offering is the ‘Penguin Jazz Guide‘ and this is also well worth having, but why they left the index out is quite beyond me.

I will briefly add a few more titles but this list barely skims the margins of what is available to those with perseverance and cash (such books are seldom cheap).   The late Gene Lees was a terrific prose writer and his books and ‘Jazz Letters‘ are often available in paperback-reprint form.  ‘Meet me at Jim and Andy’s‘, ‘The Singer and the Song‘, ‘Waiting for Dizzy‘ (Cooper Square press), are but a few.  Robert Doerschuk’s ‘88- the Giants of Jazz Piano ‘ is a monumental work on Jazz piano with a disk in the back and a foreword by Keith Jarrett (Backbeat books),    Another book on Jazz piano is Len Lyons, ‘The great Jazz pianists‘ (Da Capo Press) .    Lastly Ted Gioia’s ‘West Coast Jazz‘ (University of California press).

As a book collector I often view my collection(s) with a mixture of pleasure and despair;   So many fine books, so little time and so many more on the way.

The King of Swing – good music in the face of prejudice

Chicagoan Benny Goodman, son of Jewish migrants, was born into hard times; but even as child he showed a grim determination to succeed.  He obtained his musicians union card at the age 14 and through hard work and determination advanced his career inch by inch.   By the time world war two was declared he was the King of Swing and with the help of a talented line up he played the hottest music around.  He knew something about prejudice from his childhood, but now at the peak of his fame he took took a risk and started employing gifted coloured musicians.      This was extremely unusual for the times and he shocked many of his fans in doing so.    My friend Iain Sharp’s poem on Goodman; ‘Why I love Jazz’ sums this up far better than any blog prose of mine could’.    That he dedicated it to me was the icing on the cake.  I have been trying to find a way to add the poem into the post by typing the text in, but the auto spacing makes this difficult.    Iain Sharp’s Poem ‘Why I like Jazz’ was published in Broadsheet; New New Zealand Poetry

impossible lists


If someone asks me what my favourite album is I tend to answer, “The one I most recently liked best”.

The Jazz magazines are less obtuse and often go where angels fear to tread by presenting ‘top albums of the year’ (or ‘decade’) lists. To arrive at these lists some magazines employ readers polls but most rely on the collective opinions of the contributing reviewers and critics which is probably a reasonable enough methodology. The results invariably cause consternation among readers who can’t believe that a number of blindingly obvious album choices were stupidly omitted. In reality the matter of choosing and ranking lists is highly subjective and I would be very surprised if the critics agreed on more than a handful of choices. Examining record sales was once a beginning point but with internet sales, a multiplicity of download sources and 1,000’s of Independent labels in the marketplace that information would be extremely difficult to gather.

The other night my friends and I poured over just such a definitive list which outlined the ‘best Jazz big band recordings of all time’. At first people agreed with the choices as they were no-brainers. Well known albums by Ellington, Basie, Gil Evans/Miles, Thad Jones, Mulligan etc. Then one by one we started arguing over what had been missed and as the choices presented themselves we became certain that any ‘best of big bands’ list would probably need to contain at least a few hundred albums. As to ranking; that would probably end up in a knock down drag out fight, so we kept well away from that. While we were distracted the host snuck on a brilliant Clark Terry ‘Big B-A-D Band’ CD and here is the problem in a nutshell – It was the last best thing that we had ever heard.  Chuck it on the list guys.

I have since been considering my own ‘must add’ disks and here are just a few that require inclusion. Marty Paich “The Modern Touch’ (with Pepper. Sheldon, Giuffre, LaFaro, Lewis etc – what idiot missed that out?). Milt Jackson-‘Plenty Plenty Soul’ (I would die in ditch over that work of genius), George Russell-New York N Y (brilliant and edgy), Mingus-The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (to miss this is just ignorance).

I think that I need to stop this list making and above all I need to stop arguing with myself over my previous choices. Leave the lists to the critics because going that route leads to madness.

PS – feel free to add your own best big band choices in ‘comments’ – argue if you like and I will watch from a safe distance.

Healing Jazz; Katrina and other natural disasters

At a time when we are facing one natural disaster after another, music is a healing force.   Where jazz is concerned  that feels especially so and it is not surprising as the music arose out out of the miseries of slavery and transcended that abomination.  While the depths of sadness may have informed early jazz, it was in the end a joyful and healing music.   This power to surprise and to give pleasure also applies to the arts surrounding jazz.  I recently purchased the large coffee table book ‘Jazz’ by Herman Leonard.    Herman Leonard is arguably the greatest of jazz photographers and that is no small claim in a field already crowded with photographic genius.   Anyone possessing a reasonably sized jazz CD or LP collection will have sighted Leonard’s work even if they did not know it was him. His powerful images of jazz musicians have appeared on many an album cover and and no book about jazz is complete without a few Herman Leonard photographs.

Late one night in 1949 Leonard, a skinny jewish kid, son of migrants, turned up at the Royal Roost club and the pictures he took pleased the performing artists.   The artists were Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.  Quincy Jones said “I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera what we did with our instruments”.    Even before success came, the musicians loved having him around as he made them look good.

Herman Leonard was in his eighties when hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in New Orleans and along with it his vast archives (including 10,000 prints).   Without hesitation he continued his important work which he described as ‘creating an image of what he was hearing’.   His record of the Jazz life is beyond compare.    Herman Leonard died in 2010.

After Katrina the Jazz musicians of New Orleans organised a number of concerts to lift peoples spirits and above all to convince them that the old ‘Latin Quarter’ had life in it yet.  Being able to swing so mightily in the face of terrible adversity is what jazz is about.  A profound music that reaches beyond the moment.


Google Herman Leonard for more images;