Spoken by the author.
I am new to audio fiction, and I admit that I was uncertain quite how to approach it. There is something tactile about holding a book in your hands and letting the type draw your eyes along page after page. However, I was delighted when first disc set the scene by opening with four-part harmony a cappella voices. What better format for a novel about the music scene in New York and Harlem?
Brown tells us the story of classical cellist Kara and her involvement with four African-American street singers in New York City. She first hears Jackie, Raisin Cain, Mo, and Marty harmonizing a cappella in a park and becomes the group's manager and Jackie's lover. Throughout the work, cello solos (also by Ms. Brown) appear at suitable intervals and serve as audio breaks and at the same time advance the story.
And what a story it is. Kara is torn between pursuing her own musical career and managing the unmanageable, chronically late, drug addicted, yet powerfully talented four. We see (and hear) them in subway stations, city parks, and the occasional paying gig. We hear Kara and her own cello professor trade fours on the training required by classical tradition of Bach and Mozart and the four musically untrained naturals who find a cappella harmony so effortless. And we catch a horrifying glimpse of how drug addiction can destroy talent and kill opportunities.
Throughout, Brown demonstrates her own natural ear for dialog and storytelling, and with touches of comedy, her characters ring true .
Audio fiction is like having a story read to you, an experience most of us haven't had in decades. Once I became used to having no pages to turn and no covers to close, I found the interplay of the story, the music, and the voice of the author delightful.
I laughed, I cried, I grooved.
by Nina J. Hodgson
The stories are well enough known, but Geoffrey Hayden pulls them into sequence and perspective for the first time. One way or other the men who formed the Quintet of the Year were all outrageous to a degree. Max Roach remains somehow a figure of magisterial proportion ñ although he too had a habit and went through a period of heavy drinking. The excitable Dizzy Gillespie was reportedly clean (his only sin was a leaning to fisticuffs, we read), but his ebullience often took him to wacky heights. Bud Powell suffered such sad fate and was such a tragic figure that it is a wonder he was able to play at all (a musician friend recently maintained that his best work was never recorded). Charles Mingus, often in tandem with Max Roach, was a man with a mission. His fight against racism and inequality of all forms must have cost him plenty. Then there was Charlie Parker! It always strikes me as being impertinent to claim knowledge of the inner world of another human being, but in the case of Parker we are fortunate because his inner world was blown straight through his horn for the edification of all who would hear. Parkerís cohorts, of course were no less adept at passing on the message.
Your correspondent has been informed that the use of heroin was considered ìfashionableî in those mad days when jam sessions ran through the night and often into late morning. Jazz in those days was all about excitement. It was an escape, a spiraling rush that helped the largely Negro audiences to forget the sheer desperation (read frustration) they suffered in a country that was somehow incapable of recognizing what their music was offering the world at large. They gave America its greatest art form in the face of racism. One is astonished that these musicians ever returned to the USA after being so well received when they took refuge and sought respite in Europe. Perhaps it is indicative that the famous Massey Hall concert was destined to take place outside of the USA.
Bebop, the new music often based on the chord structures of existing standard tunes, was the incipient thrust to greater innovative expression, and it formed the musical landscape of the five heroes of this book. There is a brief biography, in turn, of the protagonists. These lives tell of the constant struggle to play, and be paid for, the music that catapulted Jazz into a new era. Again, most older jazz fans will know the stories: about the time somebody slipped a substance into Gillespieís drink and the famous bending-of-the-trumpet episode, how Bud Powell was brutally beaten by the police, the excesses of Mingus and Parker, the need for Parker to be named as ìCharlie Chanî in the recording due to contract restrictions, and Roachís determination at one point to never make a record that did not contain a message of protest. But this book is the stuff of Jazz history and there is not a young fan who would not find interest in the prevailing musical and racial climate of the period and, of course, what bop is all about. Moreover, the author relates fairly comprehensively of what went after in the lives of these musicians.
The Massey Hall concert in Toronto, Canada, took place on a night in May, 1953. By all accounts it was not well attended and was a financial disaster (Gillespie maintained that all of their checks bounced, although Parker somehow managed to get his cashed), but the music was recorded on the night, and Debut Records, run by Mingus and Roach, was able, with a great deal of hassle between, to make various issues of the material, some of which is said to have been amended by Mingus. No matter! The music is definitive and Geoffrey Haydon is superb in his delineation of the solos, their delivery and sequence. The author writes well and he sure knows his subject. There is a wealth of information and insider gossip.
This book is essential reading, just as the recording of the concert is essential for any Jazz lover. Highly recommended.
by Lawrence Brazier
Copyright Jazz Now, December 2004 issue, all rights reserved.