By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
AND THEY ALL SANG: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 336 pages, $16.95
GIANTS OF JAZZ
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 224 pages, $14.95
Let's — just this once — not refer to Studs Terkel as an oral historian. It's a title even he probably finds a bit dubious and, for the purposes of this article at least, it doesn't work. Oral historians sit and talk to one person for 12 hours, the reel-to-reel whirring all the while, and it all gets typed up for a dissertation shelved in a university library. Sure, Terkel wound up making a helluva career by popularizing something along these lines, but he started out as a disc jockey. He chatted with guests for hardly more than an hour. He probed their creative process and apparently applied some of it to his own published work. That is, he found the common threads — the melody — in American life, and like a true folk musician he used his talents to remind us that we're all part of something bigger than ourselves.
This seems to have been his goal, conscious or not, right out of the gate, as illustrated in two new paperbacks hearkening back to the chattier, tuneful dawn of Studs. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey is last year's round-up of conversations Terkel conducted with musicians on his Chicago-based radio show, largely from the '50s and '60s; and Giants of Jazz is yet another reprint of Terkel's first book, comprised of 13 concise and compelling biographies of the pioneers of American jazz.
"Your jazz is something more than just something invented," he tells singer Betty Carter in a 1989 interview from And They All Sang. "It's part of a continuity." This is the overall Terkel Thesis, and it formed here among these early considerations of music. His life's work has been looking at individuals and how they relate to the whole messy mass of society, and American popular music is expertly adept at reflecting that very relationship. (These books focus on jazz and classical music, mostly, which were, believe it or not, once the popular music of the country.)
And They All Sang gets opera singers, composers and even a young, already-evasive Bob Dylan discussing who they are by means of who inspired them. Giants of Jazz, though, is expertly structured to illustrate this. For example, the chapter on Louis Armstrong is sandwiched between the one about King Oliver (who mentored young Louis) and Bessie Smith (who was affected by the sound of Louis' horn); Smith's bio mentions the moment Bix Beiderbecke heard her sing, a moment that left him in awe — and which figures into his own chapter, the next one. These links build a chain throughout the book — mashing up with full force when Count Basie and Charlie Parker hit Kansas City, and then when Dizzy Gillespie meets Bird — and they leave the impression that, yes, each individual was a formidable talent but, no, the opportunity for that talent to succeed did not present itself in a vacuum. These musicians were a part of something greater than themselves, and their own personalities amplified the human race as a whole. It's all part of a continuity.
That idea succeeds in these texts not only because of the way Terkel assembles and sequences the Jazz bios, but also by virtue of the space he allows his subjects — both in the spotlight he gives them in Jazz and in the airtime he allowed them on radio. Then again, throughout the interviews in And They All Sang, Terkel's subjects speak freely not only because they have some time to talk but because their interviewer clearly is a musical autodidact. He's not just well-informed but wide open to all forms of music, asking questions of Janis Joplin (they talk about primitive inspirations vs. new technologies) and Keith Jarrett (they discuss his piano technique) that are as thoughtful and insightful as those he lobs at Sol Jurok (the impresario discusses singer Feodor Chaliapin) and Leonard Bernstein (the two share a moment of discovery about Terkel's performance as Editor Daily in "The Cradle Will Rock").
In other words, Terkel's not just a fan with a chat show. He listens, in every sense of the word. And that's the rare talent that made his own career worthy of countless media interviews.
But again, this is not oral history. This, at least in the case of And They All Sang, is transcribed radio where conversations, driven by time constraints, often are incomplete. And sometimes they make a difficult read. Sitar player Ravi Shankar, for instance, discusses Indian music this way: "Based on this scale, this raga has its own ascending, descending movements. I'll just give you a little example. [He plays] This is equivalent to the major scale, for instance. [He plays] On each of these scales, we have got hundreds of ragas. [He plays] What I'm playing actually are the skeletons of the ragas, known as the ascending and descending movements." Bet those brackets sounded great on the air, but they're hardly enlightening on the page.
Jazz, however, is deceptively alluring, presenting itself as dry facts but carefully crafted so as to suck you into the intoxicating brew of history — and its meanings. Sitting down with this book and an iTunes account makes for an exciting survey course in jazz music, which continues to evolve. But Terkel, who wrote the book in 1957 and updated it in 1975, explains at the end, in the final chapter "Jazz Is the Music of Many," why he chose these 13 players and singers: "In a number of cases the lives and careers of these men [and women] intertwined. In all cases their music did. For the story of jazz cannot be confined to one era or to one style. It is a story of continuous growth. . . . Jazz is one long chain. The lives and the music of these 13 artists are among its major links."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.