Jazz clarinetists are particularly fortunate when it comes to autobiographies. Contributions to the genre include some of the most important players in the history of the instrument: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Barney Bigard, Woody Herman, Pete Fountain, and Mezz Mezzrow have each published volumes, and at least one of them—Sidney Bechet’s Treat It Gentle—ought to be considered a masterpiece of American literature in its own right. Among the more recent books written by jazz clarinetists, however, is an extremely important memoir by Tom Sancton: New Orleans native, one time Paris Bureau chief for Time magazine, and trad jazz clarinetist.
Sancton’s book is entitled Song for My Fathers: A NewOrleans Story in Black and White (Other Press, New York, 2006). Beginning with the New Orleans jazz funeral of Doc Celestin on December 18, 1954, we’re given more than a glimpse into a crucial two decades of Crescent City history, unfolding through the eyes of young Tom Sancton. Son of a reporter and aspiring novelist, whose mother was a southern belle, he is thrown into the world of Creole and black jazz musicians during the foundation of Preservation Hall. His perspective is unique: a white kid in that milieu, at a point in time that will never be repeated—when musicians like George Lewis, Creole George Guesnon and Sweet Emma Barrett pioneered the early jazz revival.
The book is masterful, combining many genres seamlessly. A coming of age story, a chronicle, an analysis of oral tradition music making, with the flair and page-turning quality of a novel, this is simply one of the best books about jazz, and about New Orleans, I’ve ever read. Through much of it, Sancton’s adolescence on display as he learns to play clarinet, falls in love for the first time, and tries to balance his passion for jazz with school and other obligations. We overhear him taking music lessons from Lewis and Guesnon; in the process becoming privy to their struggles, ambivalences, and hesitations, as they were finally showcased and given a share of success for the music they helped pioneer and preserve. Throughout the book, the figure of his father looms large: the younger Sancton’s admiration, then disillusionment, with his father is skillfully and poignantly told, settling into a sober middle aged reassessment. None of this interferes with the musical aspect of the story—instead, like the quality of New Orleans jazz itself, Sancton’s life and the music become inseparable.
Like Sidney Bechet’s autobiography, this written demonstration of the life becoming the music, and the two flowing in and out of each other, is the most remarkable aspect of the book. Anyone who seriously involves themselves with New Orleans jazz must eventually come to this conclusion: it is the life one lives, and the depth of one’s soul, that must come through the music. There is no faking it. And Tom Sancton fakes nothing: you can smell the Zatarain’s, feel the humidity, taste the danger of bullets being thrown during a parade, get lost in the tunes—you can experience with him a type of hero worship turning bitter, then mellowed, then resolving into something like pure gratitude. I picked this volume up on the recommendation of a friend from NOLA, and at first wasn’t so sure what to think. It ended up giving me a far deeper appreciation of music, life, and the relationship of the two.
[ This review first published in the September 2015 edition of the EARLYJAS Rag ]