Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Books, recent and current

One of my favorite fictional characters, Horace Rumpole (of the Bailey), famously and paradoxically never read a book he hadn't already read. I'm not quite that bad, but I love rereading books I've previously enjoyed as much as discovering new ones. I think it has to do with the fact that, if a book is worthwhile, my feeble brain can't retain much of it after one reading. I have been picking up my favorite book of jazz criticism, A Jazz Retrospect by Max Harrison, and rereading sections for 30 years now; I feel that I'm just now getting my mind around some aspects of the music that he writes about.

I just finished reading a great biography of James Reese Europe, Reid Badger's A Life in Ragtime, for the second time. Europe is an interesting figure - he was probably the most famous and respected African-American musician in the decade after 1910, but he's almost totally forgotten now. This is somewhat understandable; as exciting as his music was at the time, the innovations of the jazz masters of the early 1920s eclipsed Europe's accomplishments. The recordings he left are more interesting historically than as great music. Unless, of course, you're a real jazz history geek like me.

In any case, Badger's book is an inspiring biography. After dominating the New York dance band scene (to such an extent that around 1915 black musicians in NYC were charging, and receiving, higher fees that white players, much to the latter's chagrin), Europe served with distinction in World War I, both as a bandleader and as the commander of a machine gun unit. He built a military band in his own image; its loose approach and orchestrated ragtime, while pretty mild compared to later jazz, made a huge impact on listeners in France and the U.S. We'll never know how his music might have developed after 1919, because one of his drummers stabbed him to death during a break at a concert. That's probably how I'll go - stabbed by a drummer.

Now I'm reading a book I reread every three or four years: The Recording Angel by Evan Eisenberg. The subtitle is The Experience of Music From Aristotle to Zappa, but that's kind of misleading. The book is really about recorded music: its nature and how it differs from (unrecorded?) music. Eisenberg makes the point that music was the last of the arts to become a thing that could be owned. You can buy a painting or sculpture, hold a novel or book of poems in your hand, but until the late 19th century you could not own a piece of music. You could buy a copy of the score of Mozart's 40th Symphony, but you would just own a set of directions for performing the music, not the music itself.

It's a really fascinating book. Eisenberg has big ears, and invokes Caruso, Glenn Gould (who, like the Beatles, retired from performing to become strictly a recording artist), Louis Armstrong, and George Clinton ("Funk is its own reward."). Like I said, I reread it every few years because it's so rich in ideas and observations. And, some time back, it made me realize that I'm not just a music lover, as I kidded myself into thinking. I am one of those odd creatures caught somewhere between art and fetish: a record collector.

But more on than some other time....

1 comment:

robo said...

There now, that wasn't so hard.

That's probably how I'll go - stabbed by a drummer.

Could be worse...it could be at the hands of a fellow musician.

Ohhhhhh........