Herbie, Hefner, Klein, Beale Street & Joe

Possibilities by Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey (Viking, 2014) is an autobiography of one of our era’s most prominent musicians. There are frank discussions of various aspects of the working jazz musicians’ life. From his first major gig (with Coleman Hawkins) until the time he leaves Miles Davis covers 9 years and 72 pages. His own leadership career begin in November 1968 and we are introduced to his groups including the first Sextet through The Headhunters as well as all-star relationships such as VSOP and his two piano pairing with Chick Corea. Along the way we meet family and friends who have been influential in his life and career.

Hancock received good advice early on from Donald Byrd, his first bandleader, about publishing and it has made a considerable difference to his financial wellbeing. Hancock was involved with making commercial music almost from the beginning and so it should come as no surprise that, as time passes, it takes up more of his energy. Over the course of the book, Wayne Shorter is the one jazz artist who remains a constant factor in his life and work.

Hancock has delivered an honest account of his life without ducking any controversy. His awards and honors keep piling up due to his continuing presence on the music scene. Many of his contemporaries have either passed away or have less to offer these days. In the long term, jazz is only a part of what he does today but given the right opportunity, he’ll join his favorite players and get into a jazz-playing situation at the drop of a hat.

It seems unusual to think of Hugh Hefner as an important part of the jazz scene but there is no question about that fact. His magazine, TV shows, Playboy clubs and festivals provided opportunities and exposure to musicians from the mid-50s until the mid-60s. This is nicely detailed by Patty Farmer in Playboy Swings (Beaufort Books, 2015). Ms. Farmer has managed to track down key employees and musicians to provide details on Hefner’s various enterprises. When Playboy began to pay more attention to pop music, jazz coverage was cut. Hefner came back to jazz after weathering some financial turbulence in the 1970s when he lent the Playboy name to the jazz festival at the Hollywood Bowl which has been a fixture on the Southern California music calendar since 1979.

Allen Klein (HMH, 2015) by Fred Goodman is a biography of perhaps the most controversial wheeler-dealer of the Rock era. An accountant by trade, Klein was involved with major performers such as Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Recording contracts and publishing agreements can be very difficult to understand for the average musician and still are to this day. Klein knew the inner workings of such documents better than anyone and after an initial breakthrough with RCA Victor on behalf of Cooke; he was sought out by other artists.

His managerial relationship with the Rolling Stones was tempestuous and while he made a lot of money for the band, he made a lot for himself. Yet the Stones learned the business from Klein and they have not looked back. It is said that it was Klein who broke up the Beatles yet there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Certainly an equal share of the blame could be given to Paul McCartney. There is lots of inside baseball here but the narrative rarely drags. There are also some very funny stories.

Goodman has written three other books on the business of the music industry. Each is a superb piece of work and all are recommended. Add Alan Klein to that list.

Preston Lauterbach’s last book was The Chittlin’ Circuit, an exceptional work dealing with the underside of the black entertainment business. Beale Street Dynasty his latest is a history of the politics and rare relations of Memphis, Tennessee. There is not much in the way of music involved in this but WC Handy is here and so, briefly, is Jimmie Lunceford.

The emphasis is on Beale Street and the area around it. Beale was the focal point of much of the black activity covered by the book which begins in the mid-1860s and ends with the death of Robert Church, Jr. in 1952. Church and his father Robert Reed Church had been the black power brokers in the Bluff City throughout the entire period. The family accumulated substantial wealth largely through illicit means. The relationship between the Churches, who controlled blocks of votes, and Memphis boss E.W. Crump, who needed those votes, was sometimes cozy and sometimes contentious but as recounted here, always fascinating.

The fixers, bag men, hoodlums and crooks were all a part of the system. The Churches were Republicans (except in municipal elections) while Crump and his cronies were Democrats. Crump, himself, served a term as Mayor but preferred play the role of strategist and kingmaker. He built a machine every bit as corrupt as Tammany Hall in New York or that of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City.

With the death of Church, Jr and Crump in the early 50s things begin to wind down. Beale Street starts to decline in the early 70s and by the late 70s is a wasteland surrounded by barb wire. In 1983, the revitalization of Beale Street began and nowadays it is a tourist destination with restaurants and blues bars up and down the street. There are twenty vintage photographs.
Ed Berger, long the Associate Director of The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, has fashioned a thorough look at one of the great, completely underrated, musicians in jazz, Joe Wilder.

Softly, With Feeling (Temple University Press, 2014) covers Wilder’s career as a sideman with big bands (Les Hite, Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, and Count Basie), staff and studio musician and freelance jazz player. In many cases, Wilder is the first black player in a situation such as Network staff musician or classical orchestra. He had endure routine indignities from stagehands and others workers on a nightly basis.

Berger, who has previously written about George Duvivier and Benny Carter, is dry. There is no hint of scandal here, nothing salacious and apart from the courtship of his wife Solveig, little of Wilder’s family life. There is much about the various types of music he is hired to play. Wilder seems to find new inspiration on each of his jobs, the mark of a true professional. Many times Wilder is quoted as finding fresh challenges in work that would not seem to provide it. Wilder’s albums as a leader are few but well worth checking out and his solos with other artists are invariably among the highlights of the performance.

There are sections dealing with different classical conductors, Broadway pit contractors and his own teaching methods. Wilder also developed a love of photography and frequently took his camera to sessions. So we have photos here from The Sound of Jazz by Wilder as well as several photos by the author featuring his subject in a variety of settings. A first rate job on the life of a first rate jazz musician.