Friday, November 13, 2009
Bio picks: A.B. Spellman, etc.
"I have tried to let the musicians speak for themselves as much as possible... I have shifted and spliced, and moved their ideas around to put them in their most advantageous places, but I have not put words in their mouths. They have plenty of good ones of their own." - A.B. Spellman (pictured above), introduction to Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1985 edition)
I always feel at home when I'm reading jazz biographies. I've been working my way through Four Lives, a really great book, in piecemeal fashion. (If you're not familiar with Four Lives, it was first published in 1966 and consists of lengthy, freestanding profiles of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Nichols and Jackie McLean.) I picked it up last year when I was researching Taylor, but I only read the section on him at that time. Just got through with the Coleman and McLean portions and I was enthralled.
It's pretty fascinating to hear from Taylor and Coleman, both famously tough interviews, at a time when they were still talking very lucidly about their work. Don't have great recall of the Taylor portion just now, but I do remember some fascinating insights into his practice method, which then involved a lot of solfège singing. The Coleman chapter, though, is a pretty fascinating portrait of inner turmoil and neurosis. At the time Spellman interviewed him, Coleman does not seem to be a very happy dude, and reading about the insane prejudices (both racial and artistic) that he had to endure in order to find an audience, you can't really blame him. Speaking of race, there's some pretty fascinating material in here about the strengths and weaknesses of black bassists vs. white bassists. ("I've met more white bass players who could be free on their instrument than black bass players," he says at one point.) Sometimes Coleman's logic seems iffy, but it's still valuable to have a window into his conception of race at that time. From everything I've read, it's clear that for him and a lot of other players and critics, it was still very much a foreground issue.
McLean comes off as far less eccentric. His chapter is also about hardship, but not so much aesthetic hardship. Spellman is very interested in McLean's struggle with heroin, and the saxist is sort of a case study re: the whole phenomenon of young Charlie Parker disciples falling unwittingly into their own addictions. McLean's accounts of interacting with bebop giants such as Parker, Bud Powell and Monk are fascinating. These men were superstars while he was growing up and he eventually joined their ranks as a respected peer. Spelllman also gives a good sense of McLean's artistic awakening via his work with Charles Mingus, an experience which led directly into the saxists finest sessions as a leader (Let Freedom Ring, Destination Out, One Step Beyond, etc. - some of my favorite jazz records.)
I read the Herbie Nichols piece a long time ago, but I have little memory of it (though I can say it seems to me that the common perception of Herbie Nichols as a tragic overlooked genius probably originated here). Getting ready to dive back in. But overall I love the depth of this book and also the subjectivity. It's so cool that Spellman just sort of chose these four artists, who don't represent any logical cross-section of jazz, without fussing over why they belong together as a set in any easily definable way. "Yes, I could have chosen four others," he writes, "but frankly these are four of my favorite musicians and men, and, like most people, I tend to satisfy my subjective instincts first." Nice.
After I polish this one off, I'm on to Robin D.G. Kelley's new Monk bio. I've browsed this and I'm extraordinarily psyched to get into it in depth. From what I can tell, Kelley is really out to debunk common understanding of Monk as this eccentric savant character. It's interesting because in the Spellman book, Jackie McLean speaks to the same issue. "Jackie feels that people have tended too much to regard Monk as a talented nut," Spellman writes. "During all his years of dealing with Monk, Jackie has found him to be enormously wise, lucid and informed. [this is McLean talking] 'Monk is a deep person; I know this because I knew Monk well. His interests vary far beyond what most people would imagine. He's very easy to know as long as you deal with him in a plain and friendly way. But if you try to be dishonest with him or play mental chess with him, then you might have trouble. His mind is something that should be respected at all times. People are too quick to think that a jazz musician knows jazz and that's it, you know.'"
Speaking of Monk, there's another amazing anecdote in the McLean section of the Spellman book about how the pianist once insisted on following McLean home after a gig so as to score a piece of Jackie's mother's chocolate pie. In a related yet somewhat more disturbing incident discussed in the Ornette chapter, Ed Blackwell recalls that when Coleman was living in a hotel during his early days in L.A., some fellow musicians strong-armed the saxist out of a cake his mother had sent him for his 25th birthday.
Weird parallels all around. Anyway, loving the Spellman and can't wait for the Kelley.
P.S. Just found a recent A.B. Spellman interview at The Independent Ear.