A couple of books have come to my attention this year – and both, I think, make great reading for anyone wanting to know more about the history of Swing, more about the music, and more about the musicians that pioneered and developed it.
First, there’s Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era – The Development of Jazz 1930 – 1945. Be warned - this one is not for the faint-hearted – it can be pretty dry and academic, and by the end of the first chapter, I had come to realise that I know nothing about Jazz… but it’s fascinating stuff, and if you preservere, it has a great deal of insight into the origins and development of swing, the mechanics of it (for want of a better term), and the involvement, accomplishments, strengths, weaknesses (Mr Schuller can be pretty merciless about those he puts under the microscope – of the various musicians)
It is definitely best read with a great swing collection (and something like Spotify) immediately to hand, so you can seek out and listen to some of the myriad examples cited in the book. It’s also hard going at times, I do admit – I’ve read several lightweight works of fiction as light relief while reading the book – and you may not always agree with his opinions on some of the music discussed (it’s hard to get a more subjective topic than music after all) – but if you’re after serious insight into about the genre, it’s hard to beat.
“I am just a little layman with an ear for music, and a heart that beats for Jazz” – Timme Rosenkrantz – The Jazz Baron
In complete contrast, my favourite book of the year so far is Timme Rosenkrantz’ Harlem Jazz Adventures.
Timme was a jazz-obsessed Danish baron, who arrived in New York in early 1934 with the intention of immersing himself in the New York jazz scene – an intention which he realised more fully he could possibly have hoped for. He was by all accounts a very charming, likeable character who made friends easily, a terrible businessman, and utterly passionate about jazz. On his first night in Harlem, he managed to see Don Redman and his orchestra at the Apollo Theatre, see a battle between Chick Webb, Teddy Hill and Willie Bryant at the Savoy Ballroom, hear Billie Holiday and Willie “The Lion” Smith at another club – and in the process, met and made friends with Chick Webb and Don Redman – amongst others. All on his first night in New York.
During his numerous and lengthy stays in New York over the following years, he made friends with most of the major jazz stars of the time, including Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Slim Gailliard and Slam Stewart… the list goes on and on. The book – a collection of his memoirs – takes you on an unforgettable tour of the New York jazz scene, its clubs and theatres, musicians, dancers, and some of the less savoury aspects into the bargain. Into this, he managed to cram a lot of detail on the history of many of the people, places and music that he encountered, making the book a hugely entertaining and fascinating read. The icing on the cake is the wonderful translation by Fradley Garner, who has researched a lot of the detail in the book, adding some fascinating annotations (and occasional corrections) to Timme’s always entertaining stories.
The only downside of this one is the price – £41.85 for the Kindle edition is a little daunting, but for me, worth every penny. I can see myself reading and rereading it for some time to come – reading this book was an utter joy.