This Week's Reads

Dan Morgenstern, John Haskell, and Barry Miles.

Living With Jazz: A Reader

By Dan Morgenstern (Pantheon, $35) Like so many of the great appreciators of jazz, Dan Morgenstern is European-born. First introduced to jazz when his Jewish Viennese family fled to Copenhagen during World War II, he arrived in New York in 1947, with the 52nd Street scene still barely alive. He has, it seems, spent every waking and half-awake moment since listening to records, hanging out in clubs, interviewing musicians, and feeding his remarkably insatiable passion for the music and its creators. Living With Jazz collects some 650 pages of Morgenstern's writing from 1958 to the present; much of it appeared in publications such as Down Beat (which he edited during the 1960s) and as liner notes for countless recordings. Morgenstern writes as a friend and supporter of jazz artists, one who loves these players for their music and their humanity, who wants to shake us out of our dull listening torpor to say, "Did you hear that?" "The trombone is a clumsy instrument, but he handled it with casual elegance," he writes of Vic Dickenson. "He said more with a flawlessly placed and executed pedal tone than verbose virtuosi could express in a string of choruses." Morgenstern goes on to observe how Dickenson displayed this very same grace when cooking himself dinner. Living With Jazz by no means covers the full range of the music. There are a couple perceptive pieces on early Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, but Morgenstern's taste, for the most part, is extremely straight-ahead, with a great fondness for the sound and ethos of the swing era and before. His several portraits of Louis Armstrong are beautifully done, as are briefer tributes to Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, and many others. In a 1964 essay, he decries the myth of artistic progress, of ever-greater sophistication. Sloughing off history "deprives you of the joys offered so graciously by a vital and friendly past," he writes. "New things or old things—what matters is good things." (Perhaps it's just this ability to take pleasure in received tradition that makes Europeans more devoted jazz listeners.) As a tour guide to the joys of swing and its numinous, tragic practitioners, Morgenstern can hardly be beat. Still, his book is by no means all riches. Liner notes offering track-by-track expressions of delight are of limited value when you actually have the record cued up in front of you; the verbiage is even emptier when you don't. And Morgenstern (who heads the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers) has that academic's love for arcana—labels and personnel details and alternate takes and the correction of extremely obscure matters of historical record. Yet he never lets his scholarship obscure his subjects. Morgenstern is a populist at heart. Indeed, he argues that the long battle for recognition of jazz as a "serious" art form has won all too full a victory, creating an insular culture that condemns any artist (like Armstrong) who crosses over into the mass market. Morgenstern believes that, above all, music must " communicate," it must reach people. This collection shows how he's certainly done more than his share to help further that mission. MARK D. FEFER American Purgatorio

By John Haskell (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23) Brush up on your Dante. Or go rent Seven. Divided into seven chapters of seven sections each, this first-person road-trip novel takes Brooklyn editor Jack on a fairly miserable odyssey across the U.S. So you've got your objects of pride, envy, anger, etc., arrayed along the interstate to crystallize those feelings in Jack's mind. And he's a brooder, a guy obsessed with finding his missing wife, Anne, who disappeared at a gas station in Nyak, N.J., on an innocuous outing—not unlike the Dutch movie The Vanishing. Jack does not inspire our trust; he lives much, much too much in his head. He's an observer, not an agent of his destiny, as he follows Anne's map to Lexington, Boulder, and finally San Diego. "If a person pays attention, sometimes the underlying logic of the world is revealed," he thinks, but the more he pays attention to other things and people, the more his own personality is eroded. Bit by bit, mile by mile, traces of the old Jack are cast off: his house and job, his money and possessions, finally his dignity and personhood. Relentlessly introspective, he divides the world as if by Occam's razor—each thin slice of logic further reduces "the shell I had come to call myself." Problem is, apart from a few loving recollections of Anne, Jack's past life and personality start out pretty thin in the first place. Much as I loved John Haskell's debut story collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollack, there his minimalist prose was devoted to different biographical reimaginings of different celebrities, which gave you some space and breadth. Jack can't really compare; there's no escape from his supercharged cerebellum, and surprisingly little entertainment from his roadside encounters. His endless ruminations drain the fun out of free-lovin' hippies in Boulder and store-robbin' white trash in Arizona. Purgatorio is like a picaresque without any windmills. "I have things to do before I fade away," says Jack. Haskell has, too, which his talent will support in better books than this. BRIAN MILLER Zappa: A Biography

By Barry Miles (Grove, $25) Of the legion of musical styles floating around the middle of the last century, no two seemed more mutually exclusive than the dry, complex modernism of European art music and the anarchic, free-form dance music made by hippie rock bands in the United States. And yet, as this new biography relates, Frank Zappa did his best to combine the two. Born to Sicilian immigrant parents in Baltimore in 1940, dead of prostate cancer days before his 53rd birthday, Zappa used his group the Mothers of Invention (and subsequent solo projects) to craft a fusion of high and low musical forms impossible to imitate, then or now. What his fans of the '60s and '70s most remember, however, are the dirty words. Zappa's lyrics went beyond offensiveness, misogyny, and cynicism into the realm of genuine cruelty, a lack of humanity that soured his music. Barry Miles does a fine job of recording Zappa's personal shortcomings and their effect on his art. We see his callous treatment of the original Mothers, dismissed in 1969 on the cusp of fame without warning or severance after years of toiling in poverty for their mercurial boss. We see Zappa's children growing up in a house filled with pornography, their workaholic father holed up in the basement recording studio, never to be disturbed. And we see Zappa's music growing more sterile every year as the search for perfection becomes the animating force of his work and life. Miles is less successful when it comes to describing the music itself, dense, thorny, and nearly impossible to play— the product of Zappa's hermetic genius. We don't get enough sense of what happened onstage, although Zappa's offstage story is ultimately compelling and tragic. PETER SPENCER

 
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