By Bill Crow
Oxford University. 1991 reissue. $16.95.
If you believe that summer reading is supposed to be fun, as most readers apparently do, then run don't walk to "Jazz Anecdotes" (Oxford University, 1991 reissue, $16.95 paperback) by the noted bass player Bill Crow, the most vivid portrait of the jazz life -- not to mention the funniest -- you'll ever find.
Ah yes, the jazz life. Here's Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis explaining how, as a kid, he decided to become a jazz musician: "By watching musicians I saw that they drank, they smoked, they got all the broads and they didn't get up in the morning. That attracted me." As indeed it has attracted countless thousands in the more than a century since notes from Buddy Bolden's trumpet first wafted over New Orleans. It's la vie boheme and then some, a lot more boheme than anything Giacomo Puccini ever dreamed up. To be sure, in recent years the jazz life has quieted down as the music has moved from the boozy, smoky nightclub to the impeccable concert hall, but "Jazz Anecdotes" provides a vivid picture of what it once was.
As the stories Crow tells remind us, the gift for improvisation that jazz demands of its musicians carries over into the way they talk. Here, to whet your appetite, are a few examples: Woody Herman, asked if his band could play "Jewish music," replied: "We have some arrangements by Al Cohn." Cohn, asked by a panhandler for a dollar to buy a drink: "Wait a minute. How do I know you won't spend this on food?" Cohn again, invited to try a European brand, Elephant Beer: "No, I drink to forget." Eddie Condon, explaining the difference between modern and traditional jazz: "They flat their fifths. We consume ours."
As this makes plain, there's a lot in "Jazz Anecdotes" about drinking. Like it or not, it comes with the territory. So does plenty else: "bandstand stories, road stories, jam-session stories, bandleader stories, tales about innocence and venality, serendipity and catastrophe." It's an absolutely wonderful book, indeed the only drawback is that reading it will make your summer go much too fast.
-- Jonathan Yardley, book critic