Mark miller is probably the finest author of jazz books that this country has ever produced. There. Having stated my case right off the top, I am pleased to say that there is a new addition to his now substantial body of work. It is called Way Down That Lonesome Road, the story of Lonnie Johnson in Toronto, where he lived for the last five years of his life from 1965 to 1970.
There might well be a lot of readers who would ask “Who was Lonnie Johnson?”
Well, he was born into a musical family in New Orleans, in 1899, and was destined to be a pioneer jazz guitarist, credited with being the first to play single string solos on that instrument. In his early career he was pretty well regarded as a blues player although he wasn’t happy to be pigeon-holed as such. But he went on to make recordings in 1927 with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five as a guest on I’m Not Rough, Savoy Blues and Hotter Than That, and in 1928 with Duke Ellington on Hot and Bothered, Move Over, and The Mooche.
The book covers in some detail the early career of Johnson, but the meat of this work deals with the years spent in Toronto and no one is better qualified than Mark Miller to tell that story.
But in the grand scale of things, Lonnie Johnson is overlooked, like so many other musicians. And therein is a clue as to what makes Mark Miller, the author, click.
He is drawn to the stories of musicians who made significant contributions, but have been neglected because they weren’t “stars.”
Who else would have so diligently researched and written an informative and entertaining book on the life and music of Valaida Snow or an equally rewarding look at the life of Herbie Nichols — again, hardly household names. He likes to look for the overlooked.
It came as no surprise when I learned that Miller was researching a book on Lonnie Johnson’s final years when he called Toronto home. It is a fascinating read set at a time before Yorkville became fashionable and traditional blues and jazz were relatively popular. To those readers who were around in the days of “flower power” and hippies, the book is a nostalgic trip down memory lane and a detailed study of Johnson’s life in a town where he felt welcome.
Another important side of Miller’s life was his time as a reviewer and critic. He was the sometimes controversial jazz columnist for Toronto’s Globe And Mail newspaper from 1978 to 2005. His reviews showed the same insightful and well-crafted standard of writing which is now so clearly evident in his books.
His views were at times open to question with some of his readers, but nobody could ever deny the quality of his writing.
Some of those same readers were of the opinion that Miller had a definite preference for the more contemporary and “avant-garde” players and are surprised, for example, that he would devote the time and energy to a book on the aforementioned Valaida Snow or Lonnie Johnson. A look at the contents of A Certain Respect For Tradition, a volume of his selected writings, will in fact show a knowledge and appreciation of a broad spectrum of the music. Mr. Miller does indeed have a refreshingly open mind to his chosen craft.
He eventually elected to give up writing his pieces for the newspaper. By way of explanation he had this to say: “The business of jazz, the media in general and the Globe in particular have all moved in new directions. Their various interests, and mine, simply diverged.”
Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, given that nowadays the mainstream media have by and large abandoned coverage of jazz. In the last few years more than half of all arts journalists were either dropped or moved to other positions. On the other hand there are arts blogs now competing for attention online by the hundreds of thousands. But the lack of arts coverage in conventional newspapers speaks volumes about where we are culturally right now.
When asked to name some of his favourite musicians the list ranged from contemporary bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons to Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers via Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk and Gil Evans – it was a Gil Evans recording that first opened his ears and mind to jazz – showing a healthy open-minded approach which is reflected in the subject matter of the ten books he has had published.
Looking at the evolving nature of the music, Miller sees a future in which jazz will be seen as a small period of time in the overall development of improvised music in which melody, rhythm and a melding of musical influences from other cultures played an essential part and after which the texture of jazz changed radically, evolving and reinventing itself while still retaining its creative force.
If there is a tougher way of making a living in jazz by playing, then it surely is surviving as a writer about jazz. It is also a lonely occupation with no instant feedback from an audience, no applause for a well written chapter or a well-placed turn of phrase.
The loneliness isn’t necessarily a hardship. Some writers enjoy the solitary working life and I suspect that Miller fits the description. But that sits quite comfortably with his personal life in which he admits to enjoying tv, sports and the company of friends.
He might also have included his interest in photography, but since his next project is likely to be a book of his own photographs, perhaps that now goes into the “work in progress” category, eventually to become book number 11 in the ongoing tale of this Miller.
As always, happy listening and, I might add, enjoy some reading. (In fact, you might want to start with a short excerpt from the preface to Mark Miller’s Way Down That Lonesome Road.below.)
Jim Galloway is a saxophonist, band leader and former artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is an excerpt (from the internet) from the preface to Mark Miller’s Way Down That Lonesome Road: Lonnie Johnson in Toronto, 1965–1970. It gives a taste of Johnson, and just as importantly of what makes Mark Miller tick.
I want all you people to listen to my song
I want all you people to listen to my song
Remember me after all the days I’m gone
— Mr. Johnson’s Blues, 1925
So sang Lonnie Johnson on the very first recording that he made under his own name, 86 years ago in St. Louis, mindful even then of his own mortality. If he has indeed been remembered after all the days, and now decades, since his death, 41 years ago in Toronto, it has been largely for his early and essential contribution to the histories of both blues and jazz.
… These, at least, are among the memories of some of the many people whose paths he crossed in Toronto between 1965 and 1970, the final years of his life — the years that serve as the time frame of this book. As much, however, as Way Down That Lonesome Road is a biographical study of Lonnie Johnson in this period, it is also a social and cultural history of the scene that he encountered in Toronto. As such, it takes its lead from my book Cool Blues, which found in the visits of the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker to Montreal and Toronto in 1953 an opportunity to bring the modern jazz communities in each of those cities back to life. And like Cool Blues, Way Down That Lonesome Road (which takes its title from a song that Johnson recorded in 1928) is populated by a cast of secondary characters — musicians, critics, friends and fans — who have stories of their own to tell.
… The story of his years in Toronto combines both — the happiest of times and the hardest, a Dickensian sort of paradox, albeit in a tale of just one city. This is that tale; here is that city.
— Published October 19, 2011 by The Mercury Press/teksteditions © Mark Miller 2011