Wednesday, February 15, 2006

52nd Street

Here’s a thought. Why not use a blog that no one reads to discuss a book that no one will have read, and damn few will be interested in reading?

The book is Fifty-Second Street: Street of Jazz, by Arnold Shaw. I’ve been a fan of Shaw’s for years, ever since I read Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, his great history of the R&B of the 40s and 50s, my favorite music.

Shaw was a music business industry professional -- song plugger, pubishing company executive, a little bit of everything, and ultimately the founder and first director of the Popular Music Research Center at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, later named the Arnold Shaw Popular Music Research Center in his honor. So he has an insider's knowledge of the business, and Honkers and Shouters is not just about the performers, but the behind the scenes people too—the guys like Art Rupe of Specialty and Lew Chudd of Imperial and Herman Lubinsky of Savoy, and producers and arrangers and songwriters and the whole panoply of people in the music business.

I knew Shaw had written a bunch of other music books, and I’m finally getting around to them. I ordered Fifty-Second Street: Street of Jazz, and The Jazz Age: Popular Music in the 1920s, and I've started on the former.

All I knew about 52nd Street was that bebop started there – in the 52nd Street clubs and the after-hours sessions at Minton’s in Harlem, So I had innocently expected to read about the 40s, and the beboppers but this being Shaw, I'm getting so much more. It's a history of The Street from the speakeasy days, and it covers not just the jazz musicians, but the club owners, and the cabaret singers, and the strippers, and the insult comics, and the clientele. I hadn't know anything about that early history of The Street--the Dixieland players, and the swing guys -- people like Louis Prima, and Art Tatum, and the early guys who integrated jazz even before Benny Goodman -- Joe Marsala, a white player from New Orleans, needs a hot trumpet player, so he goes out and hires Henry "Red" Allen, and no one thinks twice about it, even though it's never been done before. And songs that got their start on The Street, and became huge hits -- like "The Music Goes Round and Round," which was first performed by these guys -- I can't think of their names now -- who played at one of the clubs, and people came flocking to that club to hear them. Great stuff. I'm more than halfway through the book now, and just starting to get to Dizzy Gillespie arriving on The Street.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Poets of World War II

I’ve just started reading an anthology called Poets of World War II, from the American Poets Project of the Library of America. I’m finding that I’m enjoying the experience much more than I’d be enjoying reading a comparable anthology of contemporary poets, and not necessarily because I think the poets are better than contemporary poets would be.

No, it’s because there’s a powerful and not always realized connection between poetry and history. This sort of cross-section of poetry of an era, and poetry about that era, opens a window of insight into that time. Poets are first of all human, and individual, and the good ones connect to that collective humanity and express that individuality, but we all know that. It’s now they use that to mirror history that so interests me here.

So here’s Witter Bynner making a simple but poignant commentary on racism in the middle of a fight for freedom, and Robinson Jeffers’ angry isolationism, and Lincoln Kirstein’s clunky but oddly lyrical evocation of General Patton, whose driver he was for a while. And the combat poets like Jarrell and Dickey and Hecht and Nemerov and Ciardi -- I’m just getting into that group

And the old warhorses of the era – the widely anthologized poems like Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and Lowell’s “Memories of West Street and Lepke” take on an new resonance by being in this context.

I ordered the book for inclusion in my American Lit survey course, and I’m glad that I did.

Editor Harvey Shapiro, then and now