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.

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