bookshelf_rant___dawdle_coverRant & Dawdle:
The Fictional Memoir of Colston Willmott
As Imagined By William E. (Bill) Smith
Charivari Press
482 pages, photos; $28.95

There’s nothing straightforward about Bill Smith’s life and career, and his rambling, chaotic memoir is no different. It’s not just that it jumps all over, provoking even the author at one point to comment, “You may be wondering where all this is leading, as indeed I am.” For reasons Smith never actually explains, he presents this memoir as a work of fiction, telling the life-story of an imaginary character, Colston Willmott.

The life recorded here has been spent in extremes, driven by an obsession with jazz, and fuelled by an irrepressible imagination. But whose life is it? If it actually differs from Smith’s — and we suspect it doesn’t — we don’t find out here.

But as merely the author, and not the subject, of this “fictional memoir,” Smith gets to assume the voice of a third-person narrator. The text alternates between his narrative and that of his fictional doppelganger. It’s a clever device. Smith can call Willmott a “grumpy, doddering, old sod,” and Willmott can indulge his feelings of self-pity about everything from his declining health to the loneliness that possesses him.

As he moves into his seventies, Willmott takes pleasure in his considerable professional achievements, the books he reads so voraciously, the musicians he still listens to on disc, like Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Albert Ayler, his enduring and rewarding relationship with the woman he calls Essjay, and his abiding love for his two daughters, here referred to as Bones and Giggles.

It’s been over twenty years since Smith retreated from Toronto to Hornby Island. But he remains an essential presence on the Canadian jazz scene as a musician, photographer, record producer, radio host, editor, film producer and writer. This book provides a neat counterpart to Smith’s previous book, Imagine the Sound, which documented his life in jazz with poetry, photos and reminiscences of family, friends, and the extraordinary musicians Smith has played with, photographed, interviewed and recorded. They’re all here — in spirit, if not name. And so is his “old mate and business partner,” fellow Brit John Norris (here called Welman), the founder of Coda Magazine. Together they produced Coda, started Sackville Records and ran the Jazz and Blues Record Centre. Smith was the avant-gardist of the team; Norris, who died in 2010, the traditionalist.

This is such a hilarious, poignant, and thoroughly captivating tale that typos, repetitions and misspellings seem not to matter. The assortment of fonts used may be confusing, and it’s frustrating not to have the photos (many by Smith himself) identified. But better to preserve the rough edges than risk toning down and smoothing out the singularly authentic voice so brilliantly captured here.

p48_africanrhythms_westoncoverAfrican Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston
Composed by Randy Weston and arranged by Willard Jenkins
Duke University Press
352 pages, photos; $32.95 US

• “IF YOU WERE to ask who is Randy Weston, it would be like making a stew. You throw in some Ellington, some Basie, some Monk, some Tatum, and some Nat Cole; throw in Africa, throw in some Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. You put all of those ingredients in the pot, you stir it up, and you have Randy Weston.” Add this idiosyncratic autobiography to the mix and you have an even more vivid picture of who Randy Weston is – not just his influences, but his passions, experiences, and justifiable sense of having accomplished something worthwhile. On each page his personality comes through directly, especially since his “arranger” Willard Jenkins has taken care to preserve the rhythm and flow of Weston’s voice as he told Jenkins his story during the lengthy series of interviews they did for this book.

Weston is now eighty-five years old. Apparently he has always had the singular vision that suffuses his compositions like Hi Fly and Little Niles as well as his playing. That, he explains, is why he was never an enthusiastic sideman.

Weston discusses the development of his technique as a pianist, recalling experiences with great musicians like Charlie Parker, Ellington, Basie and especially his mentor, Monk. But mostly he wants to show the influence of African traditional music not just on his own music, but on the very roots of jazz. This approach may be common now, but back when he first started looking to Africa rather than New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, it was controversial. In 1967 he went as far as to move to Morocco, where he lived for a number of years, immersing himself in the music of traditional people like the Gnawa in Tangier. “The African concept of music,” he writes, “is much deeper than the western concept and it’s based upon very powerful, spiritual values and supernatural forces, and pure magic.”

Inevitably, the meanderings that occur naturally in conversations make for some repetitions or fragments. But the voice that emerges here sounds convincingly like Randy Weston should – direct, passionate and utterly compelling.

Randy Weston is playing a solo concert at the Glenn Gould Studio on Sunday, June 26 at 6:00pm as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

p48__porgy_and_bess_coverThe Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess:
A 75th Anniversary Celebration
by Marc Thompson;
forward by Marc Gershwin
Amadeus Press
200 pages, photos; $29.99 US

• AFTER THE FIRST full rehearsal of Porgy and Bess for the premiere in 1935, George Gershwin commented, “I think the music is so marvellous – I really don’t believe I wrote it!” As Robin Thompson shows in this history of the opera, Gershwin was hardly alone in his enthusiasm for what has come to be regarded as the great American opera. Even though opening night led to misunderstandings over whether it promoted racial stereotyping, and confusion over whether it was in fact an opera, audiences cheered – and it had a remarkable run of 124 performances.

The librettist Dubose Heyward was an aristocratic white Southerner whose great–great-grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence, and the Gershwin brothers, composer George and lyricist Ira, were Jewish New Yorkers. Yet they had carefully based Porgy and Bess on the authentic dialects and songs of the descendants of African slaves who lived in Heywood’s hometown, Charleston, South Carolina. They insisted that only African-Americans could play the roles on stage, and refused to let Al Jolson play Porgy in blackface.

Their remarkably harmonious collaboration resulted in something entirely new – an operatic synthesis of European classical music and American jazz and blues. Thompson quotes Gershwin saying that that he hopes Porgy and Bess will combine the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Die Meistersinger. It’s a great story, and although Thompson uncovers nothing new, he tells it with style. But the most interesting aspect of his book is the way he describes the performances of Porgy and Bess throughout the years. With his own perspective as a stage director, he analyzes the performers, director and designers of the various stagings with uncommon insight.

This book has been beautifully produced (apart from the spotty index), and illustrated throughout with a wonderful collection of photos of productions and casts, letters between Heyward and Gershwin, and paintings by the multi-talented brothers themselves, including some startlingly revealing self-portraits.

Lorin Maazel, who in 1975 conducted the first performance of the complete version of Porgy and Bess since the premiere, will lead his Castleton Festival Orchestra and soloists in selections from the opera at the BlackCreek Festival on Friday, July 22 at 8.00 pm.

59aPlaying the Human Game:  Collected Poems of Alfred Brendel

by Alfred Brendel with Richard Stokes

Phaidon Press

600 pages, illustrations; $45.00

• IT HAS BEEN three years since pianist Alfred Brendel retired from the concert stage. That’s why, when he appeared at Koerner Hall last fall, it was to give a lecture, not a piano recital. But in fact Brendel has been sharing his thoughts about music throughout his performing career, not just in lectures, but in essays and poetry as well.

Now he has collected his poems into this handsome volume. In it, each poem is printed with the original German on one page and Brendel’s own translation, made with the assistance of Richard Stokes, on the facing page. Artworks from his personal collection are reproduced throughout, providing yet another glimpse into his aesthetic world.

Not surprisingly, musical references appear frequently in these incisive, witty and evocative poems. From the title of the collection Playing the Human Game, to chapter-headings like Masks and Music, Situations and Concepts, and Reflection and Chimera, Brendel uses vivid images that range all the way from the numinous – he has a whole section on angels – down to the mundane. For me, these poems are at their most moving when they draw the sensual and the divine together, as when Brendel writes,

Today I’m a mouse

minute enough

to patter along the pedals

into the piano

The smell of this felt

You must realize

Is something divine

Assailing our noses

Over a distance of miles


we set about the hammers

exploiting them to build our nests

then we nibble at the dampers

until they stop damping

What’s the point of dampers anyway

We field mice prefer Aeolian harps

With every breath of air

music materializes

all by itself

delicate and spooky

embellished by our faint whistling

Whoever heard

anything more beautiful.

59bNot new, but timely: Joan Dornemann will be coming to Toronto in early May to give coaching sessions for the International Resource Centre for Performing Artists, as part of their Opera Week. Dornemann is best known as a coach and prompter at the Metropolitan Opera. But she has also written an invaluable book, Complete Preparation: A Guide to Auditioning for Opera. In the twenty years since it was published, it hasn’t been bettered. In spite of the title, it deals with far more than auditioning. Dornemann covers every aspect of preparing for an opera role, from technique to interpretation, providing detailed practical advice for coaches, accompanists, conductors, directors, teachers and managers. At the same time, she offers an inspiring validation of the dedicated work required to make a career in opera.

Dornemann will be coaching singers May 7–9 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. Tickets for observers are $20 at the door.

61bFinding Your Voice
by Brian W. Hands
Bastian Publishing
146 pages, illustrations; $16.95

• It seems inevitable for singers to suffer from vocal problems at some point, whether it’s merely a cold, or something lingering, like nodules on their vocal chords. If they happen to be in Toronto, they are likely to end up in the office of laryngologist Dr. Brian Hands, whose practice includes singers from the Canadian Opera Company as well as visiting recitalists. When Hands treats a singer, as he explains in this concise guide to vocal care, he looks not just at the voice but at the singer’s whole lifestyle and general health. Since he sees the voice as a mirror of the soul, for him it actually reflects a singer’s spiritual and emotional state. This holistic approach might be too probing for a singer who is just trying to get through a performance. But fortunately this book is full of advice about dealing practically with all kinds of problems.

“Think of yourself as a vocal athlete,” Hands advises, considering prevention as much as treatment. So that means avoiding parties because of the temptations to talk too loud, eat and drink too much and stay out too late. As well, he advises, “find non-vocal ways to train or discipline children or pets.”

As a doctor, Hands treats the voice divorced from its ability to interpret music. So his glossary defines messa di voce as a vocal exercise rather than the expressive device singers value. But it’s this scientific approach that make this informative book so valuable for all “voice users,” not just singers, but actors, broadcasters, lawyers, auctioneers, teachers and therapists, as well as anyone interested in how the voice works. n

Pamela Margles can be reached at

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