Thursday, December 26, 2013

ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present

By Robert Atkins

Genre: Fine Arts

ArtSpeak is an essential book for the Fine Arts enthusiast. It is basically a encyclopedia of all the art movements and ideas from 1945 to the present and is currently in its third edition. This is one of those great books that serves well as a reference but is also a fascinating book to browse. Each topic is categorized in a who, when, where and what format. For instance, If we turn to the entree on Pop Art we find that its primary artists include Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenberg and other, it thrived in the 50s and 60s mainly in America and England, and the movement uses commercial symbols and icons as expression. Of course, the book says this in much more detail and more entertainingly. It is nicely illustrated with full colored photos but they tend to be on the small side. The text is what matters here. It also includes a nice timeline correlating world history with art history. Anyone who enjoys art will find this book worthwhile. As for me, I received mine from the publisher for review in a PDF format. I definitely plan to buy the real honest-to-god book.

In case you wondering why I placed this in my music book review blog, it just seems like music lovers and art lovers often go hand-in-hand. However, it you find that excuse weak, the book does reference some musical artists that intersect both fields like Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, and Pussy Riot. So there!

Background music: Laurie Anderson - Strange Angels

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dreadnaught: King of Afropunk

By D. H. Peligro

Genre: Punk, Rock

D. H. Peligro was the drummer for Dead Kennedys and briefly the drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers. He later fronted the Band Peligro, which along with Fishbone and Bad Brains, became one of the few black performers in the punk rock movement. Peligro's autobiography, Dreadnaught, chronicles his work with these bands but also give good insight on what it was like being black in a musical environment that was predominantly white. His biography seems to be a basically honest account. Peligro doesn't hold back when he discusses his own personal issues. He speaks with frankness and isn't afraid to bring up his demons. For instance when he writes about being abused by his step-father , he communicates an uncomfortable mixture of terror and childhood vulnerability...

Sometimes when he was really drunk, he would wake me up out of a dead sleep and I would be staring into both barrels of his twelve-gauge shotgun pointed directly in my face.

"What yo' sweat? Are you a man?" he would ask me. I can still feel his hot alcohol breath on my face and hear his hoarse, sloppy whisper in my ear.

"Wake up! Are you a man?"

No, I'm a kid. I would think to myself.

He writes with this same frank honesty as he discusses his past drug use which resulted in 27 rehabs. He writes about his anger at his band mates who he blamed for his hardships while, in hindsight, acknowledging that he was essentially his own worse enemy.

The problem with most rock autobiographies is that the road to stardom to drug addiction to eventual redemption is so common most of us have memorized the tune. However, Peligro's account does have some unusual twists. I was surprised to hear that Dead Kennedys were very anti-drug. Also, Peligro had an unusual musical history compared to many punk rockers. Many, if not most, punk rock musicians got into the lifestyle first, then became musicians and learned music as they performed. The joke that the difference between New Wavers and Punk Rockers is that New Wavers can actually play their instruments has a ring of truth. However Peligro had quite a bit of musical experience before he entered the punk rock scene. His Uncle Sam, who played with the legendary bluesman Robert Nighthawk, was influential in Peligro's decision to learn drums and guitar and D. H. played progressive rock and metal before he gravitated to the San Francisco punk scene. It is these little bits of information that keep Dreadnaught from being just another rags-to-riches-to-rags rock tale. His outlook on the punk scene in the late 70s and 80's is a nice addition to the scores of other autobiographies out there and feels a bit more real than the glittery excesses of a Pete Townsend or Rod Steward. D. H. Peligro stayed in the trenches.

If you have any interest in punk rock, Dead Kennedys, or the Punk counter-culture, you should enjoy this book. Three and a half stars.

Background music:  Dead Kennedys - Plastic Surgery Disasters.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How Music Works

 By David Byrne

Genre: General, Rock


I expected ex-Talking Heads front man and eclectic solo artist David Byrne would have some interesting things to say about music. But I was impressed by the scope and range of How Music Works. Byrne covers nearly every aspect of creating and enjoying music from the first steps of composing and to the nuances of performance to producing and promoting. Plus he puts it in sync with the world we live in never forgetting that music is a vital and ever-changing aspect of existence.

Byrne approaches music in what I call an ethno-centric view. Perhaps "Techno-centric" may be a better term considering how much he focuses on the modern recording aspects. Byrns uses the term "creation in reverse." He does not see music as arising from just the emotional interior of the creator's mind but through an interactive process that is affected by our surroundings; social, cultural, politically, technological, and physical. He discusses how certain types of music responds to certain surroundings. When you think of it, it makes sense. It is hard to think of punk rock rising from the symphony hall and much easier to see it coming out of dark crowded clubs such as New York's CBGB. His style of writing is fairly meandering but he structures those meanderings in chapters like Technology Shapes Music", "In the Recording Studio", "How to Make a Scene" (about performing live), and even "Business and Finances". By the end of the book you not only have a good sense what goes into that MP3 you just downloaded but how that music has changed from the day of live performance only before music could be recorded.

While not an autobiography, Byrne relies strongly on his own experiences, giving the reader an intimate look at his own creative process both in and out of the studio. He uses his own story to illustrate his various ideas of creation in reverse. One of the things I found revealing is his description on how the various forms of recording affects the way we perceive music. The limits of the sound and durations of the first Edison discs gave the early 20th century listeners a different experience than the LPs, cassettes and CDs we are used to, not to mention the revolution of digital files. Byrne's assertions about our expectations of recorded music vs. live music was quite insightful. We tend to think of the recording of a song as the "real" version in that we expect the artist to recreate it in his live performances. Yet the recorded version is a frozen moment of time aided by the technical constraint of the recording studio, whether analog or digital The artist's live performance may be different but just as authentic relying on all the cultural and aural surroundings of the moment.

Byrnes' impressive book is notable for the way it causes the reader to reassess modern music. He asks us to take in more than just sounds and pay attention to the way we receive the music in its social and natural settings. There's a lot to take in here yet the author manages to keep it exciting and relevant. I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about music.

Background music: David Byrne and Brian Eno - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Human Chord

By Algernon Blackwood

 Genre: General (fiction)

Back when I was a music major in college, I took a class in chamber music. We formed a woodwind quartet and our professor was a stickler for tone. We would practice one note for an hour and a half every week, tuning and playing, tuning and playing. We were about to mutiny when all of a sudden as we played that one C note, another tone in perfect harmony (the third interval E for you musicians) resounded in our ears as clear at if it was being played externally. We knew we all heard it from the shocked looks on our faces. The professor jubilantly exclaims "Now that's what I was listening for!". We continued to play that one note for the rest of the session marveling in the harmonic sound. The realization that our ears could generate perfect harmony from the playing of one perfect pitch was like a spiritual of those mysterious yet enlightening experiences we rarely get.

So you must forgive me if I do not find Algernon Blackwood's assertion that sound is the key to the mysteries of the universe in The Human Chord all that far fetched. Chanting certainly has been used throughout history to find enlightenment and to become one with nature. Also, that one's true name is all-powering or that the true name of the gods hold vast powers if you know it and can harness it is another hypothesis resonating since ancient times. Blackwood uses these ideas in this enchantingly dark novel that pits the main protagonist in the choice between being like the gods or fulfilling more humble joys in the world as he knows it. Of the early 20th century writers of horror fantasy, I find Blackwood to be the most original because his horror is based on the secrets of the universe being awe inspiring and world-changing rather than the "Unspeakable horrors" of Lovecraft's ancient ones or Machen's ideas of nature as evil and decadent. Blackwood's own fascination with the occult plays heavily here but so does his love of nature and his interest in Zen and Cabalist thought. This is the first novel I've read of Blackwood's but I have read many of his short stories. As always, Blackwood relies on atmosphere rather than pure scare to disorient the reader's perceptions. The author's characterizations are also central to his tale. The three main characters embody different parts of our humanity. Spinrobin is the everyman who is dissatisfied with his reality but doesn't know why, Miriam is the embodiment of innocence, and the Rev. Skale (Scales?? I'm sure the pun is intentional) is a version of Captain Ahab, an obsessive seeker of a goal that can easily destroy him as well as make him equal to the gods. The Human Chord can work on many levels beside just being a good fantasy tale which is the very definitive of a classic in horror or fantasy.

Background music: Gregorian chants

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Traps - The Drum Wonder:The Life of Buddy Rich

By Mel Torme

 Genre: Jazz, Swing

Back in the late 70s, I was given tickets by a friend who worked at a radio station to see drummer Buddy Rich at the Starwood, a club in Hollywood. I was a big jazz fan but I tended to gravitate to the modern stuff a la Coltrane, Miles, and Coleman. In my mind, Buddy Rich was a relic of the Swing Era. I found out I was wrong. His big band was great but Buddy Rich was incredible. It was like watching a magician and thinking, "How in the hell can he do that?". There may have been more innovative drummers but on a level of pure technical virtuosity, Buddy Rich was to the drums what Art Tatum was to the piano and Buddy Defranco was to the clarinet. If you know anything about jazz, you know that is high praise indeed.

Traps - The Drum Wonder:The Life of Buddy Rich is written by his long-time friend Mel Torme, a jazz giant in his own right. He also proves to be an excellent writer. Torme exhibits a great fondness for his friend. But unlike other biographies written by friends and family, Torme is not afraid to examine The drummer's darker side which could be quite dark indeed. Rich was known for being abrasive, an immature practical joker and a scrapper. His scrabbles with Frank Sinatra are legendary and he once got into a fist fight with Dusty Springfield! But he was also a contradiction from the jazz man stereotype. He rarely drank, didn't use drugs except for marijuana and he was generous to a fault. What I didn't know about him was that he became a star on the vaudeville circuit at the age of two. That was where the vaudeville stage name of Trap the Drum Wonder came into being. He was the highest paid child star in the early 20s, only topped by Charlie Chaplin's prodigy Jackie Googan in the mid 20s. (Yes, that would be the same Jackie Googan that played Uncle Fester in The Adams Family). In his late teens, he took up the occupation as a jazz drummer much to the disfavor of his father who wanted him to continue in vaudeville. Soon he was highly in demand with the up and coming swing bands and later started his own band.

Buddy Rich's Big Band was unusual in the fac that its greatest success was in the 60s and 70s well beyond the pinnacle of the big band era. Mel Torme, who was not a bad drummer himself as well as being a great jazz singer, charts Rich's career from the early bands of Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey to his success with his own band. The author also has a deft knowledge of music and drumming and explain why Rich is important to the jazz scene. Torme also has a good grip of Rich's infamous wit. In the middle of his first heart attack while being wheeled into the operating room, a nurse asked him if he was allergic to anything. "Yes", he replied, "Country and western music."

This is one of the better music biographies I have read with a good balance of personal recollections and musical insight. Highly recommended to drum aficionados, jazz fans and music lovers.

As a parting gift, I leave you with a clip of a duel between Buddy Rich and my second favorite drummer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians

By Virginia Waring

Genre: early pop

"I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!"

I know very little about Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. What I do know is that my father liked them. When I was a kid he would start singing the above ditty every time we went into a Baskin-Robbins. It is amazing that I survived something like that.

The other thing I know about Fred Waring is that there is a major thoroughfare just down the street from me that dissects the Palm Springs area called Fred Waring Dr. to which most people, on telling them to make a right on Fred Waring Dr., says "Who's Fred Waring?"

Fred Waring had a very popular band in the 20s and onward. Mr. Waring continued into the 70s with his band yet they are virtually unknown now. When I saw this now out-of-print biography in the library I decided to find an answer to the question, "Who is Fred Waring?"

When people write the history of American popular music, you will see names like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton. These men are truly innovative giants in American music. But what the history books do not tell you is that the bulk of Americans back in the early 20th century didn't fill their pop charts with music of these giants. The really popular musicians were men like Paul Whiteman, Rudy Vallee, Guy Lombardo and Fred Waring. Like today, the bulk of American don't listen to jazz, blues, or any of the other genres that are deemed quality American music. The pop music of the masses is a mainstream sound that usually was geared to the lowest common denomination and often sounded like it was manufactured. You could dance to it and not have to think too hard. Just like the mainstream pop music of today. If Fred Waring was alive today, he would be Justin Beiber.

Fred Waring's music is pleasant and very professional. His gamut ran from light classic to traditional American folk to dance tunes to novelty numbers, all well arranged, cotton candied, and geared to sound alike. Virginia Waring, the author of this book and Fred 's third and last wife, gives us a fairly comprehensive account of Waring's life. Waring's most important contribution to pop music according to Virginia Waring is that he popularized the chorale or glee club sound (and you thought that was done by the TV show GLEE didn't you?) and combined it with an orchestra and big band sound.In the foreword which is written by the great chorale master Robert Shaw who was himself a Pennsylvanians in his early years says, "It is certain to me that tours in the United States of the Bach B Minor Mass and the Mozart Requiemwould not have been possible had not Fred Waring help simulated and helped to create an audience for choral music." I would find that an utterly ridiculous statement except for the fact that it comes from the man who did present classical choral music to the modern masses.

It would have been nice if Ms Waring spent some part of the book on why she thinks that Waring's music is so important. She doesn't but she does spend much time on everything else and mostly on his business sense, which was quite remarkable, and his family. But don't expect any gossip. According to this book, The Warings makes the Nelsons seem like the Osbournes. There is even a full chapter that is written solely to prove that Mr. Waring was not anti-Semitic! By the time the book was through, I was convinced that Waring's major claim to music is that he learned how to make a major corporation out of a musical organization. And that is still a talent you can see in our music moguls today.

There was one amazing fact I learned. Fred Waring invented the Waring blender and used it to make daiquiris on the road for Rudy Vallee!

There was another thing I found rather curious. If you look at the musicians that came out of the bands of the 30s and 40s including the highly popular easy listening Paul Whiteman Orchestra, you would have an impressive list of some of the best jazz and pop musiciana to grace the American music scene in the mid 20th century. In perusing the names of musician that came out of the Waring Orchestra I found no memorable names with the exception of Robert Shaw.

One very nice touch to this book is an accompanying 28 track CD of the music of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians.

Overall, this biography is very entertaining.It does give you a good look at the music entertainment scene in the early 20th century. But I do not think it really add much to the mosaic of American music.

And that ice cream song? Here it is!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Leonard Bernstein Letters

Edited by Nigel Simeone

Genre: Classical

This 600 plus page book of letters by and to American composer/conductor/pianist Leonard Bernstein is a revelation. The first thing that becomes obvious is that Bernstein is a really good letter writer. The second thing is how well structured and thought-out this epistemological work is. The editor Nigel Simeone organized the lettesr chronologically and in divisions emphasizing phases of the composer's life. Then he provides a biographical summary for each phase. There are plenty of footnotes clarifying the things and persons mentioned in the letter which are just as fascinating as the letters themselves. The result ends up almost like a autobiography in that it covers most of the important aspect of his life. This is one of the few books of letters that I read enthusiastically from cover to cover.

Leonard Bernstein was a complex individual and the letters reveal this. There is much written about his music but there is also much revealed about the man's own personality, strengths and weaknesses. The letters begin in 1932 when Bernstein was 14 and continue to his death in 1990. The first letters are interesting in that they show a young protege in transition as he converses with his family and mentors. I was amused at all the important persons in his life that urged him to specialize in one thing rather than to stretch himself thin in the areas of composing, conducting, and performing. Bernstein did not take their advice and in hindsight we can say he made the right choice. The letters become much more revealing as he develop and is considered an equal by his peers. The letters between Bernstein and Aaron Copland are especially affectionate. In some ways they are more intimate than those between his wife in later years.

Which brings up a particular issue in his life. Bernstein came out about his homosexuality in the late 70s. Yet these letters, especially the earlier ones, show a man who was at times uncomfortable with his sexuality. The letters with his partners show much affection yet the 40s and 50s were not a time to be honest and open about this issue. Not to mention that the House of Unamerican Activities had their eye on him for many of his social concerns which they deemed suspicious. Some of the letters address this including an affidavit by the composer sent to the HUA that is disturbing in that any one would be so accused and expected to defend themselves in this way just to be able to continue to make a living. Later Bernstein's sexuality and habits became aa problem his marriage and these are addressed only briefly in later letters.

There are specific areas that I especially found interesting. There is an entire chapter on West Side Story mentioning many of the aspects that were involved in bringing this work to light. Being a clarinetist, I was very intrigued in his early Clarinet Sonata and his dialogues with clarinetist David Oppenheim. The sonata was Bernstein's first published work. There is a lot of good information on Bernstein's compositions and how they came about. If you are a music fanatic who likes to analyze compositions, you will have a field day here. I also enjoyed hearing about Bernstein's Mass as I was attended the Los Angeles premiere in the 70s at the Mark Taper Forum. But there are also plenty of letters that are simply casual and gives you a look at his daily life. One of the more endearing letter is a short one by 10 year old Yo Yo Ma inviting Bernstein to his cello recital.

Nigel Simeone does a surperb job organizing these letters and placing them in a context that not only educates but entertains; not a modest feat at all. If you enoy the music of Leonard Bernstein or have a love for 20th century classical music then this book is a must.

Background CD:  Leonard Bernstein, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jose Carreras - Leonard Bernstein Conducts West Side Story

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

By Robert Gordon

Genre: R&B

Reading Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion caused me to wax nostalgic. In the mid-sixties, every community had their ma and pa record store. We had a little one that sold nothing but 45rpm singles. If you don't know what a 45rpm single is, ask your parents. If you are under twenty, ask your grandparents. In Pacoima, our store of choice was off the corner of Nordhoff and Woodman. The walls had writing on them that kept track of all the weekly hit lists including Billboard, the local radio charts (which unlike now, tended to have a lot of regional bands next to the national stars), and the R& B charts. My interest was always the R&B chart. For even if this was California, where surf music and the British invasion held reign, I lived in an ethnically diverse community which stoked my love of soul music next to my original love of Jazz. The R&B and Billboard charts mainly had the sophisticated urban sounds of Motown but some of us craved the coarser more soulful sounds of Stax, Volt and Atlantic. The singles out of Stax include "Green Onions" by Booker T. and the MGs, "Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding,"Knock on Wood" by Eddie Floyd and "Respect Yourself by the Staples Singers including many others by Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Bar-Kays, and other too numerous to mention. The Stax registrar later included the more polished Isaac Hayes, Luther Ingram, and the Staples Singers. But these earthy records were frowned on by our parents. They were too coarse, too loud, too sexual, too black. "Why couldn't you listen to those nice Beach Boys or even those Beatles?" was their question. We had no answer. It just felt right.

Respect Yourself chronicles the rise and fall of Stax Records. Stax was like many of the small record companies in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s that served up a local sound, in this case the Memphis sound. Ran by a white man and his sister, they opened their studio to the community and began a place where black and white could buy records together and record their own music together. While most of their artists were black, they were backed by the integrated house band, the MGs. This was a major thing in the 60s, especially in Memphis, Tennessee whose segregation and violent history is also well documented in this book. Like many locals, Stax reached national distribution through an agreement with the larger Atlantic Records. The Stax sound, at least at first, was instantly recognizable. the owner Jim Stewart and producer/arranger and house band leader Booker T had a style that was all Stax.

Robert Gordon knows his music and he writes expertly about what that Stax sound was and how it originated. Some of hallmarks he discuss include the rise and death of Otis Redding, the ascent of Isaac Hayes from arranger to star, and the recording of hits like "Hold on. I'm a'coming" by Sam & Dave and "Walkin' the Dog" by Rufus Thomas, and "Respect Yourself" by the Staple Singers. Gordon also writes well about Stax's place in Memphis as a cultural icon and a place of community. One of the things that interested me was how long these legendary singers had to continue their day jobs while making regional hits that we now consider soul classics. Otis Redding worked as a limousine driver while Isaac Hayes worked in a slaughter house. But that was not much of a surprise to me since, in the 70s, I was playing sax in bars on the weekends and washing dishes on weeknights while going to college. But then again I never had a hit record, but I digress..

Yet there was a dark side too. As Stax become more popular, they grew out of their tight knit family environment and became a corporation. The author is also writing about the decline of the local record company and the rise of the conglomerate. At the height of their success in the early 70s, Stax became gobbled up by large corporations and pretty much became one themselves, leading to a glut of financial scandal, criminal activity and often violent episodes. Their sound changed and the company collapsed under its own weight bringing in mind the old saying that nothing fails like success. Gordon's book is as much about the fall of the regional record company and the rise of the music conglomerates as it is about the music.

It's a mesmerizing story of "rise and fall" and Robert Gordon tells it well. The story goes from Jim and his sister Estelle recording country Western acts as a hobby to a small but active company thriving on the enthusiasm of its black community to a profit above all else concern led by Music mogul Al Bell and plagued by guns and drugs. But the core of this book is about the music and the dedication lesser known musicians like Donald "Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper and, of course, Booker T gave to the music. If you have any interest in popular music, especially soul and R&B, this is an essential read.

Background CD: Various Artists - The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Piano Demon: The Globetrotting, Gin-soaked, Too-short Life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago Jazzman Who Conquered Asia

By Brendan L, Koerner

Genre: Jazz


Stride pianist Teddy Weatherford is barely a footnote in jazz history. He was acclaimed as a brilliant pianist yet he only made a handful of recordings which are close to impossible to find. Yet he was quite successful until his death from Cholera in 1945. His reason for success is what makes this 37 page Kindle Single, with a title almost as long as the book, interesting. He left America in the 20s and spend the rest of his life abroad, mainly in China and India thus setting the stage for mainly black jazz musicians who chose to work abroad where they were usually more revered and free from much of the racism they experienced in the states. Author Brendan L. Koerner does a good job in presenting the life of a man whose history cannot be that easy to research. Yet this short book doesn't really do justice to the subject. The author explains why Weatherford's talents were important in the history of jazz yet there is simply not enough space to fully explain how stride piano and Weatherford in particular fits into jazz history. However he is especially good at describing the smoldering atmosphere of China and India during the 20s and 30s and how it affects Weatherford's life abroad. But I wanted more sociological detail on why and how early jazz musicians, especially black musicians, chose a life of voluntary exile to enrich their music and their dreams. Nonetheless, I recommend this book to any one who is interested in jazz history.

Background CD: I don't have any Teddy Weatherford in my collection, so I settled for The Very Best of Fats Waller.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Quincy Jones: His Life in Music

By Clarence Bernard Henry

 Genre: Jazz,  R&B

I want to start with my own assessment of Quincy Jones. What Duke Ellington was to the 30s and 40s, Quincy Jones was to the 60s and beyond. Their ability for composing and arranging stretched Jazz out of its limits and into all type of popular music including classical and motion picture scoring. Ellington was the premier jazz composer and arranger for the first half of the 20th century. Quincy Jones was the same for the last part of the 20th century.

I first heard of Quincy Jones when I was in high school in the 60s and while I was considering a career as a professional musician. My peers and I idolized Mr. Jones and wanted to emulate him. He was an exceptional arranger. His score for the film In the Heat of the Night was a cornerstone of jazz and blues understatement. He was a pretty good trumpeter too. Then about mid-70s things changed. We thought he sold out as his music evolved into popular music as he spent more time producing pop records and arranging for pop artists. We were wrong. He wasn't selling out. He was changing the course of American music. It is almost impossible now to hear any R&B or soul-tinged hit without hearing the influence of Quincy Jones.

This new perspective on Quincy Jones is titled simply Quincy Jones: His Life in Music and is written by Clarence Bernard Henry. The emphasis is on "Music" as most all of it is about the music and only a little about his life outside the concerts and studios. There is a first chapter that is a biography but if that is what you want, you would be better off reading Quincy Jones' own autobiography, Q. His Life in Music is a rather thin book at 192 pages with more that a third of it being discography and footnotes. It is quite scholarly and very crowded. I'm not sure anyone can do his music justice in under 200 pages but Mr. Henry tries. Aside from the first biographical chapter, they are divided into chapters on his work in his bands and orchestras, work as a composer and arranger, His recording career with emphasis on his collaborations with jazz and popular artists, and a look at his work in film scoring. Henry also spends some time on Jones' many achievements as an African American composer/arranger and the artist's difficulty in working in this field, especially in the film industry, which was still an all white industry when Jones arrived. That's a lot of information and some of it feels rushed. Fortunately, for me at least, a lot is said about his works in the 50s and 60s starting with his first gig with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and going to his early 60s jazz projects like his collaboration with Lalo Schifrin, Big Band Boss Nova. That is the Quincy Jones I remember fondly.

Much time is also spent discussing the three albums he produced for Michael Jackson. How could you not? They represented Jones' full ascendency into Cross-Over and a milestone of his influence in pop music. But pretty much every aspect and significant project of his is mentioned and briefly analyzed, I would have been happier with more musical dissection of his work but that would take for a much bigger book. Besides I'm a bit of a music nerd. I think for the average person, Henry hits a nice balance between history and music to bring out the importance of the artist. The author is also quite aware of much of the social significance of Jones' music and writes about his many humanitarian involvements,including "We Are The World". Overall, it is a nice overlook on the artist and recommended to anyone who has a interest in the composer and his legacy. The only thing missing is a stack of Quincy Jones' CDs to play while reading.

Background CD: Quincy Jones - Q's Jook Joint

Sunday, October 6, 2013


By Paul Beatty

Genre: Jazz, Hip-Hop (fiction)

You don't have to be a jazz fan to enjoy Slumberland but it helps. Paul Beatty not only knows a hell of a lot about jazz but he writes like a jazz musician. He states the theme, write like a maniac around it, wanders off into imaginative detours then miraculously returns to the theme. His writing is loaded with outrageous and hilarious ideas, then he's off to the next one. Beatty manages to say a lot about race, music, and culture, both American and European. And before I forget, there's a plot. DJ Darky has created the perfect beat but needs the elusive jazz man Charles Stone aka The Schwa, to complete it. So he goes off to Berlin, getting a job in a bar called Slumberland to find his dream. Before the novel is through, the author manages to unsettle a number of sacred Black icons and question our ideas about what defines culture and race in our pop culture.It is nice to see a young writer so willing to stir up the stew. I would have given this five stars but I felt the last 100 pages dragged slightly and The Schwa was a little bit of a let down from what the author built him up to be. Yet, Slumberland is still a hell of a read. I will certainly be checking out The White Boy Shuffle and Tuff very soon.

Background CD: Various Artists - Blue Note Records: Now and Then

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Benny Goodman and the Swing Era

By James Lincoln Collier

Genre: Jazz, Swing

In the past month, I've read three biographies about musicians; one on Leonard Cohen, punk rocker Ricard Hell's autobiography, and now this excellent biography on Jazz musician Benny Goodman. I must say it is a pleasure to read a biography that is more about the actual music than who the musician slept with.

In fact, this rather scholarly work is more about the swing era of the thirties than the individual. While covering Goodman's life from birth to death, the author focuses mainly on his contribution to American music and the unique era of swing which was when Jazz was at its height of popularity. Collier doesn't forsake other musicians either, showing the early influences of Fletcher Henderson and others who led bands before Goodman and covering all of the major jazz musician that passed through the Goodman orchestra and small groups. I also liked how Collier explores the particular personality of his subject and explains how it affected both Goodman's music and career without descending into gossip. If you have any interest in the popular music of the 30s and 40s or in the history of Jazz, this is essential reading.

Background CD: Benny Goodman - The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp

By Richard Hell

Genre: Punk

Q: Why did the punk rocker cross the road?
A: He was pinned to a chicken.

I know. Bad joke. It could have been worse. I could have asked you why Jesus crossed the road.

But this is a book review, so...

I'm not exactly sure if Richard Hell is an household name. He was at the start of the punk rock movement in the seventies. He is often given credit for the punk rock look of torn clothes and safety pins, which explains the chicken joke. Malcolm McLaren gives Richard Hell credit for the visual look, if not the musical style, of the Sex Pistols. Before he started his own group he created the early punk groups, Television and The Heartbreakers (which has nothing to do with Tom Petty and...)If you have heard one Richard Hell and The Voidoids song it is probably "The Blank Generation" which is sometimes called the Punk Rock anthem.

But the interesting thing in this book is how little Hell says directly about his music.While he writes prodigiously about the Punk Rock scene he is more interested in the lifestyle than the music. He thinks of himself as a poet and a writer first and left music in 1988 to devote himself to his writing full-time. He's a pretty good writer. In fact, His writing talent is much better than his musical talent which he admits is on the minimal side. I like Richard Hell but it is the kind of "like" coming from watching a kid put heart and soul into an endeavor where his emotions overshadow his abilities. This autobiography, from someone who can only be called an unreliable narrator, describes the punk rock 70s, especially the New York scene, very well. Richard Hell comes across as over-confident, insecure and defensive all at the same time and it gives a nice tension. He may not be someone that is easy to like but is definitely interesting. The only drawback to this book, and it is a big one,is Hell's constant misogyny. He chooses to tell us every sexual encounter in detail and in usually negative terms to his partner. As I said, he is not easy to like.

Richard Hell is my age. But I felt at some times I was reading a memoir by a perennial adolescent. It can be argued that Hell never really grew up. It is what makes this book so involving at times. Hell recalls the times and its emotions and tensions vividly. I think it is because he never really wanted to leave it. Even if he no longer plays music in the rock scene, Richard Hell may be the Peter Pan of Punk Rock Neverland.

Background CD:  Richard Hell & Voidoids - Blank Generation

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

By Sylvie Simmons 

Genre: Rock

It must be being enormously frustrating to write a biography about a man who already has been quite confessional and intimate in his own poems, novels and songs. I mean, what else is there to say? But Sylvie Simmons' biography of Leonard Cohen does tend to open some new ground. It is detailed, precise, and abundant in personal revelations from both friends of Cohen's and Cohen himself. I like the way the author quote portions of her interview with Cohen in italics making a easy transition from biography to personal reflection. Ms Simmons does a good job in describing and interpreting many of Cohen poems and songs and does an equally good job in placing them in the context of the poet/songwriter's coming of age and development. My only gripe is that the book sometimes become more of a "and then he slept with" than a "and then he wrote". But some will like the gossipy parts, I guess. Yet most of the time I learned a lot about this important figure in modern culture. I can also attest that the reading of this biography goes down well with a glass of Cabernet and Leonard Cohen songs being endlessly cycled on Grooveshark.

Background CD: Leonard Cohen - I'm Your Man


 By Joseph Garraty

Genre: Rock (fiction)

Rock and roll and horror should be a natural combination. Yet I can think of only a few authors who have the ability to blend the two worlds together; Skipp and Spector, David Schow and to a lesser extent, George R.R. Martin, S. P. Somtow, and Joe Hill. Less serious efforts has been made by schlockmaster musicians like Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper whose shows are more of a kiddie spectacular with little real terror.

Enter new author Joseph Garraty. His debut novel Voice is a realistic blend of both rock and horror. Garraty is a musician and writer and his description of seedy venues and one night stands reveals an intimacy with the musician life. His novel is also a riveting horror tale that combines two overdone sub-genres; ordinary kid becomes rock star with disastrous results and that old war horse, the deal-with-the-devil tale. But the author finds something new in both and gives us a story that puts us on notice that he is biting at the heels of those authors I mentioned above.

But there are a few issues that often accompanies new writers. He slows at the middle and loses the pace. However it quickly picks up when main protagonist Johnny Tango and his band goes on the road. Also I was sometimes disengaged by the change in perspective of the band members and felt it may have been better to stick to the two main characters, Johnny and Case.

However, the strengths far exceed the weaknesses. Both Case and Johnny are strong character who the reader can care for even when they aren't on the best behavior. The rock performance scenes are exquisite and superbly catches the sense of excitement from the performers' perspective. Also, Garraty's ability to evoke dread and horror is quite good. Look for a "crossroads" scene that is loyal to the classic definition but also subtly hints that something else is going on.

The bottom line is that the author wrote a very above average debut novel that manages to blend the realistic travails of the rock music life with a scary and haunting horror story. If you are looking for new horror writers eager to creep you out, try Joseph Garraty. Personally, I am hoping eagerly for another creep-you-out rock and roller novel from this promising writer.

Background CD: The Cramps - Bad Music for Bad People

George Gershwin: His Life and Work

By  Howard Pollack

Genre: Early pop, Classical

This book needs two ratings. For the inexhaustible academic work it is, it deserves five stars. Pollack does an amazing job in not only chronicling Gershwin's life but analyzing all of the composer's works. The biography is close to 900 pages with slightly less than 200 of that being notes and index. There is not one stone unturned in Gershwin's life and there is some fascinating information on the supporting cast, like James Reese Europe, Eubie Blake, Paul Whiteman etc, as well. These little side notes bring some humanity to the composer. For example, Oscar Levant's question to George Gershwin after the composer addressed his adoring public; "If you had your life to live all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?" But the focus is on Gershwin and any scholar of his music would agree this is the definitive biography.

However, the rating for readability would have be lower; maybe three stars. It isn't because it is bad writing. In fact, Pollack is quite good. But he is a bit dry. The book soon becomes a "And then he wrote" or "And then he met". It's hard to see anyone but a true Gershwin fan wading through this epic tome. There are some excellent chapters especially the several on "Porgy and Bess" but overall it is just too much information for the average reader.

These two considerations, readability and research, can be bridged. I recently read an excellent biography on Thelonious Monk that was both highly detailed and highly readable but Pollack doesn't quite achieve the balance.

So three stars for readability. Five stars for academic excellence. Let's split the difference and call it four stars.

Background CD:  Leonard Bernstein & the New York Philharmonic Orchestra -  Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue / An American in Paris


By Keith Richards

Genre: Rock

How in the hell did this guy live so long? After Jimi and Janis died, all the smart money was on Keith Richard to be Rock n' Roll's next burnt-out flame. He fooled us all. And his secret to a long and exciting life?

He was damn lucky.

Maybe not in his music. He worked hard to be the rock n' roll genius he is. But lucky in that he didn't make a fatal mistake between the drugs and general madness his life style resulted in. I loved his frankness but shook my head a little when he discussed his faults and excused his mistakes. He is quick to admit to his drug excesses but even quicker to state that others were bigger addicts than he was. Three areas of contention for me was his take on girl friends (hot and wild and usually stolen from his band members), his unusual parenting techniques (take your seven year old son with you on tour and put him in charge of cleaning up the drug messes left by the band), and his very unusual heroin addiction cure (a little black box and gallons of Jack Daniels). Richard isn't what I would call a great role model but there is something weirdly impressive about a man who creates so much good music but stayed on the wild side with so much energy if not always class.

But what I really liked about his book is his reflections on the music. It comes alive when he discusses his blues idols like Jimmy Reed and others. He describes how the Stones just wanted to be a blues band and slipped into being a rock band. I especially liked hearing about how he and Mick Jagger created their songs. Keith wrote the riffs and Mick fine-tuned the lyrics. After all, it is all about the music and I think Keith would agree with me. He chuckles at his past and hope you get a kick out of hearing about it, But he really wants us to focus on the music and that super group called The Stones.

Background CD: Keith Richards - Talk is Cheap

Just Kids

By Patti Smith

Genre: Rock

 Just Kids is an incredibly moving story about the relationship between poet/rock singer Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The love and support between these two persons flows through Patti's poetic words. While they lived in the tumultuous art scene of New York in the sixties and seventies this is never a tell-all book or a sensational gossip book like so many of the other memoirs of this period. The author promised Mapplethorpe before he died that she would tell their story and does exactly that. In fact, the only time the book bogs down is in the section that tells of their separation and her ascend into the rock music world. Smith appears to be rushing, eager to get on with the real story of her love and compassion for Mapplethorpe. When she returns to him, he is dying of AIDS. The passion and longing that permeated this memoir is again evident. If someone asked me if I knew of a book that could vividly and honestly depict the complex pains and joys of an human relationship, I would gladly hand them this book.

Background CD: Patti Smith - Horses

The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

By Ted Gioia

 Genre: Jazz, Cool

Cool is one of those things that fit the "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" category but I must admit Jazz critic and writer Ted Gioia does a fine attempt at defining it. Here is my feeble definition. Cool is an attitude, a facade that hides the base emotions but communicates a an individualistic ambivalence over status and society. Cool is one of those things that you can attempt to have but is defined by others judgments making it a bit contradictory. Yet we all know it when we see it and we know what is not cool. Frank Sinatra was cool. Micheal Bolton isn't. Laugh-in was cool. American Idol isn't. James Dean was cool. Jim Carry isn't. I think my cool definition is similar to Gioia but he says it better and takes a lot more words to say it. But what else the author does is to identify its birth and how Cool is no longer an issue in our "post-cool" society. Gioia starts at the beginning with the jazz musicians. Cool is above all a jazz concept and he spends a good bit of time with the three lead perpetrators of Cool: Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young and Miles Davis. He describes the role of Cool in the arts and media and show how the advertising establishment hijacked cool and led to its demise. He shows how Cool is a late 20th century device not having any real comparison in American culture before that time. And he also define the Post-cool area, a time when sincerity and honesty becomes important for its own sake and people are not defined by brands. I'm not totally convinced by this part of the book but Gioia makes some nice points. I also enjoy the revelation that my generation was not introduced to coolness by Davis or Kerouac but was already indoctrinated into cool by the antics of Bugs Bunny, Top Cat, and Rocky & Bullwinkle. A decade of watching Bugs Bunny will definitely prepare you for the writings of Jack Kerouac. I did find his chapter on comedy a bit perplexing. He spends a lot of time on David Letterman as a arbiter of cool comedy but barely mentions Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl or Richard Pryor. Personally I think cool comedy started with Jack Benny but that is just my opinion. Any book on such a broad topic is going to encourage agreements and disagreements. But that's cool.

Background CD: Miles Davis - Birth of the Cool

Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life

 By Robert Hilborn

Genre: Rock

This is a hard book for me to be non-biased about. I first started reading Hilburn's columns in the Los Angeles Times in 1968 when I started going to college, coincidentally the very same university that Hilburn went to himself. It was the LA Times trinity of columnists; Hilburn, Jazz critic Leonard Feather, and classical music critic Martin Bernheimer, that taught me there was even a thing called music criticism. Hilburn continued writing during the golden age of rock music criticism and beyond until he retired from the Times in 2005. When I did a little music writing of my own some mentors compared my style to Hilburn's, sometimes complimentary but sometimes not. I always took it as a compliment. While he didn't have the mad genius of Lester Bangs or the scholarly vision of Greil Marcus, he had something the others did not bring to pen and paper. He wrote for the everyman, the nine-to-fivers who needed the music to enrich their lives. Hilburn himself didn't smoke or drink and, around these superstars that lived in an insane world, brought enough sanity with him that these artists came across as real human beings. He may not have been the best of the music writers but he had empathy which served to show his readers the hearts behind the music.

All of this comes out in his new book, Cornflakes with John Lennon. This book is a memoir of his experiences as a rock music writer and his relationship with some of the most important musicians of rock music; Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Kurt Cobain and others. As a memoir it does what the writer rarely did in his own columns. It gave us a look at the writer himself. Yet even here the bulk of this book is about rock music and rock artists. Hilburn brought out the best in his subjects whether it was a troubled Lennon, a vulnerable Janis Joplin, a insecure Michael Jackson, or an obsessively searching Bruce Springsteen. Hilborn wants us to see the thoughts and the person behind the songs and he does that better than any other writer of his time.

Yet there are some issues with this book that troubles me. Hilburn spends way too much time with the superstars, especially Springsteen, but little about the less revered artists that changed the music yet didn't get a mass of fans. I know he paid a lot of attention to artists like P. J. Harvey, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Rickie Lee Jones but little is in this book. I suspect that may have been a publishing decision. Yet they also have tales to tell and I know Hilburn paid more attention to them than this book would let on. Also the writer could have a evil pen to those he called "the superficial artists who shouldn't be on stage in the first place because they have nothing to tell you". Yet he only shows examples of this briefly in about one page which does include an especially right-on assessment of Michael Bolton. Most bewildering is his exclusion of the rather notorious feud with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson that led to the musician writing a scathing song about the critic called "Only Solitaire." Yet, I assume Hilburn wanted his first book on his own writings and experiences in music to be positive and not focus on the negative.

So I really wanted to give this book five stars, maybe even a bonus sixth star, for a lot of personal reasons. But I also realized that without my nostalgic baggage, this book is still a very strong four stars. Certainly if you want to know about the real musicians that made the music and not just the promotional hype, Hilburn will deliver.

Background CD: John Lennon - Imagine

Songs of the Unsung: The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott

By Horace Tapscott

Music Genre: Jazz

Horace Tapscott was a musical pioneer stretching the boundaries of jazz. He was also an organizer and educator in Los Angeles that stressed ethnic and community pride and became a father figure to scores of Los Angeles musicians who may not have fared as well without a mentor. Yet most Americans , even most Angelenos, have never heard of him. His autobiography is a well written, enjoyable look at his journeys from the birthplace of Houston to his last days as a respected figure in LA and even the international arena.He writes with frankness about his struggles with racism. He tells about the turbulent sixties and the Watts riots, relating with some bitterness the police and establishment attempts to put down his organization which simply existed to create a music that instilled pride in his black community. But mostly, he writes about the music of the time. He writes about his experiences with jazz giants like Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. I found the book especially exciting because I lived in Los Angeles during the 70s and 80s when Tapscott started to get the recognition he deserved. I knew some of the local artists he writes about such as John Carter, Bobby Bradford and Vinny Golia. I was very surprised to actually see my high school band teacher, Stewart Aspen, who moved from Jefferson to San Fernando High in the 60s, get a mention! My only very minor complaint is that Tapscott assumes that his reader knows what certain musical terms means like seventh position on the trombone, or assumes the reader already know the accomplishments of giants like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. But any one who doesn't know this is probably not going to read this fascinating account of an important movement in 20th century jazz anyway. Recommended to fans of modern Jazz, aficionados of Los Angeles history, and people interested in the socio-politcal movements of the late 20th century.

Background CD: Horace Tapscott - Songs of the Unsung


The two things in life I most love to do is to read and to listen to music. In my ancient days, I was a professional musician in Los Angeles playing saxophone and clarinet. I soon changed careers to Social Work and when asked why, I would say that I decided I wanted the finer things in food and shelter. But I never lost my love for music. Between 2006 and 2011, I owned a rather popular website called Free Albums Galore where I posted my discovery of free and legal music albums by both indie and established artists. Sadly, work and health issues interfered and I had to abandon it. I am now retired with time to kill, but I decided to devote my time to book reviewing.

This is my secondary book review site. My primary review site is The Novel Pursuit where I review fiction and the occasional non-fiction work. Yet I wanted a separate area where I can place my reviews of books related to music, include both fiction and non-fiction. Any book about any type of music or any musician is fair game. Musically, I am rather eclectic but My own preference is for jazz and rock. Yet my reading in music is very broad. So you may find anything here as a rocks, swings, sways, or chill. Thank you for visiting my humble but cool and blue blog.