Jazz Anecdotes: The Second Time Around
Marsalis, Ellis L Jr
Bill Crow. Jazz Anecdotes: The Second Time Around. Oxford University Press, 2005. 416 pages. $17.95.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past …
While reading Jazz Anecdotes, I was reminded of the opening line of Shakespeare’s sonnet 30 that I learned quite by accident as a college freshman. However, these anecdotes are more about remembrances of a select group of people who are commercial musicians (Glenn Miller, Fred Waring, and others), jazz musicians (Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, and so on), managers, agents, and teachers; the places that they played, and the people with whom they interacted; and the many pranks, practical jokes, insults, put-ons, and numerous other devious activities in which they engaged.
Commercial musicians, as I see them, are musicians whose total motivation for performing is the dancing entertainment of their public. This statement is intended as a description and not a condemnation or an evaluation of anyone’s musical abilities. And very often it is the commercial musician who hires the jazz musician because of a specific need of the jazz musician’s improvisational skills.
Unlike the commercial musician, jazz musicians seek to challenge the listener’s ear rather than limit their performance. The musical character of jazz musicians is the key to their individuality. They constantly strive for a unique sound that separates one from another, even if they play the same instrument. Jazz is their raison d’être.
Bill Crow has a gift. He is an urban storyteller who can stitch together these stories that can only come from someone who knows the world of the jazz musician, that peculiar breed of individual whose need for self expression often ignores all other logical opportunities that lead to a “normal” lifestyle. This book is also a testimony to the fact that jazz is connected to every aspect of American life. These anecdotes include such diverse but similar musical personalities as Fred Waring (director of the Pennsylvanians chorale) and music-loving comedian Jackie Gleason, whose anecdote segues into a Theodore “Sonny” Rollins escapade without missing a beat.
The beauty of the book is that under the rubric of jazz we find individuals of different business persuasions: hucksters, thieves, con artists, and the perennial management with alleged ties to the underworld. Crow’s book contains examples of the prejudice and racism encountered by the musicians and how they handled the situation.
When all is said and done, this book says more about twentieth-century America than any academic history text. The degree of racial segregation (not to be confused with racial discrimination) that existed at the time that these musicians were plying their trade becomes superfluous. We see the attitude of Billie “Lady Day” Holiday when told she had to darken her complexion so as not to confuse the customers at the Fox Theater in Detroit into thinking that a white girl was singing with a black band. The book also relates Bessie Smith’s encounter with the Klan in 1927, where her brazen confrontation of their presence chased the hooded Klansmen from the area of her performance.
Then there is the humorous approach to solving a race problem at a hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, by a black musician named Rudy Powell. Powell posed as an Arab wearing a fez and a beard and convinced the hotel clerk that he and his nine “brothers,” who allegedly did not speak English, needed rooms. He threatened to contact the State Department if the hotel refused. The frightened clerk capitulated, the scam worked, and the band got the rooms.
This book is America through and through, with humor as a necessary ingredient to coping with life’s less positive circumstances. A raggedy “Blue Goose” (Greyhound bus) became the mode of transportation for many struggling bands, while Duke Ellingron’s and Cab Galloway’s bands traveled in the luxury of Pullman rail cars. But through it all, they were jazzmen and women living the American Dream from both sides of the spectrum.
Jazz Anecdotes allows the musicians to speak unabashedly, even with pride about their contributions to twentieth-century American music. While Jazz Anecdotes is the title of this book, the individuals and their stories paint a picture of an America seldom seen and always hidden in plain view.
Ellis L. Marsalis, Jr. is an internationally renowned jazz pianist as well as the father of several prominent jazz musicians. In 2001 he retired from twelve years as the Coca Cola Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans, where he is an Active-for-Life member of Phi Kappa Phi.
Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 2006
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