Thursday, 24 January 2013

Chris Searle on Mixed Messages: American Jazz Stories

Mixed Messages: American Jazz StoriesEvery note a jazz artist plays is an endless story and Peter Vacher's collection of interviews with US jazz musicians is ample testimony of this. He's been posing questions to star names of the music along with its journeymen and women since the 1950s. With tape recorder and camera at the ready he'd seek them out - often in seedy London hotels on Sunday mornings - and his dedicated labours have resulted in this precious work of social and cultural history.
The 21 musicians who tell their story in these pages range from veteran New Orleans trombonist Louis Nelson, with his memories of Mississippi steamboat bands, to bassist Norman "Dewey" Keenan who played with Count Basie. He remembers boyhood beatings by his churchgoing mother for playing the "sacrilegious" Saint Louis Blues on a Sunday. Bandleader Gerald Wilson describes Louis Armstrong's case full of laundered handkerchiefs to mop up the saliva that poured from the side of his moth as he blew his horn using the "skeet" technique.
There are stories too of a people's constant struggle for racial justice. Tenor saxophonist Houston Person recalls that "we woke up every day and survived and still managed to get our education and fight for equality."
But the longest and most powerful story in this collection is the life of tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield, renowned for his huge tone, who died in 2005. A sideman of Charles Mingus and, after the great bassist's death, a stellar soloist in the Mingus Big Band, he was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1945. He remembers his father warning him when he approached a water fountain that he shouldn't drink from it because it's "for whites only."
His experiences with Miles Davis, Mary Lou Williams and Gil Evans among many others make for riveting reading and show again how much the history of jazz reflects the mainstream story of the US. Vacher's fine book portrays all this with humour, drama and a cogent sense of realism throughout.
This review by Chris Searle first appeared in the Morning Star on 24/1/13

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