Satchmo - My Life in New Orleans - Louis Armstrong (1954)
Raise Up Off Me - Hampton Hawes/Don Asher (1972)
What is it about books? Not audio books or books you read on your Kindle - actual books. Like record albums, for me, they are physical tokens of a life lived - like photo albums. I still print out my favorite photographs and put them into albums. And it's not because I'm concerned that The Cloud could crash, erasing my life. Or that once I'm gone all that is left of me will exist only in the ether. I like being surrounded by my life's journey and the talismans I've collected. There's something about holding them and the wonder they inspire.
Perfect example is the original copy of Louis Armstrong's autobiography I came across in a bookstore. This falling apart actual book with the original sleeve was written by Pops himself with no ghost writer. It begins at the beginning and it ends when he travels to Chicago at the age of 21 - a very focused amount of time. I had never heard of this book by the greatest jazz musician of all time and was very excited to read it even though despite the shape it was in was over $50. Original copies in good condition go for hundreds of dollars. But I had mine and I was excited to read it.
First thing I did was take the dust jacket off so it wouldn't get it damaged while I read it. And I carried the book around in a plastic bag if I was going to read it on the subway. Sure you can read this book online and you can buy any number of editions that came out after this one. But having this edition, this actual book, made me want to read it. It was mine and I was keeping it. This is the greatest legend of the music I love so dearly and have spent my life learning how to play in his own voice on the first pages it was ever told on. Score.
Every jazz musician should read this book. So I won't go into too much detail. But the book is incredibly well-written for someone that poor with no formal education. The man didn't have shoes until he was like 12! In his words, his family was "broker than the ten commandments." Direct and conversational, it really is like listening to Pops telling you a story. He was 53 when this book was published and his memory is incredibly sharp. Just the names of the characters he was surrounded with - Sore Dick, Black Benny, Cheeky Black, One-eye Bud, Little Head, Sugar Johnny, Nicodemus and my favorite, Boogus - puts you in a place you've never been and can never go, New Orleans in the oughts and teens.
So much could've gone wrong for young Louis. There were fights, stabbings and shootings all around him. He never got hurt but he did get sent to Juvenile Detention for shooting a gun in the air on New Year's Eve, another life event that could have gone terribly wrong. But that is where he got turned on to the trumpet. Music saved his life. From then on, he had focus and ambition. That and his immense talent and the love of his family saved him from the streets. And we all know the rest of the story.
Hampton Hawes is a different and tragic story altogether, maybe the saddest story in all of Jazz. LA- born, self-taught son of a minister whose wife was the church pianist, Hawes had a burgeoning career in the 1950's hey days of jazz piano. Sonny Clark, Elmo Hope, Bobby Timmons, Hank Jones, George Shearing, Red Garland, Oscar Peterson (the list is long) - Hawes was in with the best of them. But in 1958, he got arrested for possession of heroin. The Feds chose Hawes because they thought since his career was SO promising he would rather rat on his suppliers than go to prison. They were wrong. He wouldn't talk so they gave him 10 years in the Ft. Worth Penitentiary. After a few years, he became convinced after seeing JFK on TV, that Kennedy would pardon him. So he wrote a letter to the president and in 1963 he was released. 5 years in prison. For having drugs. He was never the same. In those 5 years, music had gone through tectonic changes and rather than go back to what he was doing - playing jazz piano - he tried to change his style and get with the 60's. But he was a real be-bopper and his records after that seemed forced and were not popular. His career languished. He died suddenly in 1977 from a brain hemorrhage. He was just 48-years-old.
This book was written in 1972 with the help of ghost-writer, Don Asher. At the time, only Charles Mingus had told the real story of what it's like to be a jazz musician in his own vernacular. The writing of Babs Gonzalez comes to mind as being a precursor to this kind of language - the way black people actually talked. Hampton Hawes was angry and bitter, naturally, and the book allows him to tell his story in his own voice with his own attitude. It was hard to read and made me feel a lot of emotions - anger and rage, for sure, but such sadness and melancholy.
This book is not a special edition - just a beat-up reissued paperback. But it is a book I will keep to remind me how fortunate I am and have been and to keep myself in check should I start to think I deserve things. It will go in the music section next to the Mingus book and the Satchmo book, the Art Pepper, Duke and Billy Strayhorn biographies - next to Miles' and Zappa's autobiographies. And there's the book of Luciano Berio interviews I keep to remind me music is not an academic pursuit. And the letters between Kandinsky and Schoenberg to remind me to know and collaborate with other kinds of artists. And there's Please Kill Me, I flip open every so often to stay punk. The Copeland book about 'the new music,' several books about playing the piano, a big art book about Stravinsky - all of these inspire me just looking over at them on the shelf. People who have a lot of books know what I mean. Oh. I forgot one. Among all these great books by and about legendary musicians sits a narrow paperback of interviews with bass players by Mike Visciglia. It's not a book I will probably ever crack open again. I don't need to be reminded what strings Lee Sklar uses or that the days of making records the way he used to is over. I keep that one just because Mike is my friend and seeing it over there helps me write. I mean, if HE can write a book....