Read About the Pain, Then Listen to the Joy
The linkage between books and records is helping to make stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble into profitable hangouts of the ‘90s. And, in a perfect example of the growing importance of that linkage, two Verve albums are being released in an unusual cross-promotion with two compelling biographies: “Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz” by Donald L. Maggin and “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn” by David Hajdu. Further solidifying the connections, Maggin wrote the liner notes for the Getz collection, and Hajdu selected the tunes and wrote the notes for the Strayhorn set.
The impact of such cross-promotions appears to have significant promise for jazz sales, especially when the promotions are associated with an in-store appearance. Performers such as Etta James and Branford Marsalis and his father, Ellis, have generated considerable sales of recordings and (in James’ case) books as the result of in- store events.
The arrival of Getz and Strayhorn book/record packages in the same month is coincidental but apropos. Each represented an opposite side of the image of the jazz romantic, irresistibly drawn to the music’s promise of self-expression. But each dealt with the search for the promise in different ways--Getz via an unceasing, globe-trekking search for emotional validity through his music, Strayhorn through a reclusive privacy in which his work was usually disclosed within the colorful panorama of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
As it turns out, however, rather than serve as companion pieces, the books and records underscore the enigmatic qualities of both artists. The common threads of addiction (in Getz’s case) and alcoholism (in both men), of struggle and isolation that are revealed in the biographies, are not, ironically, the controlling factors in their music, which is almost always filled with spirit and optimism. Even Strayhorn’s darker compositions possess a buoyant sense of hope and enthusiasm, and Getz, throughout periods of poverty, arrest and failed relationships, never played his tenor saxophone with anything less than an upbeat, life-affirming energy.
Ranging over three decades, from 1961 to 1991, the Getz compilation does not precisely represent a complete “Life in Jazz,” omitting, as it does, the extraordinarily creative work of Getz’s youth in the ‘40s and ‘50s. But it does touch upon some interesting high points. Among them: an explosive “Night Rider,” from Getz’s collaboration with Eddie Sauter in the composer’s quasi-classical piece “Focus”; “Corcovado,” from Getz’s bossa nova years, with Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim; and a moving duet with Kenny Barron on “Night and Day,” recorded three months before Getz’s death in 1991 at the age of 64.
Strayhorn actually performs on only a few tracks of the “Song Book,” including a long out-of-print version of “Your Love Has Faded,” recorded in 1961 by an aggregate of Ellington players. But there are many other gems: “Lush Life,” sung by Sarah Vaughan (reportedly Strayhorn’s favorite interpretation--other than his own); a singular rendering of “Johnny Come Lately” by Cecil Taylor; and a poignant reading of “Blood Count” by Getz with the Kenny Barron Trio.
The Dutch Jazz Orchestra’s fascinating Strayhorn collection offers another perspective on the work of the small, unsung composer-pianist. Eight of the 12 tracks have never been recorded before. The remaining four were issued at some point in the past, but never in the original versions included here. Obviously, this is a work of considerable scholarship and a valuable contribution to Strayhorn’s historical memory.
But it also is enchanting music, well played, with first-rate soloing. The Orchestra makes no attempt to imitate the Ellington sound, yet it surely is a testimonial to Strayhorn’s vital importance to the creation of that sound that the music emerges with a distinctly Ellingtonesque character. Obviously, it does not require a revisionist point of view to suggest that Strayhorn played a major role in the development and sustenance of that character.
Despite their differences, Getz and Strayhorn were alike in one crucial way: an undeviating obsession with music, regardless of the consequences. Getz himself sums it up best in the Maggin biography when he describes his life as a compulsive ". . . reach for perfection in music, often--in fact, mostly--at the expense of everything else in my life.”
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