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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 1 September 2010

Book Notes + Blue Notes

by Marc Chénard / September 1, 2010

Flash version here.

While records remain the best means of documenting the music, the written word provides valuable insights. Books on jazz are now legion, one particularly interesting strand being biographies. The following two publications are worthy additions to the genre.

If the word ‘definitive’ can be applied to a such a work, this is surely the case of Robin D. Kelley’s exemplary study issued late last year Thelonious Monk—The Life and Times of an American Original, (Free Press isbn 978-0-684-83190-0) With all the rigour of a historian, which the author is, Kelley combs through the musician’s life, spending the first 20 pages just retracing Monk’s ancestry and examining in great detail the history of African-Americans in the 19th Century. In 460 pages (and another 100 of footnotes), the author seems to have left no stones unturned. Moreover, he was given access to private family documents and interviewed his widow and son more extensively than anyone else, likewise for former sidemen, his manager and various producers. The accent is clearly on the life more than the music, and even if Kelley is a pianist by avocation and can deal with the latter, he eschews this for the most part so as to reach a wider readership. All told, this is an outstanding achievement and a must read for both Monk enthusiasts and jazz fans at large.

This, however, may not apply for the second book under review here (Stan Kenton—This Is an Orchestra, University of North Texas Press ISBN 978-l-57441-284-0). For one, the author, Michael Sparke, is an avowed ‘Kentonite’ and knew him personally, unlike Kelley with Monk. Accordingly, the perspective is more partisan (which doesn’t mean the author holds back from being critical on one or the other of the musician’s artistic choices and recordings). Most importantly, the artist’s personal life takes a back seat to his career as big band leader, and in light of recent revelations of his apparent abusive relationship to his daughter, the subject is never alluded to here.) Instead, the author relies on interviews with his subject and sidemen of all eras. What we get is a portrait of a man who sought to bridge the gap between jazz and concert music, albeit at the expense of sacrificing jazz’s almost cardinal virtue of swing. At his death in 1979, Kenton did not want his music to be perpetuated by a ghost band, but in so doing he condemned himself to musical oblivion; as time goes by and his fan base dwindles, Stan Kenton’s contribution is gradually being consigned to the footnotes of jazz history.

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