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.



[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.]



Edward Holmes (1845)

Folio 1991; half red cloth with gold lettering and red silhouette on gold on blue cloth front with red slip-case.

For this blessing, I daily thank my Creator, and from my heart wish it participated in by my fellow-men.

Is there any point in reading lives of the great artists?  What we know about Shakespeare can be comfortably set out on an envelope, and none of it tells us anything at all about King Lear.  It was a drama in verse – what can fact or fancy in prose tell us?  Does it help to know that Michelangelo had a fight with a pope or that Beethoven went deaf?  Perhaps; but if you read too much about Wagner, you may never want to hear him again, and you might swear off Parsifal forever.

Well, there may be something to be said for reminding ourselves that even geniuses are, au fond, merely human, and only one man may have had a better claim to genius than Mozart.

Edward Holmes went to school at Mr Clarke’s Academy in Enfield where a boy called John Keats was a pupil.  He learnt music with the very musical Novello family and became something of a music critic.  He idolized Mozart, but this book is useful for the letters of Mozart and contemporary reminiscences.  This Folio copy is beautifully produced.

In a letter to his father, Mozart says that he played to a count for two days.  This one knew how to behave – ‘he always says bravo in those places where other cavaliers take a pinch of snuff…’  He went on to say that ‘on hearing German melodrama, I felt a violent inclination to write.’

The letters contain many references to his love of the German nation, and to his love of the fugues of Bach and Handel.  He put several of the fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier into his own handwriting.

According to Mr Hodge, Mozart always composed in the open air when he could.  Don Giovanni was said to have been composed on a bowling-green, and the principal part of the Requiem in a garden.  In a letter written in a garden, he told how he had arrived in Vienna to find that dinner was served ‘for me unfortunately rather too early’ – 11.30 am!  Mozart sat down with, among others, two valets, the confectioner, two cooks ‘and my littleness.’  (He was only about five feet in height.)  Mozart told his father that there was ‘a great deal of coarse silly joking’ from which he remained aloof.  Perhaps, but we know that Wolfie was big on ‘coarse silly joking’ in a way that may still evoke a mild blush in the matronly glitterati in the concert-hall set.  But all this was far too much for the Victorian sensibility of Mr Holmes.  Against silhouettes of Mozart, Salieri, Gluck and Haydn, Mr Holmes says: ‘That he whose transcendent genius had asserted its empire over the whole musical world, and who even at this time had put forth unmistakeable evidences of his greatness should be put down to table with cooks and valets, is something to marvel over in this retrospect of Mozart’s chequered existence.  But how admirably he bore himself in this situation, silent and grave and keeping aloof from the rude company…’

Here is a trivia question.  Name the opera taken from Comedy of Errors.  Da Ponte turned it into an opera called Equivoci.  The music was written by Signor Storace whose sister played the first Nanette in The Marriage of Figaro, for which Da Ponte wrote the libretto.  Mozart wrote the opera in a month.  The tradition was that the overture to Don Giovanni was written the night before it was first given, and was first played unrehearsed.

An Irish singer called Michael Kelly played in the first Figaro.  He reminisced about Mozart.  ‘Mozart told me that great as his genius was, he was an enthusiast in dancing, and often said that his taste lay in that art rather than in music….He always received me with kindness and hospitality.  He was remarkably fond of punch, of which beverage I have seen him take copious drafts.  He was also fond of billiards, and had an excellent billiard-table in his house.  Many and many a game I have played with him, but always came off second best.  He gave Sunday concerts at which I was never missing.  He was kind-hearted and always ready to oblige, but so very particular when he played, that if the slightest noise were made, he instantly left off.’

Mozart was only thirty-five when he died.  He was working on the Requiem, and had composed the Ave verum corpus, possibly the most ethereal sacred music ever written.  Einstein said of it that, Mozart had resolved the problem of style.  Either work could only have been written by a man of profound Catholic conviction.

We may be allowed to hope that Mozart was at peace with himself when he died.  A few years before that, this man beloved of God (amadeus), wrote to his father: ‘As death, rightly considered, fulfils the real design of our life, I have for the last two years made myself so well acquainted with this true friend of mankind, that his image has no longer any terrors for me, but much that is peaceful and consoling; and I thank God that he has given me the opportunity to know him as the key tour true felicity.  I never lie down in bed without reflecting that – young as I am – I may never see another day….’  Some hold that those who are beloved of God die young.

Here and there – The faith of Felix Mendelssohn


When I told a friend of mine, an Anglican vicar, that I was reading a big biography of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, he asked me to tell him what the views of the author were about the religious faith of the great composer. As it happens, the book, R Larry Todd, Mendelssohn, A Life in Music (OUP, 2003), merely confirmed what I already believed – that Mendelssohn was a devout Christian of the Lutheran variety.

Apart from the music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the overture to which Mendelssohn wrote at the age of nineteen) and the violin concerto, Mendelssohn may be best known to concert-goers for his five symphonies.  Two of those have choral movements squarely within the Lutheran tradition.  The second symphony is called the Hymn of Praise, and the choral part features the hymn Nun danket alle Gott (‘Now Thank We All Our God’)The fifth symphony is called the Reformation, and the choral part features Luther’s own hymn Ein’ feste Berg ist unser Gott (‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’)This is sacred music – its spark is obviously felt to be divine.  It could only have been written by a very devout Lutheran, and one intent upon glorying in his faith – or by the greatest imposter unhanged.  There is not the slightest basis for suggesting any bad faith against Mendelssohn.

Mr Todd informs us that the composer was a practising Lutheran all his mature life, and that he frequently began messages with the initials of a prayer.  But Mr Todd also discusses the question of the faith of Mendelssohn in the context of his Jewish background.

Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg to Jewish parents – his father was the son of the distinguished philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.  His parents, Abraham and Lea, did not have Felix circumcised, and they would renounce their faith, and accept baptism.  Felix was baptised into the Reformed Church in 1816.  The family also adopted the name Bartholdy – Abraham wanted his break with his past to be complete.  ‘There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than a Jewish Confucius.’  Well, that may depend on your adherence to tribalism, but I am not aware of any ground – at least any decent ground – for suggesting that Mendelssohn’s conduct as a German Lutheran was somehow different to that of other German Lutherans.  To suggest that Felix may have been different because of his Jewish ancestry would in my view be to take a step on the path that leads straight to Gehenna (Hell).

And yet toward the end of this long book, Mr Todd tells us:

What are we to make of Felix’s pairing, in the last year of his life, of Elijah and Christus, the Old and New Testaments, the faith of his grandfather and his own professed Christianity?  The conclusion, developed by Sposato in the epilogue of his study, is that Felix’s attitude toward the oratorio….shifted during his career as he struggled with issues of his Jewish ancestry and adopted Christian faith….Though all the evidence suggests Felix was a sincere, devout Protestant, in the eyes of his contemporaries at some level a ‘Jewish identity had been etched indelibly into his being, character and life.’

This to me is speculative hogwash, and it gets no better because it is referred speculative hogwash.  It is worse than that.  To suggest that a man may be indelibly etched or branded by his racial history is plain evil.  We are not talking about a conversion.  According to the sources, Abraham and Lea never introduced Felix to the Jewish faith.  His first faith was his last – he just came to it later than most kids.

But even if Felix were a convert, what does it matter if his ancestry was Jewish, German, Irish, Blackfella or Hottentot?  And what do we make of the catty epithet ‘sincere’?  I am aware that Jews turning to Christ in Germany then, or elsewhere at other times, may have been seeking a change of civil status – but that obvious fact does not authorise speculation of the most pernicious kind.

And what’s with this concern about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?  When Christians take the oath on the bible, they swear on both testaments.  A lot of the New Testament is there to show that the new dispensation was foreseen or authorised by the Old Testament.  A form of Christianity that sought to annihilate or annul the Old Testament would, to put it softly, be unlike anything we have ever known.  And the best known religious work of musical art, the Messiah of Handel, is largely based on the text of the Old Testament.

If anyone has any doubt about the Lutheran inspiration of this composer’s art, they should acquire a disk by a French choral and instrumental group called Accentus Ensemble Orchestral de Paris – the disk is called Christus, Cantates, Chorales.  It consists of an oratorio, Christus, that was unfinished at the death of the composer.  It is an invocation of the Saint Matthew Passion of Bach, which Mendelssohn had revived at the age of about twenty.  (Had he done nothing else, this would have earned him immortality.)  In addition there are two short cantatas.  The second is based on wording of Luther, and celebrates the great hymn O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (which many know as ‘O sacred head sore wounded’).  People who can listen to any of this art unmoved have been dealt a heavy blow by providence.  Yes, the inspiration is God, but this art is of the highest – with or without God.

But even in the sleeve notes to this wonderful recording, we get:

The first full chorus [of Christus] sets a prophecy from the Book of Numbers, ‘Es wird ein Stern aus Jacob aufgehen’, that must have appealed to Mendelssohn, who, though Lutheran by baptism and confirmation had not forgotten his Jewish heritage and sought frequently to ally the two faiths.

Has this learned commentator also forgotten that the bible of the Christians comes in two parts?  If so, the omission is not insubstantial.

If you run into someone coming out of St Peter’s in Rome who says that he did not even look at the Pieta of Michelangelo because this was Catholic art and he was not Catholic, you would know that you had a five star nut on your hands.  It is, or should be the same, with all those ‘religious’ artists.  Take El Greco, my favourite.  He and his great art were dedicated to the Counter Reformation.  What effect does that have on me?  Nil, nix, nought, and nothing.  Zilch.  Rien.  

The art of Bach and Mendelssohn, whether inspired by or devoted to the celebration of God, are part of the title deeds of civilisation and the comfort of mankind.  The Saint Matthew Passion of Bach is up there with the Iliad, Divine Comedy, and King Lear in the Alps of the West.  The works of Mendelssohn I have referred to are not in the valleys.  Regardless of our faith or ancestry, they are part of the heritage of all of us.  Those who wish to obscure that simple faith do us no good service.