Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jazz Clarinet Autobiographies: an Overview

Although most of them are out of print, jazz clarinetist are startlingly well represented by highly informative autobiographies--books that are more than marketing hype, and give a real look into the lives and thoughts of the musicians who wrote (or, more often, co-wrote) them.

In my opinion the most important of these books, and a literary work of art in its own right, is Sidney Bechet's Treat it Gentle.  Bechet's book was compiled from interview recordings and edited by a team of writers, among them Joan Reid, Desmond Flower, and the poet John Ciardi, who is still well known for his masterful translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. The work was so well done that Bechet's voice comes through almost as clearly and profoundly as his playing did. This book, which Nat Hentoff called the "most valuable and moving of all jazz biographies" ought to be required reading somewhere--at the very least among all jazz musicians.

Another brilliant, if uniquely odd and idiosyncratic book, is Artie Shaw's The Trouble with Cinderella. This book is unfortunately out of print--and the Ebay prices are climbing.

Benny Goodman's The Kingdom of Swing, published at the height of his popularity in 1938, would seem by context a fluff piece meant to capitalize on music sales, but it isn't. Instead, Benny's self-portrait reveals a side of him not often mentioned by contemporary commentators. In the beginning, especially, it details his family's struggles through poverty, radiating the warmth of that large family, while always focusing on the music and what it meant to him. Like Benny's sound, it is both warm and hard edged, simultaneously. Benny's book has been out of print for a very long time, and can be quite difficult to find.

In 1972, Pete Fountain published his memoir, A Closer Walk,  which reads like his music sounds: a upbeat party, with some heartfelt blues, to be sure, but a whole lot of brightness. As of this writing, the only copy available on Amazon is selling for about $100.

Two other important autobiographies were published posthumously: Barney Bigard's With Louis and the Duke and Woody Herman's The Woodchopper's Ball. These books, while slim, give invaluable insights to the men and their era.

Finally, Bill Russell's volume, New Orleans Style, deserves mentions, as it includes brief autobiographical sketches of Omer Simeon, Edmond Hall, Raymond Burke, and Lawrence Duhe.

I'll be giving more detailed reviews of these books in the near future--interested readers will want to get copies while they are still available. This is an endangered part of our jazz heritage.

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