“In Love With Voices is the best jazz memoir ever written by a musician.”
Dan Morganstern, Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University
… “now of equal stature to essential books by Oscar Peterson and Sidney Bechet, with the very pulse and openness of jazz itself is Brian Torff’s In Love With Voices… Torff’s students will remember his life lessons as will readers of this book.”
Nat Hentoff, jazz critic and author
The value of any autobiography is in its portrayal of the events and individuals experienced by the author. Brian Torff not only writes well, he has what it takes to become a writer, should he ever choose to do so. His writing in this book reminds me somewhat of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in style and otherwise, particularly in descriptions of his family and upbringing. He is writing about the Midwest, the area around Chicago where he was born, the son of a brilliant, prominent and liberal lawyer. One of the jewels of the book is Brian’s portrait of Stephane Grappelli, who has remained a somewhat shadowy figure. Grappelli was truly an outstanding player…this is an outstanding book.
Gene Lees, Gene Lees Jazzletter
“Maribeth Payne at Norton forwarded me your book, and I love it. I haven’t read many books that gave me so many specific points for identification, including similar, albeit not necessarily musical, experiences with Milt, Mary Lou, and Benny Carter. I was not only at Carnegie when you opened for Sinatra, but at Fat Tuesday’s, when Zoot and Rowles were there, and Sinatra and his scary entourage descended the stairs for the purpose, or so he told the manager, who I assumed was connected, of auditioning Zoot for the very gig Shearing got. Your book triggered a lot of this kind of thing. Congratulations. I’m very glad you wrote it.”
Torff is a concise writer and his authorial voice is entertaining and reads often like speech. The book is short and reads quickly and uses the reader’s time well.
John Schu, JazzTimes
“Torff’s writing style makes his memoir a fast read, buoyed by his dry, often self-deprecating humor. His anecdotes range from the poignant ( his father died when he was 15, though he learned more about him decades later) to hilarious (especially an odd rehearsal with Benny Goodman and George Shearing)…the valuable advice that Torff shares about his performing career should make In Love With Voices required reading in any jazz curriculum.”
Ken Dryden, All About Jazz
Over the course of a 30-plus year career in music, Brian Torff has performed with some of the greatest jazz talents of the past century. His new memoir, In Love with Voices, provides us with a rich first-hand recollection of learning the art form from many of those artists, while at the same time lamenting the gradual disappearance of an era when young players learned the improvisational genre from the masters live on the bandstand.
Starting in his early 20s, Torff connected with some very famous names: Frank Sinatra, who once in his inimitable style said of Torff, “the kid is playing some pretty groovy notes”; Mel Torme, the smooth-singing tenor nicknamed “the Velvet Fog” who is widely remembered for writing “the Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting by an Open Fire); George Shearing, the pianist whose 300-plus compositions include Lullaby of Birdland; Marian McPartland, the grande dame of jazz piano who still hosts the weekly feature Piano Jazz on National Public Radio; and Stephane Grapelli, the gypsy violinist who with his guitarist contempory Django Reinhardt was one of the leading stars of the French “hot house” jazz scene during and after World War II.
Torff succeeded in connecting at an early age with established artists through a combination of basic hard work and a knack for spotting opportunity and seizing the moment. He displayed that opportunism in the 1970s by dropping in on a rehearsal of Oliver Nelson’s big band at the Bottom Line in New York’s Greenwich Village. Watching the bass player get up and leave in the middle of the session (to watch a soap opera, it turned out), Torff summoned up his courage and asked Nelson if he could sit in, literally sprinting back to his apartment to grab his bass when Nelson assented. Impressed by Torff’s talent and his hunger, Nelson fired the old bass player and hired Torff to play starting that night.
In this candid and introspective book, Torff opens up his past to reveal the people and events that shaped him both as a musician and as a person. Growing up in the quiet Chicago suburb of Hinsdale in the 1950s and 1960s, Torff’s family seemed to live the typical American dream on the surface. He grew gradually distant from his father, Selwyn Torff, however, a successful Chicago lawyer given to mood swings and bouts of anger, while his mother Bev, a bright and progressive woman and former writer for Time magazine, looked on somewhat helplessly, occasionally breaking the tension with a bit of humor: “I have only two hands, and I’m busy wringing both of them.” Dealing with the tension by becoming withdrawn and avoiding confrontation, Torff questions whether this behavior may have come to cost him in future relationships. In later chapters he delves into the strains on relationships inherent in spending months on the road as a musician.
But as Torff notes, for many a career in music is not a choice; it’s “a calling with such a strong pull, you’d think a tide was sucking you under.” Upon high school graduation in 1972 he was off to study, first at Berklee and then Manhattan schools of music, and to begin a career of live performance.
Rising quickly to the pinnacle of jazz, it’s clear that Torff had more than just innate talent working in his favor. The picture that emerges from “In Love with Voices” is of a voracious learner with a dedicated work ethic, an ability to connect with various musicians through a pleasant and sometimes humorous and self-effacing manner, the gumption to step up and introduce himself to famous players and ask for the opportunity to sit in, and the resilience early on to take his knocks when he committed a “musical slaughter” and go back to the practice room to work it out.
There were many mentors along the way. At age 20, a music school friend suggested he get to know Milt Hinton, a giant of the jazz bass who had played with Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and others and once drove a van for Chicago gangster Al Capone. Hinton welcomed Torff into his home, where they played duets, and by the end of the evening Hinton had arranged for Torff to go on tour with Cleo Laine, with the first performance scheduled for Carnegie Hall.
Also formative in Torff’s musical development was Mary Lou Williams, a legendary pianist/composer and pioneer woman in jazz whose Harlem apartment over the years had served as a salon to such jazz greats as Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (Bird), among others. A stern task master with extremely high standards, Williams would temper occasional praise for Torff’s playing with eviscerating criticism when she was disappointed. Her self-professed goal was to save jazz, a part of her people’s heritage, from the ravages of commercial music, with the greatest threat being that young musicians didn’t know how to play with feeling. “I was taught about more than merely the notes on the page; she made me fully aware of the feeling and soul it takes to play jazz. I can never repay her for that,” Torff writes.
As a music professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, Torff worries deeply about the future of jazz as an art form. Not only have we lost the tradition of young musicians learning from the masters on the bandstand, but electronic listening devices and instruments have changed the entire way a generation listens to music, with improvisational forms like jazz being the casualties. Young music students today “have no frame of reference,” Torff told me in a recent phone conversation.
Torff’s charm and self-effacing sense of humor are sprinkled throughout the book. During the Reagan administration, Torff and George Shearing were invited to dine and perform at the White House. Afterward, President Reagan praised Torff’s playing, and said, “I always thought the bass was an instrument you either slapped or sawed in half.” Standing behind the president, Torff grimaced at the hackneyed joke, an expression captured by an alert wire service photographer. Torff speculated that the result would be a lifetime of IRS audits, while also fearing that if his liberal political leanings were unveiled, he would be thrown with his bass out onto the White House lawn, creating an event destined to become part of future White House tour legend.
Jazz fans will enjoy In Love with Voices for Torff’s vivid retelling of time spent with these masters of jazz and the lessons they imparted. Well done!
John Reilly, a Boston communications executive and former newspaper reporter, grew up with Brian Torff in Hinsdale, Illinois, where the two of them spent countless hours playing waffle ball, sharing bench time on an undefeated junior high school basketball team, and rooting for the Chicago Cubs. They still hold out hope for a World Series victory for the northsiders.
“Brian, you are not only gifted for music, but also for the music of the artfully chosen word: your portraits of the many different musicians who influenced you to the wonderful recordings to experience some of what you loved about them. And your chapter on “Them Changes” makes so many good points about the necessity of “parents playing quality music in the home”, to expose their children to all kinds of great music, classical and jazz alike. This chapter should be required reading for all in government today, to encourage more European-style government sponsorship of the arts and education in the arts.”
Orin O’Brien, double bassist-New York Philharmonic, and music educator
Soapbox: Lost Chords
The inherent problem of describing music’s ethereal art in book form
by Brian Q. Torff — Publishers Weekly, 5/11/2009
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. Brian Q. Torff
I wanted to tell you that I read your book straight through in almost one sitting. Needless to say it was most enjoyable. In addition to the fascinating insider tales from the musical world and an enchanting personal story of an obviously supremely talented, persistent and lucky guy, the book raised a number of thoughts about digital empowerment/impoverishment in writing versus music as I am sure you must be aware.
I am glad you were able to get your book out there.
George M Greider
author of Forever Man; Pennycorner Press, 1995
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