Under the Xmas Tree

WBGO has a jazz gift guide worth checking out. Here’s a few DTM selections, many of which are “in the family” or “locally sourced.”

Two things on the WBGO list I have a personal connection to:

I wrote an extensive essay for Charlie Parker: The Mercury & Clef 10-inch LP Collection, a set of glorious music in a deluxe package. Harry Weinger put this project together, and he proved to be an excellent editor as well. This is a box for the ages and I’m honored to be a part of it. Excerpt from my notes:

As Bird became established as his own bandleader, microgroove 10-inch LPs became a new format for the music, part of an industry-wide shift in recording techniques and commercial prospects in the late 1940s. Jazz producers, like Norman Granz, could now deliver 10 minutes of music per side; the electrical 78 rpm single, the dominant format for nearly three decades, maxed out at three minutes per side. Record companies were also dabbling in the 12-inch microgroove LP – short for “Long Player” – mainly for classical music, presuming jazz and pop fans would prefer the smaller package of a 10-inch, closer in size and cost to a 78 rpm “album” folio. By the mid-1950s, however, the companies wised up and moved all LP product to the 12-inch. The 10-inch LP became obsolete.

Granz had been releasing 78s for a while. He started out in 1944 producing concerts billed as Jazz at the Philharmonic — famously, he cancelled performances at venues that wouldn’t relax rules about audience segregation — before moving on to management and the record business. Eventually he’d produce a slew of JATP recordings first through Mo Asch’s label before settling in with Chicago-based Mercury Records in the late 1940s. He would soon place releases on his own Clef imprint before forming Verve and taking his catalog with him.

Granz had often featured Bird at JATP events. Signing him as a solo artist, Granz in the studio tried to present Charlie Parker as a recording artist for the general audience. He succeeded, at least in part: Bird with Strings remains Bird’s best-selling album. South of the Border also offers something specifically aimed for a casual listener. 

This 10-inch collection balances those heavily arranged dates with some of Bird’s best unfettered studio performances: a hardcore bop session with Gillespie and Monk, and Quartet tracks with pianists Hank Jones or Al Haig.

In the Parker box, it’s nice to see my byline next to David Ritz, a writer I really respect.

Another writer I admire is Kevin Whitehead. I reviewed Whitehead’s massive overview Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film for Noir City. Excerpt:

Whitehead has unique qualifications for this monumental task, for he has spent decades in the trenches as a jazz critic. He loves the music and has personal relationships with major practitioners. His previous books include an insightful exploration of Amsterdam improvisation, New Dutch Swing, and a worthy general history, Why Jazz? 

An insider’s perspective is required, for many of the movies included in Play the Way You Feel are not especially loved by serious jazz fans or musicians. Of course, painters don’t love movies about painters and newspaper reporters don’t love movies about newspaper reporters. When the topic is too close to home, a fictionalized story rarely satisfies. However, jazz may be particularly messy in how it colors outside the lines: art vs. entertainment, improvisation vs. composition, the steady drumbeat of racial politics: It’s all a bit hard to sum up on the back of the box. If you know, you know. If you don’t know, you don’t know.

Whitehead “knows,” the films usually “don’t know.” However, that doesn’t stop Whitehead from  setting aside his prejudices and taking each film on its own terms.

I shamelessly recycled some of this commentary for a forthcoming essay about Pixar’s Soul (with nods to Whiplash, La-La Land, and Green Book) for The Nation, which should go online just before Xmas…


Kids still read! On the YA tip, the great Daniel Pinkwater has a new book out, The Adventures of a Dwergish Girl. It’s classic Pinkwater, one of his best. Yes! God bless Daniel Pinkwater. When I was a kid, I treated Alan Mendelsohn, Boy From Mars and Lizard Music as manuals of style. I will always owe Pinkwater a great debt.

Pinkwater is an influence on my wife, Sarah Deming; when he blurbed her first book Iris, Messenger, it was a coup. Sarah’s Gravity from a year ago was critically acclaimed and remains a perfect gift. She’s hard at work on her next project, more on that in 2021…


Of course, some adults still read as well. I’ve just finished Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, the music book of the year. I will be interviewing Alex for DTM soon.

While prepping for the interview I also re-read Alex’s The Rest is Noise, a general history of twentieth-century classical music. I admired The Rest is Noise first time, but if anything enjoyed it even more the second go-round. It’s from 2007 but there’s nothing dated about it in the slightest, it’s still an ideal gift for, say, a college student seeking to open their mind to fresh sounds.


On a more serious note, two books about politics help answer the question, “How could 70 million Americans vote to re-elect Trump?”

These aren’t perhaps “fun holiday reads” but I feel better after my exposure to them: It is always better to know than stay in the dark.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean is an unsettling read. Prize-winning economist James Buchanan is not as familiar name as Charles Koch, but it turns out Koch’s fiefdom of smart lawyers, judges, and activists fighting for the rights of the wealthy owe a lot to Buchanan. Incredibly, Buchanan advised Pinochet and the other Chilean leaders in the early 70s; to this day, people on the Buchanan-to-Koch spectrum regard Chile as a success, a case where the money got to protect the money. MacLean draws a straight line from this to the Flint water crisis, as the undercutting of state programs results in America being just like a third-world country.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson looks at why poorer citizens seemingly vote against their interests. The answer, of course, is tribalism and fear. Wilkerson compares racism in America to the caste system in India and Nazism in Germany. Sadly, the parallels are not as much of a stretch as one might think, for the desire to keep the old ways in place is almost a religious war for many Americans.

“How could 70 million Americans vote to re-elect Trump?” MacLean solves the money side, Wilkerson solves the subconscious side. I’m going to be a little less surprised by my fellow voters in the future…