Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jazz & Blues Musicians of SC

Jazz & Blues Musicians of South Carolina: Interviews with Jabbo, Dizzy, Drink, and Others
By Benjamin Franklin V
University of South Carolina Press

Aside from Dizzy Gillespie’s Cheraw roots, South Carolina rarely factors in the popular histories of jazz. Jack McCray offered the beginnings of a case that Charleston deserves a place alongside New Orleans as an early incubator of the music in his photographic history of the city’s jazz scene. Now Benjamin Franklin V contributes interviews with nineteen jazz artists, and a few blues musicians, who either were born or spent a significant period of time in the Palmetto State, collected in Jazz & Blues Musicians of South Carolina.

To give South Carolina its due, there are in fact some big names represented in Franklin’s book, including Gillespie, Arthur Prysock, Jabbo Smith, Chris Potter, and both Etta Jones and Houston Person. (Longtime Basie sideman Johnny Williams graces the cover.) There are some interesting biographical details here that I have not read elsewhere. For instance, Prysock’s voice is actually familiar to millions from the eight years he sang “Here’s to Good Friends” for Lowenbrau.

In fact, J&BSC really starts to pick up as a read about the point of Prysock’s interview. Franklin adapted the book from interviews conducted for the South Caroliniana Library at USC, publishing them in a strict transcription format. Some would have greatly benefited had they been fleshed out into feature profiles, particularly the more senior musicians who start the book and prove to be more reserved, even reticent in their answers.

However, he had no trouble getting Drink Small talking in an interview that reads like it is perilously close to spinning out of control when the guitarist-vocalist starts discussing religion, telling Franklin:

“But like I tell people, I had me a lady almost cry. I said, ‘Lady, nobody going to heaven but me.’ She said, ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘Because I tell the truth. Nobdy going to heaven.’ What you got to say about that?

BF: I don’t know Drink.” (p. 75)

The most valuable interviews in J&BSC feature musicians who participated in some memorable late 1950’s sessions in New York, but had since been largely forgotten. Ron Free was something of a prodigy on drums who recorded with the likes of Lee Konitz and Mose Allison. Despite having a great name for jazz, personal problems including drugs sidetracked his career for many years. However, he sounds quite philosophical about it all in his session with Franklin, telling him: “I used to say that if you had a lot of real bad karma in a previous lifetime, you came back in this one as a jazz musician.” (p. 128)

Webster Young barely qualifies for inclusion having simply been born in the state, but spending little time there subsequently. Yet his chapter might be the most valuable since very little has been written about the under-appreciated trumpeter. For one thing, he describes a mentoring side of Miles Davis’s personality rarely recognized by his biographers. He relates one such incident when the famous musician gave him a shot of confidence for his first recording session: “On the morning of the date, I went over to see Miles, and he convinced me that I could do it.” (p. 63)

Naturally some themes and touchstone institutions recur throughout. For older musicians, it is the Jenkins Orphanage brass band. For younger musicians, the Main Street Jazz Festival looms large in their memories of South Carolina jazz. However, high school and college marching bands seemed to be a fairly common formative experience across generations.

Some of the less heralded artists of J&BSC turned out to be the more compelling interview subjects. More historical context and descriptive prose would have helped smooth over the rough edges of the transcript format, but there are some good stories to be found in the book. While uneven, it could have greater value to jazz researchers than its regional title might suggest.