JAZZ: FILM AND BOOK REVIEWS
‘Billie : In Search of Billie Holiday’ film screened on BBC2 13th March 2021
Subversion Through Jazz, written by Matt Parker is published by Jazz in Britain Ltd.
reviews by Gary Heywood-Everett
I’m not a woman. I’m not black. I’m not a jazz musician although in my dreams I’m playing keyboard in the Miles Davis band or alto on tour with Ellington. I can’t sing and I don’t understand about sexual masochism. So how on earth can I write about Billie Holiday ? How can anyone ? A lack of these particular attributes hasn’t stopped a lot of people though, the TV film by James Erskine ‘Billie : In Search of Billie Holiday’ just screened by BBC, being the latest. You could say that the film is just another point of view. Mine is from my white, Northern English armchair so all I can do is write about Billie and this film from there.
The film was certainly interesting but for all of its novel approach which focused on Linda Lipnack Kuehl’s (left) unfinished and unpublished biographical research about Billie Holiday, much of the material about her life is already known. Her childhood has been well documented through articles from Robert O’Meally, Yoko Suzuki and Georgio Campanaro, the police victimisation by Harry J Anslinger and Colonel George White covered in Johann Hari’s article ‘The Hunting of Billie Holiday’, her drug and sex dependency written about endlessly. What was new were the journalistic recordings by Linda Kuehl whose life was unknown as was her fascination with Billie to the point of spending years gathering information for a biography which never happened. Linda died before it reached a publisher.
No. Many of the sections of the film about Billie’s life and death were known but here they were presented with validity by being the respondents’ voices from Kuehl’s research.
Tony Bennett for example met with Billie on a number of occasions and recalled her ordering him as a young man to get her some gin. He said that she told her own story through her voice, that she had a wild life and that the nearer you got ‘to the top’ as she did the more chance there was of cracking up. Then there were testimonies from Billie’s close friends who spoke of her affectionately as someone in desperate search for the closeness of others and who wished only to own a house in which she could bring up, if not her own children then those she could adopt. Harrowingly, there were the testimonies of those who had known the family in Baltimore where Billie, then Eleanora Fagan, turned tricks in the local brothel when barely in her teenage years.
Of course jazzmen featured (and they were all men) like Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison the trumpet player who spoke of her being tough ’like a feminine man’ on the roughest of tours, sleeping on the bus when white musicians got to stay in a hotel, and Jimmy Rowles the pianist who recalled her sexual appetite for both genders. Punctuating all of these voices was that of Linda Kuehl, her voice prominent on the many cassette recordings which, alongside home movie insights into her life story, revealed not just an obsession with Billie Holiday but another tormented woman who met a mysterious and suspicious end. Kuehl, from her white middle class perspective (she was a journalist) pulling together data about the experiences of a black jazz diva in itself throws up many unanswered questions of Linda’s perspective and standpoint not to mention her own mysterious death.
And then there was the haunting and haunted voice in interview of Billy Holiday herself, trying to articulate her own story, blurred as it might be at the edges of her life.
Interspersed with familiar but now colourised film clips of Billie, the film told her life story through the tapes from prostitution in Baltimore to jazz breakthrough in New York with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Familiar now are the tales of rape of a black fourteen year old girl, drug dependency and incarceration as a young woman, fame and victimisation into maturity and death at the hands of drug-dealers and hounding Federal Narcotics agents.
The music was a little secondary to the life in this film but there were fine features of her singing ‘Don’t Explain,’ ‘Fine and Mellow’ with Lester Young and of course ‘Strange Fruit.’ I have to say that I find Billie’s voice hard to listen to and that might be the point. Anguished and hard, it reflects her life in a way which makes you want to look away. But she makes you listen, makes you look hard at the lynchings in her famous song, makes you acknowledge her presence and that of a black people excluded, abused and vilified in society. Her music, the drag behind the beat as if weary and that catch of pain and pleasure in her voice abides through it all, insisting that you acknowledge it.
Mores the pity then that Kuehl’s work didn’t reach publication and didn’t see the light of day until now, that Linda herself should die in the bizarre and unexplained circumstances of falling from a hotel window before going to a Basie concert. But the voices of those who sort of knew Billie Holiday (could anyone have really known her ?) confirm for her a special place in black cultural history in the United States and through Linda Kuehl’s research recognition as a jazz singer, a protest singer and the voice of struggle alongside that of such figures as Martin Luther King.
In the turbulent wake of the Black Lives Matter movement it may come as no surprise that there is so much interest in Billie Holiday, a new feature film ‘The United States versus Billie Holiday’ about to be released on Sky Cinema. One can only hope that such renewed attention will bring her art to many more people than before and that her message of pain and pleasure which is repeated in this film for TV leads to social change which alleviates for others the struggle she endured.
In a year of a surfeit of surprises, many of them, such as a global pandemic, uncalled for, 2020 also saw the publication of a book subtitled ‘the birth of British progressive jazz in a cold war climate’. On the face of it Subversion Through Jazz by Matt Parker would be a niche subject in any era, catching as it does jazz and politics in the same scoop. Not only that, but the book’s focus is on British jazz and takes a close look at styles of jazz which are less popular and certainly less well-known. Whilst that is one of the points of the book, it raises questions about its conclusions. So, come follow your art as I lead you a little further down the sidetracks & detours of secrecy and suspicion,
SUBVERSION THROUGH JAZZ (by Matt Parker)
a book review by Gary Heywood-Everett
The book begins with a cultural overview of the United Kingdom just after the second world war, a time when the colonies were breaking away and being replaced by influences from across the Atlantic. The nineteen fifties was a decade in which TV shows like I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger entered Britain’s living rooms and Hollywood films infiltrated the British conscious and subconscious world to such an extent that they set off an alarmed reaction amongst small groups who would rather look back from oily crooners and American TV shows to a more traditional moment from US history when there was thought to be more artistry and communal creativity.
Jazz picked up on this defensiveness in the UK with the emergence of ´trad´. This jazz was a reaction against the swing era which some felt was safe and, if not middle class, certainly middle aged with its commercialisation and its ironed-out ‘written’ scores. Trad jazz looked back to a time, maybe in New Orleans, when people gathered together to create music within their own means in the face of the forces of commercialism and the market. In the terms of this book, this was counter-culture or countering the hegemony of the moment, hegemony being the social, cultural or economic influence exerted by a dominant group.
It wasn’t the only voice doing this at the time. Jimmy Porter, the angry young man in John Osborne’s play Look Back In Anger of 1956 not only railed against the established cultural norms of his day but also played jazz trumpet. We are told he had a jazz band once and in the play jazz was part of his outlet for anger, the sound of protest and resistance. But was it trad alongside Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball that Jimmy tried to play ? A new book by Matt Parker suggests otherwise.
The three principle characters in this book are Eric Hobsbawm, Dennis Preston and Joe Harriott. Eric Hobsbawm was an eminent left-wing historian and jazz lover who wrote a book entitled The Jazz Scene and penned jazz reviews for the New Statesman magazine under the name of Francis Newton. The MI5 had a file on Hobsbawm as someone to watch, suspecting him of spying for the Russians. His cousin, Denis Preston, was a record producer of similar left-wing leanings and Joe Harriott was a jazz saxophonist.
Hobsbawm and possibly Preston saw jazz as an important counter cultural phenomenon and followed the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s ideas that the right culture at the right time could lead to the beginnings of revolutionary change. Hobsbawm and Preston saw jazz as protest and a crucial way in which the establishment of the United Kingdom could be undermined through a mass movement.
Some thought that such undermining could be achieved through bebop, which of itself was a protest against big band swing. However, although the stars of bebop in the UK such as Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott were white working class musicians, the audiences were made up of largely middle class intellectuals. And whilst Hobsbawm and Preston knew the value of modern jazz post bebop, they looked for something even more revolutionary which presented jazz as a reaction to modern industrialism and a cry for freedom from the worst aspects of it.
For them, an appropriate musical wave came with free jazz in the late fifties and early sixties. In some ways Denis Preston’s professional position regarding radical social change was odd and this is made clear in the book. From the late nineteen forties Preston had been working with Joe Meek as his chief engineer on novelty pop discs and later with West Indian calypso singers, recording London Is The Place For Me by Lord Kitchener for example. He also produced records not only by early trad bands but also by Humphrey Littleton, George Shearing and modern jazz musicians. Stranger yet though, at the same time as writing for Melody Maker and Tribune, the left wing firebrand Preston was making money through his recordings of the Black and White Minstrel Show ! However, he ploughed a lot of the money he made into new wave jazz and in particular into what he saw as revolutionary forms of the music which Matt Parker, the author of this book, calls British Progressive Jazz.
Denis Preston, ( left) with one foot in the Black and White Minstrel Show and another in Tin Pan Alley activities bordering on London’s gangland (dealing with the Kray twins for example), was building up a healthy catalogue around his label, Lansdowne Productions, with Guy Warren, Stan Tracey, Don Rendell and Ian Carr and making records which now command substantial prices as collector’s items.
But it was the political angle for Hobsbawm and Preston which interested them in Joe Harriott’s career progression from English bebop to free jazz.
Joe Harriott, father of Ainsley Harriott the TV chef was a Jamaican saxophonist who, after honing his playing around the works of Charlie Parker and the be-boppers, turned to a more abstract form of jazz. Some claim that free music recorded by US musicians such as Ornette Coleman preceded Harriott’s work but Matt Parker argues here that Harriott’s freedom was of a different order, more collectivist as an innovator, more communal and potentially communist (for Hobsbawm) than the American individualism of Ornette Coleman.
Matt Parker suggests that Joe Harriott’s music was ground-breaking enough to suggest that it was formative in creating a distinctive and radical British progressive movement in jazz. Not only that but there is also the suggestion that this was important to the music of the counter-culture in Britain.
Although Subversion Through Jazz relies heavily on quotes from Hobsbawm and Preston, it effectively recreates in its pages a period in Britain between the swing era of the Ted Heath Orchestra and the jazz-rock of Ian Carr’s Nucleus, a period when jazz in the United Kingdom was looking and perhaps finding its own voice. Personally, I’m not convinced either that Joe Harriott’s music was as revolutionary as Matt Parker suggests or that he didn’t draw his influences from John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. Nor am I persuaded that freeing jazz in that period led to radical changes in society. If that had been the case, many more such social shifts would have been witnessed in an America which stayed stubbornly white, market-orientated and capitalist even after the jazz assaults on it of Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. And yet, whilst we might have to accede to the line that art changes little, the 1950’s and 1960s did witness cultural shifts which may in the future turn out to be more radical than we currently think. It’s too early to tell.
PHOTO GARY These reviews were written by Gary Heywood-Everett, a founder member of our Joined Up Jazz Journalists (JUJJ).
Established in early 2021, JUJJ aims to see its members share their love and enthusiasm and information about jazz events and to grow their knowledge for the benefit of their readers and listeners. The four founders of the link, along with jazz researcher and historian Gary, were Steve Bewick jazz writer and radio presenter of Hot Biscuits weekly jazz show at www.fc-radio.co.uk.
Susana Fondon is a music journalist at Lanzarote Information on.line, a site attainable via a subscription newsletter.
Norman Warwick is an author, poet, songwriter and radio presenter who is also the owner and editor of the Sidetracks & Detours daily blog at https://aata.dev where all JUJJ members deliver frequent contributions.
Sidetracks & Detours and Hot Biscuits aim to publicise ´local´ jazz events to a global audience, and so we deliver news, interviews, previews and reviews from all across the arts, from dance to drumming, poetry to pottery, ceramics to creative writing and all points in between. Should you wish to submit an article of any kind your own about your own favourite art forms or artists please do so via email@example.com
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Meanwhile;….. Just a reminder of the next Livestream from the Boileroom, Guildford this Wednesday. Not to be missed.
Celebrating the compositions of Stan Tracey
Wednesday 14 April | 7.30pm | £10.00 Livestreamed from the Boileroom, Guildford
Simon Allen tenor sax| Bruce Boardman piano
Andrew Cleyndert bass| Clark Tracey drums
|Clark Traceyis a premier jazz musician who has contributed massively to the UK scene during the course of his career. He has an international reputation as an outstanding composer, arranger, drummer, bandleader and educator and is the five-times winner of various awards for Best Drummer, including the British Jazz Awards in 2016 and 2017.
For this concert, Clark will be celebrating the music of his father, the Godfather of British Jazz, Stan Tracey CBE, with compositions spanning from 1950 onwards, as specially requested by ‘Stan’s Fans’ on his FaceBook page.
Clark’s quartet will feature Simon Allen on tenor sax and Andrew Cleyndert on bass, two original band members of Stan’s quartet, withBruce Boardman filling the piano chair
The performance will be followed by a Q & A session and online chat with the band, based on questions submitted by members of the online audience during the course of the concert.
Buy tickets at £10 here – available until 7pm on the day of the performance.
If more than one person in your household is likely to watch, perhaps you would consider buying the appropriate number of tickets so that we can support the musicians as much as we can, but it’s entirely voluntary and at your discretion.
If you have any problems please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
You will receive an email to confirm your booking and the link to the performance the day before, which you can watch on computer or mobile device or on a Smart TV.