When I took a cue from Chris Kelsey’s blog and made jazz writer integrity the subject of a post, Stomp Off attendance grew considerably, so the subject is obviously of interest and I have decided to expand on it.
One unhappy visitor suggested that, by posting the 16 year old Leonard Feather letter, I was “resurrecting some petty, ancient dispute” and that he was “dismayed” over my bringing up such a “trivial” subject. I beg to differ with that assessment.
When one devotes as great a part of one’s life as some of us have to writing about and promoting the music, and to getting it right, avoiding and correcting factual errors, exploding myths, etc., integrity is not something that one readily dismisses. There is a certain ethic that goes with any reporting—regardless of the subject—and to strive for accuracy is probably the most important rule. That said, we all make honest mistakes and feel a sense of guilt when they are perpetuated by the sloppy research of hack writers. I have always been bothered by the fast food contingent of the jazz press community, the Leslie Gourses, James Haskells and Scott Yanows—jazz writing ought not be a marathon. I suffer my own kind of dismay when I see jazz books thrown together in assembly line fashion and published for purely selfish reasons.
Worse than careless research is the deliberate rewriting of history. We see it done every day by politicians on C-Span and by a variety of hosts and guests on other parts of the tube, but we somehow don’t expect to find it in jazz literature (press releases and industry publications being a large exception). Yet, it is there, even in respected works.
A few years ago, I was interviewed by an author for her biography of Mary Lou Williams. She brought with her a tape recorder, which I welcomed, but it soon became clear to me that she also had a preconceived notion of what my answers to her questions should be. She was visibly disappointed when I told her things that were at odds with her assumptions, and my suspicion was confirmed when I saw conveniently edited quotes attributed to me in the book. Most readers would never notice such manipulation, but it made me question the reliability of entire biography. It also grieved me to see a worthy subject wasted in this way by a writer who was given access to Mary Lou’s valuable collection of papers and memorabilia—how long will we have to wait for another book on Mary Lou Williams?
Sometimes, we are thrown off track by opinions rather than by deliberate distortion of facts. I read my first jazz book in 1948, when I was 17. It was Rudi Blesh’s Shining Trumpets, published two years earlier, and I found it totally absorbing. Of course the mere mention of jazz gave me goosebumps, for I felt that I had recently stumbled upon a secret treasure. With naïvité comes gullibility, and I had it in abundance. I put Rudi’s book down believing that I was close to knowing it all, that jazz had recently stagnated, Louis had abandoned it early on, and Duke had never played it. Fortunately, as I found my way to hear more of the music, my definition of jazz became increasingly at odds with Rudi’s. Fortunately, too, Rudi’s jazz horizon had widened a decade later, when we struck up a friendship, but he remained a “moldy fig.”
Rudi’s narrow view of jazz was just that: a narrow view. He was expressing his own opinions, not attempting to alter history. My first experience with the latter came in 1961, when I spent a week in New Orleans, producing the sessions that became Riverside’s “Living Legends” series. Bill Russell attended many of these sessions, which were held at Les Jeunes Amis hall in the French Quarter, and were very much inspired by the recordings he made in the 1940s for his own American Music label. Those releases preserved essential sounds of a bygone era, brought to light forgotten players and approaches, and sparked the so-called New Orleans Revival. Not only did they enrich the jazz record library, they also stimulated an important awareness of the music’s pioneers and past.
Between sessions, Bill often sat nearby and listened as I conducted interviews with many of the legendary musicians. He had been particularly close to trumpeter Bunk Johnson, whom he was said to have rescued from work in a rice field, equipped with new teeth and horn, and given a renewed career. Bunk had been gone for 12 years, but Bill was still protective of him, so he hated hearing him spoken of in derogatory terms. One day, having heard trombonist Jim Robinson refer to Bunk as a cranky old man whose presence was not always desirable, Bill suggested that I delete that from the tape. I thought he as joking, but he was not.
Bill Russell was still messing with the facts about 30 years later, when Karl Emil Knudsen asked me to do some work on his monumental Jelly Roll Morton book, Oh, Mister Jelly!. As I scanned into my computer a lengthy correspondence (45 of the book’s 720 pages) between Morton and his music publisher, Ron Carew, I noticed discrepancies between the original letters and Bill’s manuscript. He had originally submitted this material intact, but now he was revising it, re-arranging or deleting text in a way that sometimes seriously alter its context, yet presenting it as original documents. When I brought this to Karl’s attention, he was disturbed and unsure of how best to handle it. We agreed that these letters had to be presented as written by Morton, not Bill, so the question became how to handle this diplomatically. The answer came with Bill’s death, in 1992.
One hopes not, but Bill co-founded and curated Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive, so it is possible that some of the historic interviews housed there underwent customization. I bring up my experience with Bill as an example of ways in which facts can be honed to better fit someone’s ideal of how things should have been. However, regrettable as tinkering with historical facts is, such violations can eventually be corrected, but we neither can nor should diminish Bill Russell’s overall importance to our understanding of jazz history.
That even the most illogical of myths can grow legs is well illustrated by the one that grew out of Bessie Smith’s death following a 1937 car accident.
For years, it was widely believed that Bessie died because she was refused admittance to a white hospital. That story was the basis for Edward Albee 1960 play, “The Death of Bessie Smith”, and it had its origin in careless reporting by John Hammond. Here is what he wrote in Down Beat’s November 1937 issue:
Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting for Medical Aid?
A particularly disagreeable story as to the details of her death has just been received from members of Chick Webb’s orchestra, who were in Memphis soon after the disaster. It seems that Bessie was riding in a car which crashed into a truck parked along the side of the road. One of her arms was nearly severed, but aside from that there was no other serious injury, according to these informants. Some time elapsed before a doctor was summoned to the scene, but finally she was picked up by a medico and driven to the leading Memphis hospital. On the way this car was involved in some minor mishap, which further delayed medical attention. When finally she did arrive at the hospital she was refused treatment because of her color and bled to death while waiting for attention.
Realizing that such tales can be magnified greatly in the telling, I would like to get confirmation from some Memphis citizens who were on the spot at the time. If the story is true it is but another example of disgraceful conditions in a certain section of our country already responsible for the killing and maiming of legitimate union organizers. Of the particular city of Memphis I am prepared to believe almost anything, since its mayor and chief of police publicly urged the use of violence against organizers of the CIO a few weeks ago.
Notice how John drops the incendiary race bomb, leaves the door open for speculation, then makes it quite clear that this outrageous story might well be true. He asks “Memphis citizens who were on the spot at the time” to come forward and confirm (not confute) the facts as he presents them. Never mind that this tragedy did not take place in Memphis and that only the condition of Bessie’s arm was true, John was but a phone call away from the truth. Down Beat was not a daily, there was no overnight deadline to be met, so one can conclude that he was not in search of the truth.
A well placed phone call could have made John aware of the fact that Clarksdale, Mississippi (where Bessie died) had two hospitals—one for whites, the other for blacks—and that they were located less than a half mile apart. Given that fact, no ambulance driver, black or white, would have taken Bessie to a hospital where she could not be admitted. The rules of segregation were no secret.
I should mention that the late George Hoefer, also writing in Down Beat, searched for and came close to finding the truth in 1957, but nobody seemed interested. George told me of his frustration when we discussed this and I regret that he did not live to see me take one very important lead from his story to finally kill this myth. When I played a taped, very detailed eyewitness account for John Hammond, he agreed that he should have made some phone calls before submitting his Down Beat piece, but in his subsequent autobiography, he made another u-turn.
I bring up this particular example, because it is one in which I had personal involvement, but there are many more such cases—far too many. There’s Lady Sings the Blues, largely a work of fiction written by Bill Dufty and thinly disguised as Billie Holiday’s autobiography. And the advice a well-known writer and respected scholar gave Arnie Kaplan when asked for information on a blues artist whose recordings Arnie planned to issue on his Biograph label. “This guy’s really obscure,” said the expert, “so just make something up—nobody will know.” Also..... well, never mind, you get the picture.
Finally, let me point out that while writers have been known to count on their reader’s likely acceptance of the printed word (although that is changing), sometimes it is the writer who falls prey to his or her own gullibility. Jazz musicians have often been discreetly amused by the blinding eagerness of those who write about them, and some have played the game. The late Danny Barker, a man of great whit and talent for telling stories once confessed to me that he had once played Rudi Blesh. He invented a recollection of having made some recordings with King Oliver in a Long Island garage, and he gave just enough details to send Rudi on a futile search. It felt good, Danny said with a smile.