Lundvall, LaVette, Lomax, etc

Bruce Lundvall has been a prominent record company executive for more than fifty years. He was at Columbia, Elektra and Blue Note. He interacted with some legendary players, signed some important artists and was an important force for jazz promotion wherever he was.

BRUCE LUNDVALL: PLAYING BY EAR by Dan Ouellette (Artist Share, 2013) is as even-handed a biography as one will find in a business populated by men with enormous egos. Compared with the biographies of Clive Davis and Walter Yetnikoff, whom he worked with at Columbia, Lundvall comes off as a human being with normal human frailties. He also has a bushel basket full of accomplishments: Columbia signings such as Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, Paquito D’Rivera and The Heath Brothers among them.

I was told that when Lundvall departed Columbia that it was because he couldn’t say no. In time he acquired the nickname Dr. Yes. And while yes meant a lot of agita for suits with pencils, it resulted in lots of projects that might not have happened without him. Think HAVANA JAM, the Elektra Musician label or ONE NIGHT WITH BLUE NOTE. His entire professional career is well documented.

If there is a weakness it is in Ouelette’s recounting of the business before Lundvall got in. There are several bobbles in that area. Ouelette gets the Columbia payola mess right although his statement that there was no payola in jazz is a bit naïve. Lundvall’s Elektra association was short-lived and, in the long run, should probably be viewed as a transitional period. There are those who would take him to task for changing the nature of Blue Note but, in the record industry, the rule is adapt or die. The last time I looked Blue Note was still out there.

A WOMAN LIKE ME by Bettye LaVette with David Ritz (Plume,2013) is one of the wildest autobiographies out there. Born Betty Jo Haskins in 1946, she was raised in Michigan, mostly in Detroit. That town turned out lots of important musical talent in the 60s and 70s and Bettye was right in the middle of all that. There are plenty of stories here involving major players in the music business. She began recording before she was seventeen and had five or six R&B hits during the 1970s. There is plenty of drugs, booze and sex activity detailed here and while Ms. LaVette gets knocked down a lot, she gets right back up again. She is nobody’s victim.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this is Bettye’s relationship with record labels. She walked away from Atlantic when she was in her teens and had almost no luck despite a number of records-virtually all of them superb R&B. She kept looking and working. She joined the national touring company of the Broadway show Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1977. During that run, Honi Coles mentored her and there is a very funny exchange between the two with Bettye attempting a seduction and Honi resisting as best he can.

A turn into 2000 set the stage for her renaissance but once again she had to survive some craziness. Imagine taking a cold phone call from someone who claims to own a record label but can’t record her! Eventually her talent wins out and she found the right people to handle the business side of her career. She has done a couple of seasons at the Café Carlyle in New York and recently played Carnegie Hall. She has come all the way forward. There is a selected discography and some wonderful photos. Highly recommended.

The name Alan Lomax can mean different things to different people. To say that he was America’s foremost folklorist was certainly true and THE SOUTHERN JOURNEY OF ALAN LOMAX: WORDS, PHOTOGRAPHS, AND MUSIC by Tom Piazza (Library of Congress, 2013) celebrates his career in three different sections. The first, a reprint of a 2006 speech, published in essay form as Alan Lomax: The Long Journey by William Ferris, former Chairman of the NEH; then a thirty-five page essay by Piazza, The Found World which fleshes out the story and brings it up to date and finally The Southern Journey, photos of rural America: families, individuals, kids, musicians, convicts and preachers.- black and white. Lomax and his father John, who initiated the trips to the south in search of songs, can be credited with the discovery of Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell. If they had done nothing more than that they would be deserving of our praise and respect and fortunately they did a lot more than that. A music CD with thirteen selections is included.

EXPERIENCING JAZZ: A LISTENER’S COMPANION by Michael Stephans (Scarecrow Press, 2013) is a work for newcomers rather than experienced listeners. The author’s point of view is decidedly post-modern. He condenses the history of jazz into two chapters: Jazz as A Mirror Of Our Times-birth to the 1940s and Jazz As A Mirror Of Our Times-from the 50s to the present. There are many errors of fact here and the prose is rather artless. Stephans teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and also plays drums. Among the stories that worked for me was one involving a pair of meetings with Buddy Rich, many years apart.

The bulk of the book is divided into chapters on instruments and at the end of each chapter the author invites comments from players such as Roswell Rudd, Dave Liebman, Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano. As an addenda, each chapter has some reading suggestions and the location of web sites for selected musicians. The discussion in each chapter tends to be random and reflects a white, academic point of view. For example, jazz organ is given a page and a half in a thirty-seven page piano chapter. There is no mentions of Bill Doggett, Jimmy McGriff, Johnny Hammond, Groove Holmes or Charles Earland. And Stephans doesn’t realize that Lonnie Smith and Lonnie Liston Smith are two different people.

To celebrate Jazz History month, Hal Leonard books has published three books in a Jazz Biography Series. WALK TALL: THE MUSIC AND LIFE OF JULIAN “CANNONBALL” ADDERLEY by Cary Ginnel (Hal Leonard Books, 2013) contains a Foreword by Quincy Jones and a Preface my Dan Morgenstern. In terms of Adderley’s history this covers the full gamut but the work contains a number of speculative conclusions and lots of outright errors in its 190 pages. On page 15 alone, there are three errors and two questionable attributions. Clearly the publisher did not have anyone read this in advance. So many minor bobbles could have been easily corrected.

There is an album discography and eight pages of photographs including one where Ozzie Cadena is identified as Jerome Richardson. I’ll read the books on Billy Eckstine and Herbie Mann in this series but I hope they don’t have the careless mistakes of this volume.

BOB PORTER