"I think we black musicians are long overdue as far as explaining ourselves musically," says Max Roach, explaining to the book's author, a black jazz drummer, why he thinks this book is needed. "Before, it was always written down by people other than those who . . . are involved in the creative aspects of the music."
He may be overstating the case slightly. A few black jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Hampton Hawes, have told their own stories in books. And there have been previous books based on interviews of black jazz musicians by one of their peers--for example, "Bourbon Street Black," which explores the world and work of musicians in New Orleans. But Roach is substantially correct; most books about black jazz musicians have been written by white non-musicians. Even "Bourbon Street Black" involves a collaboration between a black musician and a white sociologist.
Roach is also right about the importance of shop-talk among peers. Black musicians tend to talk one way among themselves and another way when they are addressing outsiders. So do French lawyers and Norwegian brain surgeons, no doubt, but the case of the black jazz musician is special. "You had to act a different way around white people," Hawes notes in passing.
Interviews also have a special relevance for the understanding of jazz. In this art, more than any other form of music, the performer's personality and preoccupations are the essential ingredients. The same thematic material will take a completely different form in the hands of Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker or Miles Davis--and the difference is not simply one of instrument or style but a total approach to reality. The anecdotes in Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography are variously interesting or amusing, but they seldom shed much light on his approach to the interpretation of Chopin--not because Rubinstein is keeping secrets but because he performs classics--a kind of music set apart from daily life and solidified in an established form that can be modified only in small details from one performance to the next. The jazz musician, at his best and most honest, plays what is on his mind and in his heart--pours it into whatever motifs he happens to be handling on a given evening.
So it is musically useful to know that Miles Davis likes to drive his Ferrari fast through city streets and that he always looks for a gym where he can work out in any city where he is performing. It is useful to know that Hazel Scott saw Billie Holiday when she was 14 years old, playing hooky from school, that she identifies with the Yoruba tribe, and that she thinks "Integration is greatly overrated." It is useful to know that Max Roach is a Muslim and believes he is "an instrument and being used" by God. There are interviews with a total of 27 musicians, and most of them tell Arthur Taylor (who played with Coleman Hawkins and Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker, and who can be heard on more than 200 records) things that they would not tell a random interviewer.
The book is uneven, as any collection of interviews given over a four-year span in many cities naturally would be. Some of the subjects were having a good day when the tape recorder was turned on; others, such as Miles Davis, were not. And of course, no matter how inclusive a book like this tries to be, there have to be omissions. A chapter on Cecil Taylor, for example, would have added considerably to the book's value.
That value was not readily perceived at first; jazz does not have a mass following these days, and American publishers showed little interest in Taylor's interviews. He finally published the book privately in Europe in 1977, five years after taping the last interview, and the book slowly began acquiring a reputation that finally won it an American publisher.
The book's fate reflects that of the art of jazz itself. "The music has gotten into the wrong hands," says Kenny Clarke, stating a motif that is echoed by many others in the book. "Musicians everywhere are sitting home by the telephone waiting for a white man to call them for a gig, and I don't see any future in that. I've been playing the drums for 40 years, and the only future I see in our music is for black people to have their own thing going; otherwise it's no use."
Miles Davis gives a succinct variation on the same motif: "Get your money first. That's what I do."
But despite present problems and short-range future uncertainties, jazz continues. It is too vital an art, too deeply embedded in our awareness, to fade away, even in an era of mass-produced music for lowest-common-denominator tastes. There are always a few small companies around that know music can be valuable even if it does not chalk up millions on the sales charts. Taylor's interviews are a relevant and valuable adjunct to the heritage of sound recordings in this field, and it is good to know that he is now working on a second book of interviews.