Intro by Miles Kington
I wish I had had this book to help me when I first discovered jazz.
In the 1950s, when I was a jazz-hungry teenager, all the books about jazz were pretty serious affairs, full of record numbers, personnels for recording dates, charts of who-influenced-who, like cricket score-sheets. You get the impression, reading them, that afterwards you weren’t meant to go out and enjoy the music; you were meant to take an A level exam on the subject. If I wanted to, I could always find out who was playing third saxophone on any Benny Goodman date; what the books never told me was what it felt like to be playing for Benny Goodman, or even what it felt like to be Benny Goodman.
This book does. In fact, the funniest quote in the book is attributed to Zoot Sims, who went on tour with Benny Goodman to Russia and was later asked what it was like touring in Russia. “Every gig with Benny is like playing in Russia,” he replied laconically. Now, the idea of an expert on jazz writing a book on jazz which contained funny quotes was not a common one when I was a lad and to be honest, it isn’t so common today. Because jazz is an art and yet also part of showbiz, critics tend to play down the showbiz aspect and become even more serious than their classical counterparts.
Most critics not only write seriously, they also write boringly, almost as if the idea of bringing colour into your style is blasphemous. Nor for the most part do they play jazz, so that a vital element of first-hand experience is always missing; if you have never had a bad bass player plodding away behind you, it’s hard to write about, and I can proudly boast that I have contributed a tiny fraction to this book as I once played bass in a band with Dave Gelly.
Gelly knows what jazz is all about. He knows what writing is all about. But he also knows what talking is all about, as the clearest impression that comes to me from this book is of an expert conversationalist chatting to you over a glass of something excellent and making a lot of things plain that usually remain cluttered. Read his entries on Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, for example, where he explains that Cole was a fine jazz pianist who never sang like one, and Sinatra was no jazz musician yet can’t help phrasing like one. At the end of these two brief accounts you’ll know more about jazz than after reading many a complete book.
Writing a whole book about a man is probably easier than writing a swift portrait, and in setting out to sketch the identities of eighty giants of jazz, Gelly has had to rely on telling little details. He does it wonderfully well. Describing Basie’s spare piano style, for example, as “the delicious agony of waiting for Basie to do something”. Or realising that Sarah Vaughan really doesn’t listen much to the words she is singing, with his reference to the way she always reduces “Send In The Clowns” to “rubble”. And when he says that Dave Brubeck was the leader of every band he played in, so he never had the self-indulgence knocked out of him, you feel that nothing more needs to be said.
Trying to work out Gelly’s own likes and dislikes is a hard game to play, as apart from his frank confessions of distaste for Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck and Buddy Rich, he seems to be fearfully fair-minded. But his remarks on Ray Brown and Bill Evan’s bass players, suggest fairly clearly why none of the trendy modern bass players like Stanley Clarke or Ron Carter get their own entry, and lovers of Arts Council jazz will look in vain for pieces on Cecil Taylor, Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. Nor do I remember any mention of Weather Report, which suits me fine but may upset a few.
I would also be disposed to query a few of his statements, such as his theory that Erroll Garner had no imitators. I would bet that every country in the world has boasted a native who, at one time or another, thought he was a reincarnation of Garner – I remember seeing a French pianist called Ralph Schecroun who not only played just like Garner but also insisted on sitting on a phone directory, just like his hero.
And when he says that it is very rare to find a jazz musician whose playing is utterly unlike his everyday self, I know what he means, and yet Pete King, the manager of Ronnie Scott’s Club, once put a theory to me that stated the exact opposite. The fiery, roaring tenor players, he said, are usually the mildest of men off the stand, and it’s the ones with the silky suave style who turn out to be the trouble-makers and all-round evil characters.
“ Who’s the silkiest, suavest tenor player you can think of?” he said.
I named him. Pete King nodded, satisfied
“He was the worst bastard we ever had at the club. Absolutely impossible.”
Libel laws prevent me from naming him, but he is featured in this book… And now I find that I have started talking back to Dave Gelly’s book, which is exactly the effect that such a book should have. It tells you lots of things, even if you think you know it all, but it never talks down to you, just makes you want to respond.
The only major thing wrong with it is that he never wrote it in the 1950s when I really needed it. But I suppose that as he was also at school then, he can be forgiven for that.
1986 Introduction for The Giants of Jazz by Dave Gelly