Friday, July 27, 2007

Jazz Books from Cool Blue to Acid Orange

I recently read two books about the jazz musician's life, but each was as different a portrait as ragtime piano is to Ornette Coleman's free jazz. The first book was Wynton Marsalis' and Carl Vigeland's "Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life" (Da Capo Press, 2002). An elegant look at the classy, overachieving trumpeter and band leader, with great vignettes about life on the road with the Wynton Marsalis Septet during various tours from 1989 to 2000. Here we are immersed in the challenges of fitting in practice time, family visits, travel, important community work and the ritual ironing of the suits before show time. We see how Marsalis evolves as a composer and how his classically-trained, traditional jazz style changes subtly over time.

The writing style in this book is interesting. There are constant riffs between Vigeland's reporting and Marsalis' contemplative takes on the same events (Marsalis' words are in italics), which required me to slow down my normal "read it in one or two chunks" reading style, so I could absorb the images and Marsalis' philosophies on making music and art. An inspiring read, and one which greatly increased my respect for Marsalis as an artist. I immediately went out and bought several of his CDs, which I would recommend to all. "Blue Interlude", by the Wynton Marsalis Septet and "The Midnight Blues, Standard Time, Volume 5" by Wynton Marsalis are two of my current favorites.

Going from the elegance of midnight blue to an acid shade of orange is A.J. Albany's portrait of her pianist father Joe Albany in "Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood" (Bloomsbury, 2003). I can't say that this was an enjoyable book, but it was a horrifying, fascinating train wreck in its candid portrayal of A.J.'s loving, but terribly flawed dad. When he was in his prime he played with Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Lester Young while barflies dandled baby A.J., but this was but a short interlude before he descended into a drug-fueled daze, interspersed with schizophrenic episodes, that left A.J. to fend for herself throughout much of her childhood. She maintains an affection for her dad throughout the book (as opposed to her bohemian singer turned junkie mom who abandoned her in toddlerhood) even though he would leave her often and with inadequate babysitters that exposed her to domestic violence, bestiality, sex offender circus clowns, drugs, alcohol, prostitution and social deviance of seemingly endless stripes. Quite a different scene than hanging with Wynton, but an interesting look at the life of a minor jazz musician during the 1960s.

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