Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ghosts of Harlem Will Be Great Gift For Jazz Lover

The following review has been written for Jazz & Blues Report and hopefully will appear in the December issue. I certaainly think this book (with an included CD) would make for a terrific present for the jazz lover in your family or a gift for yourself. This lists for $75 but amazon has it for a bit over $50 as I post this.

The Ghosts of Harlem
Hank O’Neal
Vanderbilt University Press

At one time Harlem was the center of the Jazz World with such bands and performers as Duke Ellington, the Savoy Sultans, Chick Webb and others playing as part of shows at such legendary places as The Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn, the Savoy Ballroom, the Lafayette Theatre and the Apollo Theatre along with other places such as Monroe’s and Minton's. In “The Ghosts of Harlem,” Hank O’Neal provides a brief history of Harlem’s jazz scene from its heyday to its decline after World War 11, as well as provides interviews of 42 artists who were part of Harlem’s vibrant scene and get their memories as well as views on what led to the decline.

Its not a dry oral history either as author O’Neal is a gifted and noted photographer. While some may know him as the principal person behind the Chiaroscuro Records label, he was at one time on duty for the Central Intelligence Agency, before his more known musical activities which also included producing the Floating Jazz Festivals, the source of the various jazz, blues and other themed music cruises of today. Also he is well respected as a photographer and author having compiled “The Eddie Condon Scrapbook of Jazz,” “Gay Day: The Golden Age of the Christopher Day Parade,” and “Berenice Abbott”, about his friend, the noted photographer. His talents as a writer, interviewer, photographer and record producer are all given effect in this handsome coffee table volume that is richly illustrated with both his own portraits, mostly taken with a view camera, as well as archival photos from various sources. This updates the original version which was published in France in 1997).

The early chapters set the table as he explores some of the that made Harlem, contrasting his contemporary photos with historical photos as he discusses the venue, who played there and lets us see how its now a church, an apartment building or a few clubs still exist and feature live entertainment, including some jazz. The bulk of the book is devoted to the interviews of The Ghosts of Harlem. They are Ghosts only in a figurative sense, as O’Neal has common themes in the interviews including some basic biographical information, when and how they first came to Harlem, what memories they had of the places they played and what performers they remember as outstanding as well as thoughts or observations on the decline in jazz and any recent visits or experiences they had.

The persons interviewed range from such prominent jazz figures as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, Milt Hinton, Clark Terry, Benny Carter, Illinois Jacquet, and Joe Williams, along with such important persons, if not as widely known among the general public, as Andy Kirk, Eddie Durham, Sammy Price, Buddy Tate, Danny Barker and Sy Oliver. The recollections are fascinating as O’Neal is a gifted interviewer (some of his Chiaroscuro CDs included jazz speak tracks with the performers recollections included), and his contemporary portraits are mixed in with historical photo as well as label shots of 78s that the artist was featured or performed on.

Added to the interviews is a compact disc with eleven performances from the Chiarascuro catalog featuring 17 of the Ghosts of Harlem including Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Milt Hinton, Jonah Jones, Doc Cheatham, Eddie Barefield, Red Richards, Al Casey, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Danny Barker, Frank Wess, Harry Edison, Major Holley, Benny Carter, Clark Terry, and Joe Williams, and a bit of Jazz Speak with Eddie Barefield, Cab Calloway, Eddie Barefield and Milt Hinton recollecting about the times together in Cab’s great band as they joke about whether Cab had his Studebaker or Lincoln in the Pullman Car they traveled in while touring.

This is a large and heavy book. 432 pages with 475 b&w photographs and the CD with over an hour of music and talk. Its is fascinating and by its very nature invites one to delve back into it again and again. “The Ghosts of Harlem have come to life in this superb book. Something to keep in mind when looking for a gift for a jazz lover in your circle of friends or family.

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