I ran into Richard Vacca at the Detroit International Jazz Festival a couple of years ago. He was working on a book about jazz in Boston. I tend to come out of such meetings with few expectations. I think we have all met jazz fans who are writing books on some subject or other. So often, they never materialize.
I am pleased to say that not only has the work been completed but that the results are first rate all around. The Boston Jazz Chronicles by Richard Vacca (Troy Street Publishing, 2012) has a model in the work of Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn on Detroit Before Motown, a bracketed history of the Motor City and its jazz scene. The Boston one encounters here begins in the big band era and concludes prior to the time that the Berklee kids took over the scene.
There are twenty chapters and some are devoted to nightclubs, others to the legendary ballroom operators Cy & Charlie Shribman, some to musicians such as Nat Pierce and Sabby Lewis. There are great photos taken from jam sessions as well as ads taken from newspaper archives. There are very good profiles of George Wein, Jaki Byard, Charlie Mariano, Serge Chaloff, Joe Gordon and Herb Pomeroy among many others.
Most helpful are the four maps of neighborhoods such as the South End, Copley Square and Downtown which provide the exact location of various clubs, theaters and ballrooms. There is a discussion of jazz on radio in Boston and here there are some weaknesses. There is no mention of Norm Nathan whose Sounds In The Night show, overnights on WHDH, was an important late 50s-early 60s program. Milt Krey, who had the first jazz show (Jazz Matinee) on FM, is not here either. But there is good coverage of Symphony Sid, John McLellan and Father Norman O’Connor.
There are no stylistic problems here: modern jazz, the Dixieland revival, big bands and piano trios are covered without any discernible favoritism. There is a selective list of recommended records, mostly favorites of the author, some of them impossibly rare. Highly recommended.
In terms of pure playing ability, most musicians of the 1960s would name Pat Martino as the best guitarist. I know all about Green, Montgomery and Benson and I’m pretty certain they would say the same thing. In his autobiography, Here And Now written with Bill Milkowski (Backbeat Books, 2011), Martino details his family life, his professional career and, in chilling fashion, his medical problems culminating in the discovery of a brain aneurysm in 1980. He came up in the Soul Jazz era: his first major employers were Lloyd Price, Willis “Gatortail” Jackson and Jack McDuff. There is a wonderful chapter about playing with Jackson at Small’s Paradise in Harlem. Pat also presents a valuable reminiscence of the Price big band, a short-lived but star studded organization that has been given almost no space in the jazz history books. His contemporaries also get their innings in a twenty-seven page section of commentary, by guitar players, about Pat and his ability.
The section on his recordings brings the medical issues to the fore. In a seventeen year period there is exactly one newly-recorded album. Fortunately there is plenty to be heard before and after and anything Pat Martino has recorded is worth hearing.
Holger Peterson is a veteran Canadian broadcaster and the owner of Stony Plain Records, one of the very best roots music labels anywhere. In Talking Music (Insomniac Press, 2011) he collects nineteen of the interviews he has conducted for his shows: Saturday Night Blues on CNBC and Natch’l Blues on CKUA in Alberta. While the interviewees are mostly folk, rock & blues personalities, we do get a twelve page interview with Jay McShann as well as a revealing look at the late Jeff Healey, a star in the electric blues-rock world, who was a serious 78collector (a collection estimated at 30,000!) and the leader of his own trad jazz band. Ike Turner, Mavis Staples, Honeyboy Edwards, Rosco Gordon and Chris Barber are among the others. Lots of photos by the author as well.
Soul Of A Man by Charles Farley (University Press of Mississippi, 2011) is a superb biography of Bobby ”Blue” Bland. The fact that Bobby Bland is still out there at the age of eighty-two means that there is a lot of territory to cover. The level of detail one encounters here is much better than one would ordinarily find.
The story starts at age fifteen when Bland discovers Beale Street. By the late 1940s, Beale is not on only the main drag of black Memphis but a destination for black people from all over the country. We meet many of the local characters as well as club owners, radio announcers, record people and fellow members of the Beale Streeters (Bland, BB King, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, Earl Forest and others) who were attempting to break into show business.
Things start to happen in a big way for Bland once he returns from Army service in 1955. His label, Duke Records, had been bought out by Don Robey of Houston Texas. He begins to record under the helpful supervision of Joe Scott, the trumpet playing arranger and bandleader responsible for much of the music produced by Duke artists during that era. After a couple of years of encouraging but far from spectacular results, Bland hit in 1957 with “Further Up The Road”, a #1 R&B hit and the first of his 63 hit singles.
He soon teams with fellow Duke artist Junior Parker to form a revue entitled Blues Consolidated which a hugely successful show for about eight years. Bland stayed with Duke until the label was sold to ABC and stayed with ABC until it was sold to MCA before joining Malaco in 1985. The first two hundred pages take us to 1985 and the tale begins to wind down at that point. While there are not a lot of photos there are several showing Bland in action. Those are first rate.
This is one of the best biographies I have read in many years and is highly recommended.