Tuesday 3 September 2013

Some Like It Hot

Here's my unpublished review of Peter Vacher's Mixed Messages : American Jazz Stories. I wrote it on spec, but the same problem applies to publishing reviews of such books as it does to the original interviews it assembles. Let the author explain:

'It is now virtually impossible to find outlets (or editors) who will print lengthy pieces like those devoted to Ruby Braff, John Stubblefield or Lanny Morgan,' laments Peter Vacher, who has been writing up such encounters for over half a century. This, a second collection of extended articles culled from long-defunct jazz periodicals, is consistently informative and entertaining - interviews with the movement's lesser lights conducted between 1964 (Flip Ricard, briefly bassist with the Count Basie Orchestra) and 2008 (Byron Stripling, a fine trumpeter). There are no big names - no Miles or Chet or Ella, no Thelonius or Dizzy or Dexter - but if the prospect of two dozen working jazz musicians talking at length about their vocation puts a spring in your step and a song in your heart then you're in for a treat.

Beginning with veteran trombonist Louis Nelson (1902-1990) these performers are eloquent practitioners of a musical form that continues to develop without much mainstream media support. There's a score of other interviewees, all of them American and (to borrow George Melly's phrase describing the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Mesens) figures of 'major minorness' - Norman 'Dewey' Keenan, Gerald Wilson, George 'Buster' Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr., Carl 'Ace' Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, John Eckert, Houston Person Jr., Tom Artin, Rufus Reid, Judy Carmichael (the only female performer) and Tardo Hammer.

They are, the author says, 'all players of genuine worth' and he's quite right. It's an eclectic list of journeymen (and the one woman) - hard-working pianists, trombonists, cornet players, saxophonists and bass players, all of them with long, successful and often illustrious careers. Their lives are largely free of the professional pitfalls and personal afflictions that beset the Charlie Parkers of this world. What they talk about - and talk about well - is their music, but there are many fruitful digressions. Vacher's subjects speak eloquently about life in a pre-Civil Rights world of segregation, back-breaking tours (doing consecutive thirty one-nighters), run-ins with the law, clashes with temperamental bandleaders and gangster club proprietors. These are the bit-players and session men, the seasoned pros who reliably deliver the goods night after night, gig after gig, like the tenor saxophonist Paul Johnson Jr: 'I could get HOT in four bars. If you had a really bot blues singer I could carry it a notch higher.' They could fill a hall, play up a storm, have a few drinks and be sure to turn up on time at the studio the following day.

Mixed Messages is published by Five Leaves Press, the enterprising Nottingham-based independents run by the admirable Ross Bradshaw.

While a love of jazz transcends political boundaries, and while Minister without Portfolio Ken Clarke  is clearly a hep cat from head to toe, he is unlikely to read the Morning Star, the Communist daily newspaper featuring Chris Searle's excellent jazz reviews. These are now available from the same publishers in a lively anthology entitled Red Groove. How come 'the only English-language socialist daily in the world' still runs regular articles on jazz? Ken might like to take a closer look.

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