Joshua Berrett & Louis Bourgois III The Musical World of J. J. Johnson Scarecrow Press 441 pp. ISBN 0-8108-3648-3
Nick Catalano Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter Oxford University Press 208 pp. ISBN 0-19-510083-2
Quincy Troupe Miles and Me University of California Press 189 pp. ISBN 0-520-21624-5
Here are three books about great early modern brass masters. One is a thorough and valuable resource, another a flawed work to approach with caution, and the third as tiresome a piece of fluff as I can remember having encountered. That, of course, would be Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe’s memoir of his subject. Too much of the focus of “Miles and Me” is on “Me” to suit this writer, and I would be surprised if many other people will care to read about the impression that Troupe thought he was making on Davis. Moreover, I am definitely a moldy fig when it comes to Miles’ jazz-rock years. Troupe, like many people whom I take far more seriously, thinks that the late stuff is brilliant, which is fair enough, but his utterly uncritical adulation reduces the book to a series of unchallenged pronouncements served up by a sycophant, interspersed with vignettes that would be worthy of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, of the author and his subject riding horseback around Malibu or motoring in Miles’ Ferrari.
As tedious as the enshrinement of Davis’s personal quirks is, the casual superficiality of critical statements made in the text is worse. For instance, though Miles thought of jazz as “America’s classical music” he never listened to any, preferring contemporary rock, R&B, or whatever, the reason being that “the tradition of African-American music has always been to move forward”. This scans well but means nothing at all. The only culture that constantly changes is that of the marketplace, which always has to make room for next year’s model (and which sounds old before it ever happens).
If the term “classical” means anything applied to jazz, than certainly it means that the music is timeless. I for one don’t accept that adding a rock beat was ever any kind of evolution other than economic. (Consider that serious blues musicians of any stripe know that the rock beat destroys their music. Jazz musicians don’t know it?) I repeat that I’m aware of lots of serious people on the other side of this issue, but Troupe acts as if there is no issue. It also seems gratuitous to detail Davis’s low regard for McCoy Tyner’s work; Troupe does this in illustrating how he had to learn to stand up to Miles,
but neglects to provide evidence that he ever did, in any meaningful way. Whether or not Davis was still a creative force, the portrait that emerges from “Miles and Me” is that of a self-absorbed, petty tyrant.
In Clifford Brown, Nick Catalano has a subject who was by all accounts a wonderful human being, and one who is way past due for a serious biography. But this book falls short on several counts. Catalano is not a gifted writer, but the occasionally awkward prose is a minor complaint. A more serious one is, again, the tendency to make statements without backing them up. But the biggest problem is that, once Brownie’s childhood has been outlined and we get to the point where his career takes off, the book largely reduces itself to a series of liner-note style descriptions of the records. This is not in-depth analysis but along the lines of “Sonny plays a great solo followed by an even greater one from Brownie, then the horns swap eights with Max before taking it out”. It would seem to me that anyone interested enough in Clifford Brown to buy a book about him would already have the records (there aren’t that many, after all) and, therefore, liner note descriptions. As I said, Catalano doesn’t make cases for his points of view. He just tells us, for instance, that Brown’s tone was better than that of his idol, Fats Navarro, a statement that many would gladly argue. He does cite Wynton Marsalis’s high opinion of “Clifford Brown with Strings” as proof of that record’s transcendent greatness, perhaps having confused the names Marsalis and Moses. Not that there’s anything wrong with quoting Wynton, but it hardly settles the issue. Catalano misses a lot of opportunities to inform us; we learn nothing of why Carl Perkins, a far more interesting pianist than Richie Powell, left the Roach-Brown Quintet, for instance. And we are left with the impression that the group assembled by Max after Brown’s death, with Kenny Dorham and Ray Bryant as replacements, is hardly worth listening to. For my money, Rollins played better in this group than he ever did with Brownie, and Bryant was a decided improvement on piano. Even with all of these problems, I did gain a clearer picture of Brown the man from this book, and thus a deeper appreciation of his music.
Saving the best for last, “The Musical World of J. J. Johnson” is an exemplary work, combining fine writing, meticulous scholarship, imagination, and in-depth musical analysis. Berrett and Bourgois present a balanced picture of Johnson’s long and varied career, but even readers who are less interested in the trombonist’s work as a writer-arranger and soundtrack composer (these aspects dominate the last few chapters) will have plenty to get their teeth into. Johnson’s apprenticeship in the bands of Benny Carter and others, his rapid rise to preeminence among early modern trombonists, his teaming with Kai Winding, and the subsequent series of fine recordings for Columbia are all dealt with at some length, and the episodes that aren’t, like his tenure with Basie, are generally those of less significance in his career. Johnson is not an easy subject in one regard; he is just not much of a talker, and one does wish for just a little more anecdotal color. I thought the most revealing passage was, in a way, a description of the occasion when Johnson was regaled by a drunken Jack Kerouac, who was sharing a billing in New York.
J. J.’s treatment of the poet is interesting. Dan Wakefield, whose account of the incident is given, seems to think that Johnson was putting Kerouac on, but I wonder if his own history of drug addiction didn’t lead the trombonist to be as sympathetic as he could under the circumstances.
When Berrett and Bourgois make a claim about something they back it up, often with musical examples that are quite thought-provoking. I note one slight overstatement, when excerpts of recorded solos by Johnson, Navarro, and Charlie Parker are compared and the dates are said to provide “unequivocal” evidence of influence. Since all three men could have been playing these licks for some time, “probable” would seem a better modifier. And that bagatelle is the sum total of my criticism. The authors do a great job of detailing how Johnson’s style evolved, especially in showing how he makes us think he’s playing a lot more than he is, thus using his instrument’s limitations to create a point of strength. Unobvious but important sessions like the 1954 date with Henri Renaud (recently reissued on “The Birdlanders” on Original Jazz Classics) are discussed at length, and some classic solos, like that on Parker’s “Crazeology”, are given in their entirety. The 170-page discography is the icing on the cake.
Jazz writing should always be this good.
– Duck Baker
Duck’s Top Ten List (the fowlest of choices)
Derek Bailey – Steve Lacy Outcome Potlatch
Bill Baron Modern Windows Suite Savoy
Tina Brooks Minor Moves Blue Note
Benoit Delbecq 5 Pursuit Songlines
Dave Douglas Leap of Faith Arabesque
Sonny Greenwich – Ed Bickert Days Gone By Sackville
Andrew Hill Dusk Palmetto
Steve Lacy – Roswell Rudd Monk’s Dream Verve (France)
Horace Parlan The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions Mosaic
Roosevelt Sykes Raining in My Heart Delmark