herbie_nichols_coverHerbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life
by Mark Miller
The Mercury Press
224 pages, photos; $19.95


For all his brilliance as a pianist, composer and critic, Herbie Nichols spent his life in obscurity. Toronto-based jazz historian Mark Miller has produced an incisive and heartbreaking portrait of a deeply compelling musician. Today, Nichol’s few recordings are unavailable, and his writings remain uncollected and unpublished. But his song Lady Sings the Blues, written with Billie Holiday, has attained iconic status, and many of his other compositions, like House Party Starting, 2300 Skidoo, The Third World, and Love, Gloom, Cash, Love have become standards.

Miller has combed through the available documents on Nichols, which include autobiographical notes Nichols prepared for the day (which never came) when he would need material for publicity purposes. Miller has talked to musicians still alive who knew him, like trombonist Roswell Rudd, who along with pianist Frank Kimbrough has spearheaded a project to track down and record many of Nichols’ previously unknown compositions. By placing Nichols’music in the context of his relationship to what was happening musically around him, Miller shows how imaginative, original and advanced it was.

Miller portrays a gentle, self-effacing, introspective, and – understandably – fatalistic man. But while he constructs a coherent narrative for Nichols’ life, Nichols himself keeps slipping in and out of the story. It’s as though Nichols is as baffled by the events of his own life as everyone else.

Why was Nichols so utterly neglected? He told A.B Spellman, in the first, and up to now only profile of him in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, “It seems like you’ve got to be an Uncle Tom or a drug addict to make it in jazz, and I’m not either one.” He was rarely able to get jobs or recordings where he could play his own music in his own style. In 1956 Nichols had told the poet George Moorse, “Sometimes I may seem low...but really, I’m laughing like hell inside.” Yet, as pianist Don Coates told Miller, shortly before Nichols’ early death from leukemia in 1963 he said, “Music is a curse.” Miller has succeeded in rediscovering a visionary musical voice, and convincing us that it demands to be heard.

theloniousThelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
by Robin D.G Kelley
Free Press

608 pages, photos; $39.00

Herbie Nichols was the first to champion Thelonious Monk in print. Monk was two years older than Nichols, and like him, born in San Juan Hill in Manhattan. Robin D.G. Kelley quotes Nichols, who wrote in 1944, “Thelonious Monk is an oddity among piano players. This particular fellow is the author of the weirdest rhythmical melodies I’ve ever heard. They are very great, too.” Monk, of course, went on to become a giant influence in the history of jazz. His compositions like Round Midnight, Blue Monk, Ruby, My Dear and Straight, No Chaser are classics.

Kelley, who teaches history at the University of Southern California, is faced with a life so rich, a personality so complex, a body of recordings so important, and a character so legendary that his book is bursting at the seams with fascinating details about Monk’s life and music.

Kelley managed to gain unprecedented access to family members and their collections of long-forgotten documents. But even Kelley, for all his meticulous research, is unable to fully unravel Monk’s relationship with the intriguing Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who Kelley calls “the most significant relationship in Monk’s life outside his family.” She took care of Monk – and his wife Nellie – at her home (just as she had provided brief sanctuary for Herbie Nichols in 1961) from 1973, when he had almost given up playing altogether, until his death in 1982.

He portrays an engaging and witty, though moody and difficult, personality. But despite Monk’s success, things were never easy. He had problems with alcohol and drugs. Even more devastating were his episodes of manic depression, which account for some of his bizarre antics both on stage and off. Reading about his stony silences and vacant stares, especially late in his performing career, I now know why the performance I heard in Toronto at the Colonial Tavern in 1972 was so disappointing.

Enhancing our appreciation of the music, Kelley makes a point of underlining the influence of classical music on Monk’s playing and composing. He presents him as both a traditionalist and an innovator. “From the beginning of his musical life,” writes Kelley, “Monk had always epitomized the Janus-faced musician, looking simultaneously at the future and the past.”

1 a MERCURY--TIMEANDANTHONYBRAXTON--COVER for wholenoteTime and Anthony Braxton
by Stuart Broomer
Mercury Press
240 pages, photos; $19.95

The influential American performer, composer and writer Anthony Braxton is best known for his work in experimental jazz. He’s one of the most recorded jazz artists around, and he has received many honours, including a MacArthur genius award, which he used to create his opera Trillium R: Shala Fears For The Poor. “Ultimately, we know more intensely how jazz works as a result of how his music works,” writes Toronto writer Stuart Broomer in this thoughtful study of Braxton’s music.

“There’s far more time inside a Braxton performance,” he suggests, “than might be measured by a clock.” Braxton’s explorations in the many applications of the concept of musical time provide Broomer with a viewpoint on the workings of Braxton’s compositions and performances. But this focus doesn’t stop Broomer from ranging widely. He even manages to work in a discussion of Braxton’s preference for wearing cardigan sweaters.

In his performances on saxophone, clarinet, and piano, Braxton plays the standard jazz repertoire as powerfully as his own compositions. While his mastery of jazz traditions keeps him in the continuum of jazz, his creative imagination takes him way beyond its outer limits.

Broomer reveals Braxton to be both a visionary composer and an imaginative improviser. Braxton is an exciting performer who plays as fast as – often faster than – anyone else around. Broomer describes Braxton’s music as “unusual collocations of floating time and abrasive sounds”. What concerns Broomer is to show just how important a voice in both jazz and classical music he is, and how he transcends the barriers between composed and non-composed music, working to keep both art forms evolving. Broomer goes a step further to make a case for Braxton as a classical composer as well, whose music should be performed in concert halls alongside composers he admires like Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis

There are extensive notes, an index, and photos. I do wish there were samples of Braxton’s innovative scores here, to complement this fascinating perspective on Braxton’s music.

parallel play_tim page_aspergers book (1)Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s
by Tim Page
Doubleday
208 pages, photos; $32.00

When music critic Tim Page was forty-five years old, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Suddenly, problems that had plagued him since childhood became understandable. “My pervasive childhood memory is an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness,” he writes in this memoir. Page is an elegant writer, with a delightfully sardonic sense of humour. But it’s his probing honesty that makes Parallel Play so affecting.

At the same time, his memoirs provide insight into the relationship between talent and mental illness. As well as being difficult as a kid, Page had been precociously talented. He excelled as a pianist, composer, film-maker and writer, with a phenomenal memory and a disconcerting wit. Role-models like his grand-mother’s tenant, the music critic Alan M. Kriegsman, steered him into writing about music.

Some of the most interesting passages here deal with Page’s relationship with Glenn Gould, whose writings he collected after Gould’s death. He talks about their friendship. But he doesn’t discuss Gould’s own posthumous diagnosis of Asperger’s. I wonder whether Page and Gould ever recognized each other as suffering from the same condition.

Page, who now teaches journalism, is an uncommonly sensitive music critic, and his two volumes of criticism, Music from the Road (Oxford) from 1992 and Tim Page on Music (Amadeus) from 2002 are still worth reading. In sharing his experiences with Asperger’s, however retroactively, he opens the question of how much this syndrome affected his reviews. Discussing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, he writes, “Today, I find myself wondering if I would have responded so profoundly to this starkly reiterative, rigidly patterned music had I not had Asperger’s syndrome.”

In any case, the role of Asperger’s in making him who he is simply cannot be determined. He writes, “I wouldn’t wish the condition on anybody - I’ve spent too much of my life isolated, unhappy and conflicted – yet I am also convinced that many of the things I’ve done were accomplished not despite my Asperger’s syndrome but because of it.” This is a brave book. I am looking forward to its sequel.

BrunhildaBrunhilda and the Ring
by Jorge Lujan
Groundwood Books
96 pages illustrated; $24.95

This month Toronto-area audiences have an opportunity to experience the world of Wagner once again when the Canadian Opera Company presents The Flying Dutchman. Like The Flying Dutchman Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle, which opened the COC’s new hall four years ago, is based on ancient myths and legends. But it involves many more characters. Jorge Luján focuses his retelling of Wagner’s libretto on Brunhilda, interpreting it as the betrayal of a loving, loyal woman. He even switches the final sequence of events in the last opera of the cycle, The Twilight of the Gods, so that the ending belongs to Brunhilda instead of the triumphant Rhinemaidens.

Brunhilda’s father Wotan, king of the gods, sets off the endless cycle of betrayal by refusing to pay the giants for building his dream home, Valhalla. Her stepmother Fricka, the goddess of marriage, badgers her husband Wotan into abandoning his son, Siegmund. Brunhilda’s mother Erda, the earth goddess, tells Wotan, “Once more your wishes do not match your acts and are sure to bring catastrophe.”

 

Some acts are more excusable than others. Siegfried, for instance, is fed a potion that makes him forget all about his love for Brunhilda. Even Brunhilda, who disobeys her father and ultimately betrays Siegfried, though not without cause.

 

Luján’s text, given here in Canadian translator Hugh Hazleton’s smooth translation, is concise and clear in its story-line, and poetic in its telling. There are a few unfortunate phrases such as, “I am Siegfried! You are Brunhilda!”, which occurs during one of the most gorgeous duets in all opera. But Luján does remind us of the missing music when Brunhilda “intones a deep, sad funeral song.”

 

The illustrations by Austrian artist Linda Wolfsgruber create a vivid atmosphere, with muted colours set off by a subtle use of reds. Her detailed textures evoke moods like Brunhilda’s sense of vulnerability when Siegfried wakes her. I can imagine her settings and costumes working effectively on stage.

 

Whom this book is intended for is not stated. With illustrations covering each page, it could be seen as a children’s book. Yet the details of the story are sophisticated, and both text and illustrations will delight adults. For any audience this lovely makes a terrific introduction to a complex and important work.

 

 

 

Back to top