Remembering a giant of jazz
It was only after he died that I learned that I shared both a church (Mission San Luis Rey) and a birthday (Sept. 15) with Stanley Dance.
Of course, it was our shared passion for music specifically jazz that led to our friendship. For Stanley, of course, there was no other music than jazz.
It was our mutual friendship with Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham that led to our meeting in the late 1980s; it was Jimmy, I believe, who suggested I contact Stanley and his wife, Helen Oakley Dance. I could learn a lot about writing on jazz from them, Jimmy said.
At the time, I'd not heard of Stanley, outside of his liner notes from the Cheathams' first few LPs on Concord Records. Didn't know of his voluminous accomplishments, his role in chronicling Ellington's life and times. His and Helen's status as giants of jazz journalism.
To me, they were friends of longstanding with the Cheathams and that probably would have impressed me more than their resumes, anyway.
After first contacting Stanely, we wrote rapidly and often for a few months. After that, our contact was more likely to be by phone (although toward the end, as Stanley's hearing grew worse, the phone calls were less and less effective).
One would occasionally see Stanley and Helen out about town in San Diego; they were particularly fond of attending the taping of Paul Marshall's "Club Date" live jazz program at the KPBS-TV studios on the San Diego State University campus. Stanley could reminisce with old friends like Harry "Sweets" Edison or the Cheathams, and take in a live evening of the mainstream jazz he loved so well.
For whatever reason, I've saved what letters of Stanely I have some seem to be missing, and I don't always have my letters to Stanley. They've been edited to remove some personal references, and to help them make sense over the gaps of missing letters.
Stanley and Helen's son, Francis, gave the family's approval for this project asking only that I not portray his father as close-minded, a charge tossed Stanley's way often by the young bucks.
And yet Stanley was never anything less than supportive of my efforts to learn and write about new styles. He didn't like all the music but felt I should follow my interests and passions.
He was a mentor, a friend, and I miss him still, these four years since his passing.
Dear Mr. Trageser,
Many thanks for yours of the 18th and the and the very good piece on the Cheathams. [I'd sent him a draft of an interview with the Cheathams I'd written for Living Blues magazine.]
My only criticism of the latter would be to take out the questions in caps. That's a form of cheap journalism already in increasing disrepute. After the first question, remove the colon following "interviewed" and replace with a period. Then continue, "Asked how she first became involved with music, Jeannie replied:" Or something like that. Put quotes at the beginning of her paras and close after Wynonie Harris. Continue with: "And Dakota Staton," Jimmy added. That makes the whole thing easier on the reader - and his eye. Or so I think. Oh, and on the second page, I'd run a row of asterisks after your introduction and before the interview properly begins.
I don't see Living Blues any longer, but am curious to know if they ever reviewed my wife's T-Bone Walker book. And if not, why not!
Both of my interviews with the Cheathams appeared in the London Jazz Journal. I offered Jude Hibler the right to reprint in her Jazz Link, but so far she hasn't asked for them, although she ran the one I did with Jimmie Noone.
March 29, 1990Dear Mr. Dance,
Peter Lee, editor of LB, said Mrs. Dance's book on T-Bone Walker will be reviewed in one of the next few issues. When I see it, I'll send along a copy of the issue for her.
One thing I wanted to ask you is did you encounter much reverse racism from editors? For instance, Living Blues is a vital outlet for blues biographies, given the rather limited interest in such material, yet the magazine will not give any space to discussion of white blues musicians. In fact, in the most recent issue, there were two lengthy commentaries bemoaning the fact that more blacks are not fans of blues, and arguing that without a black audience, the blues will become a museum piece. Yet, both of these authors, as well as the editor of the magazine, are white.
Maybe I'm off base here, but it seems to me that jazz took a giant step forward when its fans accepted white musicians s full members of the community; players such as Bix Beiderbecke or Django opened the door to later whites. I feel that any artistic form can only survive and flourish if it opens the door to all would-be participants and changes with the times so that it remains reflective of the society it needs to support it.
I've enclosed the Red Rodney interview to get any feedback from you I can.
Thanks for yours of yesterday and the enclosure.
The Rodney piece is quite okay, although I have no sympathy with the talk of synthesizers and using rock and fusion elements. That has more to do with dollars than music.
Jim Crow and Crow Jim attitudes have always been common in jazz thinking. I find whites imitating the accents and styles of Mississippi farmhands very hard to take. Blues surely is a black creation, and I guess I would feel similarly uncomfortable with Mexicans playing Scottish airs on the bagpipes or Chinese playing tzigane music on fiddles. I've nothing against their doing so for their own pleasure, but critical questions of authenticity surely arise.
I never had any editorial interference on these grounds, athough Downbeat decided I was writing too much about my main interest, Duke Ellington, at one point. In general, I was far more concerned with black musicians than white, because I liked what they played more, but I interviewed white musicians from time to time when they interested me. Generally, of course, the bias or emphasis was white, and white jazz musicians have had more than their fair share of the cake for seventy years, which is understandable since they are representative of the majority.
April 3, 1990Dear Mr. Dance,
I quite agree with your wariness of whites who merely imitate the blues. What I was getting at is there is a small group of white musicians now in their late 30s to mid-40s who were raised with the blues, learned the music from the older black musicians, and are, for all intents and purposes, blues muisicans. I'm referring, specifically, to Johnny Winter (who toured with Muddy Waters for years), Tracy Nelson, Ronnie Earl or Angela Strehli, among others. Their vocal patterns are of the dominant white culture, they bring all the cultural baggage of being white to their music, but they play the blues. It is, to be sure, not the blues of Sleepy John Estes, Albert King or Howlin' Wolf, and there are very definite patterns that differentiate "White" blues from that played by blacks. But the music is, while different from that which went before, also OF the previous music, and not merely rock with a few bluesy sounds tossed in.
This group does not try to imitate the blues, they just play it, yet far too often they are dismissed by (white) audiences and critics as being inauthentic. (Interestingly, when I attended a Bobby "Blue" Bland concert last week, the mostly black audience was quite receptive to the Blonde Bruce Band, an all-white blues ensemble which opened the show, and seemed more willing to judge the band by the music.)
Now, I may very well be wrong about all this, and be off on some tangent that doesn't exist. But if those who control the outlets of such inquiry and criticism do not open up the venues for a discussion of the role of non-blacks in the continuing develoment of the blues, I fear we may be preserving a historically inaccurate picture.
I recognize the danger of opening the door to those who would use this opportunity to downplay the role of blacks in the blues and jazz. As you pointed out, white jazz musicians have received more attention than their numbers or contributions would seem to warrant. And certainly, far too many white rock muisicians have been hailed as "bluesmen" (Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, et al).
An editorial in the latest issue of Living Blues points out that it would be a tragedy if blues went the way of Dixieland jazz, where whole scores of fans reamain ignorant that this was music invented by blacks, and once played only by blacks.
But one of the phenomena of our century has been the breaking down of cultural barriers between ethnic groups. I think that the Tex-Mex music, which developed in the 1920s, was only the first example of will be a gradual intermingling of the races to produce new styles of music. Whereas the Tex-Mex is a result of German immigrants living in close proximity with Hispanics, I think contemporary blues will continue to change as our society becomes more closely tied together, and it will become impossible to predict someone's authenticity by their ethnicity.
I just fear that as time goes on, the older musicians begin dying, and we begin seriously analyzing the next generation, it will become impossible to write of the contemporary music scene without acknowledging the contributions of non-blacks. It seems important to me that thte critics begin preparing ourselves both intellectually and emotionally, lest we find ourselves stuck in a parochialism that does not allow us to present a record faithful to the music.
Again, many thanks for your time,
Those are all good points you raise, but I feel they are part of what Pete Welding calls "the erosion of the blues."
I have heard some of those white people you mention and found them unconvincing. I was disappointed with and by Angela Strehli because she looked attractive in photographs. Conversely, I found Johnny Winter quite repellent to look at! I suppose that a lot depends on the lyrics that issue from these pale faces.
When Ozzie Bailey went to Paris with Duke Ellington and sang Autumn Leaves in French with a near-perfect accent, he was booed -- because he was lame. Don't go on a French stage with a physical disability! But I don't think they would tolerate white blues singers there, or white blues guitarists, and yet the French are supposed to be supremely logical. Yet French audiences obviously had an ill effect on Memphis Slim, and I have a CD of his with appalling guests who sounded like visiting American rednecks.
Of course, your position is quite different from mine. You presumably are looking forward to an active career in journalism, whereas I now look back and care more about the past than the future. As with jazz, I would say the golden -- blue -- days of the blues are over. The hybrids to come, as well as those to which we are now subjected, may have great virtues, but I am not concerned with them. There is far too much great music on records, which I don't have enough time to hear, to worry about the hybrids and the future. I have never been optimistic about the jazz future, and never less so than now when Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis are recognized as the music's major figures.
Bebop was largely responsible for losing jazz its black audience. I fear the blues is rapidly becoming as foreign to younger blacks as Dixieland.
I don't think that maintaining standards should be regraded as "parochialism." Americans in general are too quickly swayed by fashion, too easily influenced by hype. I believe some of the country's best brains are on Madison Avenue.
April 11, 1990Dear Mr. Dance,
Thank you for your letter of April 6. I did not mean to imply that open-mindedness to nhew hybrids should be construed to mean accepting all music, no matter its quality.
One interesting note on blues and its lack of a young black audience comes from LeRoi Jones, in his book "Blues People." He argued that R&B was a natural progression from blues and jazz, and it gained in popularity because it spoke to the changing conditions in which blacks found themselves. Blues, as it is traditionally thought of, speaks to conditions that no longer exist, or else speaks in a manner blacks no longer find relevant, he wrote. Much as with Dixieland jazz.
Another question I wanted to ask was on interviewing techniques. When you are conducting an interview on someone's life story, as in "The World of Count Basie," where very many life stories are included, what have you found to be the most productive method? Do you tape record the interview or reconstruct it from notes? Do you try to get all the information in one long session or over a series of shorter interviews? How do you prod along a reluctant subject without intruding on his/her story? How much license do you take in reconstructing their story into something readable (in terms of editing vernacular into standard English, rearranging the order of their comments to group topics chronoligically, etc.)?
I think that, as in so many areas, LeRoi Jones got r. and b. wrong. The subjects of so many Louis Jordan songs were oldtime, almost minstrelsy. Bebop generally turned off the black audience, young and old, while the big bands began to play music that was altogether too complicated for it. Too expensive, too. R. and b. was a commercial dilution, on the one hand, and a corning up on the other. So much of it was really corny. The fact that bands like Jordan's and Roy Milton's could play listenable jazz doesn't alter the fact that most of the time they were playing down to their audience. Studio groups were even worse. Great jazz musicians were obliged to plya like cornballs or record dates. There were exceptions, obviously, but the r. and b. movement was like the first major step to rock 'n' roll.
Interviews: if you're doing a kind of news story on an artist on whom you have the basic facts, all you need is a notebook to take down the quotable bits. For bigger stories and profiles, I always used a tape recorder. I usually tried to get the story of the artist's life to date, so I began by asking date of birth, influence of parents, first steps in music, etc. I'd usually get all the info in one long session and then disentangle muddled bits by telephone. Of course, you have to make readers comfortable, and reordering the material to gain some dramatic impact is, I think, perfectly permissible. So far as possible, I'd arrange it in chronological order, and I'd try to keep the musician on track as we talked. Sometimes they'd jump ahead or remember something they'd forgotten. Some correction of spoken errors, like double negatives, was also permissible in my opinion. I'd drop out "I mean" when it occurred too many times. Musicians who like and respect you will talk freely, but also carelessly, and it is against my principles to present them as illiterate types. Nevertheless, a certain amount of slang helps bring them to life. I like best the interview where the musiciandoes all the talking and the interviewer is inaudible or invisible. I hate the q. and a. method, as you know. But some editors insist on the interviewer's providing linking passages. In such cases, it is not hard to translate something the musician has said.
Enough for now. I've a lot of work on my plate!
April 11, 1990Dear Mr. Dance,
Thank you for the letter of April 14. While I've more or less been conducting interviews along the lines you mentioned, I never have had any formal training, so it's reassuring to know others have succeeded in like fashion.
Regrading stylistic considerations in presenting a biography, I've enclosed two articles I've recently written. The one on Papa John Creach is much as you did in "The World of Count Basie," in that I preface a first-person autobiography with a few comments. The Tom Cat Courtney piece is a third-person narrative, liberally sprinkled with his own comments.
The Creach piece has been accepted for publication by Living Blues, and they are interested in a more in-depth re-write of the Courtney piece.
To be honest, I prefer to write the Courtney piece in a silent narrator autobiography, but wonder if the previosuly published version (third-person?) is not easier on the reader?
Again, many thanks for your time,
The Tom Cat is okay as is, I think, especially since the factual data is slight.
Have made a few suggestions re. Papa John for your consideration.*
* Link up short paragraphs where separation is unnecessary. Living Blues is not a newspaper.
August 20, 1990Dear Mr. Dance,
I am at a point where I would like to get an agent to represent me, and would be most grateful for any advice or recomendations you might make. I have absolutely no experience in this area.
Also find enclosed a copy of a story on Jeannie Cheatham I wrote for the Akron Beach Journal.
Oh, Mrs. Dance's book on T-Bone Walker (although not yet reviewed by Living Blues) has been nominated for the Blues Hall of Fame.
Thank you for the letter and the nice piece on Jeannie C.
There may be agents who act for free-lance journalists, but I have never heard of them. My course has always been to write to editors when I have ideas or something ready and written. Sometimes other writers recommend you. The jazz field seems to be seriously overcrowded at this point, but work in it has always been more a matter of love than anything else. So just keep writing and wait for the breaks.
Many thanks for sending that issue of Living Blues. Helen was very pleased to see that intelligent review. We still can't understand why they didn't do it in hardback. Someone ran off with the review copy, I suppose.
Good about Grove -- so long as they don't mess up as they did with their jazz books.
The mammoth Grove Dictionary of Jazz was generally regarded as a fiasco well-organized, but too many errors of fact and too many careless omissions. A lot will depend on the editoriship of the blues work.