With the live jazz scene remaining quiet it’s time to get that deckchair out, get the beer poured and get down to some jazz reading – in the back garden or on a beach somewhere.
Here are seven books for the next seven days I’d recommend, some a lot more recent than others, but all of which have brought me great pleasure as well as great insights into the music.
1 Michael Ondaatje Coming Through Slaughter: The novelist and poet creates a fictional portrait of the trumpeter Buddy Bolden from one old photograph which may or may not be him, and other scraps of information which could be factual or apocryphal – we’ll never know. But I like to think the biography Ondaajte gives us is pretty accurate. In fact, in my mind it has become the life of Buddy Bolden. And who can contradict me?
2 Toni Morrison Jazz: A lot of authors have tried to imitate the rhythms of jazz in prose and it’s usually a far trickier road than they anticipated. But Morrison achieves it without drawing attention to it. Her story, which takes in the deep South in the 19th century and Harlem in the 1920s is so strong, that the reader just accepts the form which includes improvisations of sorts from the characters.
3 David Hadju Lush Life: This one of the finest jazz biographies I know. It’s a loving and extraordinarily thorough book about Billy Strayhorn. What an amazing man: iconoclastic, hugely brave, and with an unquenchable spirit for living. It tells you a lot about Duke Ellington, too, of course, and just how a jazz orchestra survived out there on the road, though Strayhorn was often back home riding that A-train.
4 Whitney Balliett Collected Works: Peerless description and criticism from the jazz writer for the New Yorker for oh so many years. This substantial tome goes from 1954 to 2001. I remember back in the late ’70s anxiously checking each new copy of the New Yorker to come to the public library in South Africa where I was working, to see if this week there would be a Balliett jazz piece, in addition to the superb cinema reviews of Pauline Kael. One, I remember especially, described a Keith Jarrett solo piano improvisation so well I could almost hear the music as I read.
5 Geoff Dyer But Beautiful: I think this could be my favourite ever book about jazz. Dyer paints portraits of various jazz greats, including Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk, in a highly insightful kind of fiction fed by thorough factual research. There is also a nifty linking riff in which Duke Ellington is driving overnight to the next gig. It’s as fictional as the Michael Ondaatje, and just as well-researched.
6 Rafi Zabor The Bear Comes Home: The obscure one of the bunch. This novel grew out of a series of opening chapters published in the US monthly Musician, back probably in the early ’80s. It features a dancing bear by day who, once night falls, is a mean alto saxophonist with a wicked sense of humour. He sits in with many of the real jazz players of the day, which gives added spice to what is already an absorbing story about the jazz musician as social outsider.
7 Michael Chabon Telegraph Avenue: A recent novel which takes in a wide variety of subject matter including childbirth, kung-fu movies and more, but which centres around a record shop, and includes not only a cameo appearance by Barak Obama but also a parrot who mimics the sound of his owner’s Hammond organ, complete with Lesley speaker vibrato, and that jazz that met R ‘n’ B in the ‘70s.