MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 31


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Whitney Bailliett (1986)

Oxford University Press, New York, 1986; rebound in half-calf in vibrant and confrontational pink, with grey cloth, and grey label embossed in gold.

Hell, man, nobody can hear you read.

When the late Whitney Bailliett reviewed a novel by Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), he said that the novelist wrote like an angel.  The reviewer was well qualified to make such a judgment.  Philip Larkin described Bailliett as a ‘master of language.’  Here is an example from this book of his contributions to the New Yorker on jazz between 1962 and 1986.  (He was at the magazine a lot longer.)

Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young – the emperors of the tenor saxophone and the inventors of so much regal, original music – were opposites.  Hawkins was a vertical improviser, who ran the chord changes and kept the melody in his rear view mirror.  Young was a horizontal improviser, who kept the melody beside him and cooled the chord changes.  Hawkins had a voluminous enveloping tone.  Young had an oblique, flyaway sound.  Hawkins played so many notes in each chorus that he blotted out the sun.  Young hand-picked his notes, letting the light and air burnish them.  Hawkins played with a ferocious on-the-beat intensity.  Young seemed to be towed by the beat.  Hawkins was handsome, sturdy and businesslike.  Young was slender, fey, and oracular……But the two were not totally dissimilar.  Hawkins eventually destroyed himself with alcohol, and so did Young, although he did the job quicker.

Many of these giants destroyed themselves on drugs.  It was not just the burden of genius – they would be applauded by whites and then calmly told to go and sit, eat, or sleep elsewhere.  They were prophets rejected in their own country.

Each of the fifty-six portraits in this book is beautifully written and composed – of anecdote, biography, word pictures of the music, and those who made it, and the celebration of an art form, the only one to come from a sterile century.  Taken together they are the best picture that you can get of jazz outside of music.

The triumph of Mary Lou Williams’ style is that she has no style.  She is not an eclectic or an anthologist or a copyist; she is a gifted and delicate appreciator who distils what affects her in the work of other pianists into cool, highly individual synopses.  The grapes are others’, the wine is her own.  In the late twenties and early thirties, echoes of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller and Earl Hines hurried through her work.  The mountainous shadow of Art Tatum passed over around 1940, and by 1945 she had become an expert bebop pianist.  Since jazz piano – the other-worldly convolutions of Cecil Taylor aside – has not moved very far since then, she is now a post-bebop performer, her chords and single-note melodic lines applauding such juniors as Bill Evans and Red Garland.

This is not idle academic chatter, but historical analysis of a high order.  Bailliett was, doubtless unconsciously, trying to do for modern jazz what Maitland did for old law.  He was trying to make it available to the untrained and the profane.  For example, he said that Lester Young – called ‘Pres’ by Billie Holiday – ‘had an airy lissom tone and an elusive lyrical way of phrasing that had never been heard before.’  When the singer, Sylvia Sims, complained to Young about talkative audiences, Pres replied: ‘Lady Sims, if there is one guy in the whole house who is listening – and maybe he’s in the bathroom – you’ve got an audience.’  Bailliett had played drums when he was younger, and he idolized Big Sid Catlett, and loved writing about his rim-shots and general playing.  Roy Eldridge – ‘Little Jazz’ – said of Big Sid: ‘Sid was a big cat, a fun-loving cat….What was so amazing about him, for all his size, was he was so smooth.  He was smooth as greased lightning.’

It is nearly impossible to write about music in performance.  Nevill Cardus could: so could Whitney Bailliett.  Here he is on the great Fats Waller.

Whichever, or whatever, Waller was a funny man, even when he played the piano and kept his mouth shut.  He was the last of the great stride pianists, and he perfected the style.  Stride piano had grown out of the oompah bass and filigreed right hand ragtime.  Its main concerns were rhythmic and melodic: keep that rocking two-beat motion going, no matter how slow, and keep the melody uppermost, no matter how strong the urge to embellish.  It was a chordal way of piano playing, both in the left hand, where tenths alternated with seesawing chord-and –single-note figures (Waller’s huge hands spanned more than a tenth), and in the right, where chords, often played staccato or against the beat, were spelled out by pearly Lisztian runs.

The piece on Erroll Garner is headed Being a Genius, which Garner certainly was.  Bailliett records Sylvia Sims offering the following anecdotes.  ‘Tatum told me that he adored Erroll, and that was strange because they were so different.  Tatum was something of a stuffed shirt, while Erroll was so articulate in his street-smart way.  Erroll loved chubby ladies….He was a very generous man. I remember walking to Jilly’s with him in the sixties and I don’t know how many times he stopped to say, ‘Hey, baby’, and reach into his pocket and lay something on whoever it was.’

Bailliett said that recording tends to ‘stymie’ jazz musicians, but Garner loved them – in a 1953 session, Erroll ‘rattled off thirteen numbers, averaging over six minutes each with no rehearsals and no retakes.’  Erroll liked ‘to have his base player sit on his left, so that the bass player could see his left hand.’

Here Garner describes how he wrote ‘Misty’ – Garner never learned how to read music.

I wrote ‘Misty’ from a beautiful rainbow I saw when I was flying from San Francisco to Chicago.  At that time, they didn’t have jets and we had to stop off in Denver.  When we were coming down, there was a beautiful rainbow.  The rainbow was fascinating because it wasn’t long but very wide and in every colour you can imagine.  With the dew drops and the windows being misty, that fine rain, that’s how I named it ‘Misty’.  I was playing on my knees like I had a piano, with my eyes shut.  There was a little old lady sitting next to me and she thought I was sick because I was humming.  She called the hostess, who came over, to find out I was writing ‘Misty’ in my head.  By the time I got off the plain, I had it.  We were going to make a record date, so I put it right on that date.  I always say that wherever she is today that old lady was the first one in on ‘Misty.’

Another pianist said that ‘when Erroll walked into a room, a light went on.  He was an imp. He could make poor bass players and poor drummers play like champions.  When he played, he’d sit down and drop his hands on the keyboard and start.  He didn’t care what key he was in or anything.  He was a full orchestra, and I used to call him ‘Ork’.  Another pianist said that what distinguished him ‘was his rich and profound quality of time…He was his magnificent pianistic engine.’

‘Who chi coo’ stood for magnificent obsession.  ‘People who don’t really know me call me Erroll.  But Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Carmen McRae all know me as ‘Who chi coo’ and that means they love me as much as I love them.’

Bailliett ended the piece by recording the reaction of Garner when someone mentioned that he could not read music.  ‘Hell, man, nobody can hear you read.’

Bailliett said: ‘Jazz, after all, is a highly personal lightweight form – like poetry, it is an art of surprise – that shaken down, amounts to the blues, some unique vocal and instrumental sounds, and the limited elusive genius of improvisation.’  How do you write about that art?  It is a testament to the high art of Whitney Bailliett that he could do so with so much conviction and so much charm.

Well, if any one book on this shelf was going to be dressed in pink leather, this was it – this most beautiful book is just full of magic and treasure.  Indeed, pound for pound, there is for me as much magic and treasure in this book as in any other on this shelf.  This is not just a desert island book – it is a book of last resort when you think to yourself, again:  We are surrounded by savages – in the name of God, is there nothing left in the whole world with any form or grace?  And who knows?  If they found someone who could talk about music, perhaps we might find someone who can talk about God.

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