Paul Rubin's book about jazz musicians is clearly a labor of love. Constructed in the form of interviews with 22 outstanding musicians, it takes the genre made famous by Studs Terkel to a higher level of performance.
Readers of New Times, familiar with Rubin's work as one of the most skilled, perceptive and tenacious reporters now practicing in the field, will not be surprised at what he and co-author Wayne Enstice have accomplished in this gem of a book called Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations With Twenty-Two Musicians.
The true wonder of this book is that the reader doesn't have to know anything about jazz to become absorbed in the joyous, sometimes tortured lives of the strange breed of men who give over their lives to making jazz for the rest of us.
If you make the mistake of attempting to browse through Jazz Spoken Here and scan any one of the interviews, you will find yourself being lost for hours. Here is Art Blakey, the great drummer, talking about the legendary Art Tatum, maybe the greatest piano player of all time:
"I remember when Arthur Rubinstein had a concert in Carnegie Hall," Blakey says. "He didn't make it. He cancels. Instead, he showed up at the Cafe Society in the Village to see Tatum play.
"And yet we had to take up money to bury this man--that hurts. Right now, we just found out where Bird is buried. . . . But what's happened to Art Tatum? He never had a marker for his grave."
Ruby Braff, an outstanding trumpet player himself, talks about Louis Armstrong, the incomparable one:
"You can listen to one Louis Armstrong record for the rest of your life and never hear enough in it. . . . He's a university of music."
Braff is almost belligerent about the present state of the music scene:
"Did we come all the way through Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and Duke Ellington to revert back to idiot tunes with ugly sounds and bad-sounding horns?" he asks.
Among the musicians interviewed for Jazz Spoken Here are Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Sonny Stitt, Joe Pass, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Hamilton and Lee Konitz.
Brubeck tells how his friendship with Paul Desmond, a near-genius sax player, lasted so long:
"We all knew to be silent, and if you're gonna survive for 30 years like Paul and I did, you give a lot of silence to each other."
Once Desmond told Brubeck that he wanted his alto-saxophone playing to sound like a dry martini:
"His wit was like that. He would sum up something in one sentence that would just cut through a room."
Gil Evans tells how he learned to become the foremost composer in the modern jazz idiom:
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"I copied records," Evans tells Rubin. "I wrote them down note for note. That's how I learned. I started with Louis Armstrong, as far as getting a feel for music. I got my feeling from Louis. I bought every record he ever made from the time I started buying records in 1927." Sonny Stitt, the saxophonist, talks about going to the funerals of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Gene Ammons:
"I was on my way in my car to a job, I think in Ohio, and I read the paper and it said Charlie Parker had died. I just turned around, put my stuff in the house, you know, and I went up to the church on Seventh Avenue. "And the first one I saw was Dizzy [Gillespie], and then Charlie Shavers and umpteen of my buddies, you know. And Dizzy say, 'Hey, son.' I say, 'Hey, Dizzy, I ain't gonna work this week.' He said, 'Here are your gloves.' I said, 'Gloves for what?' He said, 'You gotta carry him, man.' . . . Phew, it was sure a bitter pill."
Rubin and Enstice collected these interviews over a seven-year period during which they were doing a jazz show on KUAT-FM in Tucson. They were not being paid. It was a labor of love.
It wasn't until years later, looking back, that they realized they had struck literary and emotional gold. It's a remarkable achievement. Rubin too modestly says that perhaps it was made possible by the relaxed atmosphere of the Southwest. He's wrong. Keen intelligence was at work here, every step of the way.
Jazz fans will love and cherish this book. But it will also be treasured by anyone sensitive to the human condition. My hat's off. Books like Jazz Spoken Here come along only too rarely in a generation.