I have been on a jazz kick for nearly a month. Well, for years actually but recently, more obsessed tha n usual. I had a copy of Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz staring at me accusingly from my bookshelf for years, as well as the dense but fascinating Reading Jazz anthology complied by Robert Gottlieb. So, I finally grabbed Giddins and dove into it and was richly rewarded. The book is a series of portraits of various jazz musicians and analysis of some of their more seminal works as he covers the history of 20th C jazz from King Oliver to Don Byron. His style is interesting and passionate – he has seen and talked to many of the musicians so the insights are precious. I started watching the PBS / Ken Burns mini-series called Jazz and he is one of the primary commenters there as well. If you like jazz and wish to dive in a little deeper and understand where it came from, who the most critical musicians are/were and what are the key albums to listen to and own, then this book is for you. Note that there is actually a 2-CD soundtrack accompaniment as well available on Amazon.
I was talking about the Giddins book and my renewed interest in jazz to several friends and new acquaintances and all of them told me that I HAD to read Art Pepper’s fascinating autobiography (co-written with his last wife Laurie), Straight Life. They were so right! I blew threw the 400 pages like Art blowing through his alto on Art+11 and loved it. It is dark and scary but a good reminder of all the reasons NOT to go anywhere near heroin if you have any issues or hangups around self-confidence or self-image in general. The writing is interesting and offers unique views into prison life (he did TWO terms in San Quentin!) and the music business in the 50s and 60s. I have since started listening to his music (honestly I had never listened to him before reading the book) and have been more than pleasantly surprised. Highly recommended even if you are not a jazz fan.
Besides my new appreciation for Art Pepper, I have always loved the saxophone: Bird, Bean, Prez, Branford, even Clemens and Clinton (LOL) but seriously my favorite sax player of all time has been and still is Trane. Since I was on this kick already, I grabbed a Coltrane biography, (John Coltrane, His Life and Music by Lewis Porter) and really enjoyed it. I find it fascinating that both he and Miles were both able to go cold turkey and quite smack BY THEMSELVES after years of abuse in each case. Unfortunately for Trane, his body never fully recovered from the abuse and he died relatively young but not after realising some of the most incredible pieces of music in the 20th C. Reading the book gave me a whole new appreciation for A Love Supreme and many of the other later, more complex Coltrane albums as well as his magical addition to the First Quintet with Miles. Truly an incredible and unique musician.
I am now reading Miles Davis’ Autobiography and the Definitive Biography by Ian Carr in parallel and enjoying learning more about my favorite trumpet players. More about those when I finish them.
Let me finish with a quick word on the Dylan biography, Behind the Shades by Clinton Heylin. If there is one awesome music biography out there about arguably the most prolific pop artist in the 20th C, this might be it. It is well-researched and fascinating and got me listening to weeks to all of Dylan’s catalog particularly the stuff between 1965 and 1975. Note that there is a reissue from about 2006 with 250 (!!!) more pages covering the albums from Oh Mercy to just before Tempest. Definitely a great read. you realise reading it that Dylan’s creative process is VERY similar to that of a jazz musician in that (a) it is very spontaneous (b) it is autistic (if another artist in the studio with Dylan doesn’t “get it” then he is out – there is no “learning” Dylan, either you got it or you don’t and (c) it is highly improvisational – apparently, he rarely plays the same song the same way twice and has constantly re-written songs (several examples of Tangled Up in Blue are mentioned in the book for example) over the year. A great summer read too!
So, you got a favorite musical biography you wish to share? In the comments please :)