Monday, August 27, 2007

Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State

Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State
By Dave Oliphant
University of Texas Press

Clint Eastwood is fond of crediting jazz and westerns as America’s two original contributions to world culture. The place of Texas in the history of the western is undeniable. In his latest book, Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State, Dave Oliphant makes a case for Texas’ pride of place in jazz history as well.

When jazz listeners think Texas, they think tenor sax, specifically the lusty, honking Texas Tenor tradition, including musicians like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. They are mentioned here, but not in great depth, because Mavericks is actually a collection of writings, many of which were written to fill in gaps in Oliphant’s previous Texan Jazz. As a result, some of the pieces, particularly the first two, can be a tad repetitive in listing names of Texan jazz musicians.

One Texas titan covered well here is Ornette Coleman, through reviews of John Litweiler’s biography and a 2004 concert, which was his first in Texas in twenty years. Oliphant recounts many of the struggles of the jazz innovators career, both celebrated and lesser known, including his tangles with the labor regulations of 1960’s Great Britain. Oliphant writes:

“the same British musicians union and the Labour Ministry that had frustrated and inspired him three years earlier declared Coleman’s achievements irrelevant, and so he had to compose Emotion Modulation in order to qualify again as a ‘concert artist.’” (p. 126)

Oliphant discusses many Texas jazz artists, but stops short of identifying a specific Texas style (apart from that of the Texas Tenor tradition). At times though, he does speculate on the effect of a Texas upbringing on an artist’s music. He describes trailblazing electric guitarist and trombonist Eddie Durham (of San Marcos) as someone who:

“grew up making his own instruments, who was a crack shot with a rifle, who, when he hunted rattlesnakes, wore his boots and looked where he was going, and who shared with his musicians all that he had learned, having grown up in a family that worked and played together.” (p. 185)

While much of Mavericks is good spirited Texan jazz boosterism, Oliphant is not afraid to mix it up a little, taking aim at Howard Reich and William Gaines, co-authors of a 2003 biography of Jelly Roll Morton. Oliphant takes particular exception to their treatment of folklorist Alan Lomax, whose Library of Congress oral history tapes of Morton formed the basis of his biography Mister Jelly Roll. Oliphant writes:

“The accusation that Lomax ‘grilled Morton about sex, mayhem, and murders’ when ‘Morton wanted to talk about music’ distorts the contents of Lomax’s book. Moreover, the authors spend a good part of their own first chapter describing the New Orleans red-light district in raunchier detail than anything offered by Mister Jelly Roll. Most of what we know about Jelly’s views on his and others’ music is to be found in Lomax’s writings, and much of this information has been silently plowed back into the prose of Reich and Gaines.” p. 165)

Of course, Lomax was from Austin. (As they say, don’t mess with Texas.) Throughout Mavericks, Oliphant shows a loyalty to Texas musicians, and indeed, the state can claim many worthy trailblazers, like Durham and Coleman. As with most collections, Mavericks is a little uneven, but it is a quick read and often quite informative.