I like jazz. A lot. But in that way most ignoramuses like things. In that “I know what I like” kinda way.
It’s left me with a sketchy, eclectic knowledge of jazz. Then I stumbled across an amazing book: “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It.”
Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro managed to collect dozens of first-person accounts of the birth and growth of jazz. The book was published in 1955, so it doesn’t address what’s happened during the past half-century. But it does offer incredible insight into the musicians who created this American art form. Hentoff and Shapiro stay out of the way, letting the musicians do all the talking.
I particularly liked the early sections that offer detailed accounts of New Orleans in the early 20th century. If you’re interested in jazz and haven’t already found this book, go out and do it. It’s a great read, as witnessed by these excerpts:
People used to ask Bix Beiderbecke why he didn’t play his music the way he recorded it. He’s quoted as explaining: “It’s impossible. I don’t feel the same way twice. That’s one of the things I like about jazz, kid. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?”
Billie Holiday describes the first time she sang at a club. She and her mother were in dire straits, practically starving, and she went to the Log Cabin Club in search of employment. “I asked Preston for a job, told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing. Over in the corner was an old guy playing the piano. He struck ‘Travelin’ and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist, Dick Wilson, swung into ‘Body and Soul.’ Jeez, you should have seen those people — all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, ‘Kid, you win.’ That’s how I got my start.”
The book focuses on a lot of musicians, not just the Holiday/Beiderbecke/Armstrongs of the genre. I’m still an ignoramus where jazz is concerned, but “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya” has given me a lot of new ideas and sounds to explore.