Whoever said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” was obviously an exasperated musician. Whether it was Zappa, Mull or Costello (what a law firm that would have been), they were probably lamenting the inherent problem of describing the ethereal art of music in book form. Sounds drifting through space and time rarely fall into the net of words. We get books and articles full of “writhing beats, wailing saxes, screaming guitars, and pounding drums.” It’s enough to make me want to take up needlepoint. As musicians, we can only roll our eyes and hope to be rescued by a ringing cellphone.
So, like a fool, I set out to write a memoir of my musical career as I boogied to Frank Lloyd Wright. How do you approach music in a dignified way that doesn’t give it a sophomoric thrashing? In other words, how would I justify a sabbatical in Paris when Teaneck or Poughkeepsie might do? Most music books have had an impact on me similar to an overhead projector in my school days. I would have preferred death by lethal injection. But my attitude changed when I read Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s by Gene Lees.
Lees’s book truthfully portrays the Manhattan bar of the 1950s and ’60s that was a hangout for jazz musicians. It was a second home, answering service, watering hole and informal savings and loan bank for many of them. Seated on the torn and patched pink leatherette seats, New York’s greatest musicians would drink and discuss their lives while Lees, a writer, lyricist, composer and singer, listened. Instead of clubbing readers with ponderous academic music analysis, Lees interweaves the music of dynamic and often unsung artists with their personal stories. The music sings through their lives, not above it. Their jazz improvisations are a metaphor for their joys and steadfast humor while facing struggles with addiction, family and failure. Lees captures this and readers hear melodies.
It’s a truism in jazz that you can’t play something that you haven’t lived, a good reason for me burning anything I ever recorded before I was 21, along with the clothes that went with it. You also can’t appreciate much about music without self-discovery. Students in my history of jazz class don’t get anything from “wailing saxes and screaming guitars,” but they do want to know who Miles and Coltrane were–and how that affected their music. No one ever asked me about Frank Sinatra’s vocal technique. They only wanted to know who the man was.
And then, even when writers do manage to aptly capture music on paper, they face an uphill battle, because although jazz is an American art form, book publishers–along with record companies–see it as a four-letter word. Beyond having a loyal niche audience, it is America’s unwanted musical stepchild and a commercial disappointment. So it came as no surprise to me that I would have to self-publish my book, just as musicians make their own records. We continue to record and print our own stories because we are a stubborn lot who love the music far too much. As Duke Ellington said, “I don’t wait for someone to call a rehearsal.”
So I wrote about the inner, gritty life of Mary Lou Williams, with her cigarette burns emblazoned on the bass-register keys of her piano; the eccentricity of Benny Goodman; Erroll Garner as a self-taught musical master and a lonely man, despite his stardom; and the sheer volcanic power and emotion of Sinatra. My hope was that my words would illuminate the music without an overhead projector.
I worry about a great country that doesn’t know much about one of its most influential musical art forms. In America, we create lasting musical legacies that are respected worldwide and then we proceed to diminish or ignore their importance. As a musician and educator, I am troubled by this. And I don’t dance with buildings.