The Shelf is trying to tell you something…..

I didn’t expect my nonfiction bookshelf to seem so dated.

On the hunt for a factoid in Ruy Castro’s excellent history Bossa Nova (published 2000) yesterday, I traveled past some beloved titles:

Agee on Film Vol. 1, a collection of the wonderfully rangey criticism of James Agee, first published in 1958.

Signposts in a Strange Land, the essays of novelist Walker Percy, published in 1991.

How to Read a Book, an updated version of the classic guide to intelligent reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, published in 1972.

American Singers, a collection of portraits by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, published in 1988.

How Fiction Works, James Woods’ enormously entertaining examination of the elements and strategies used by novelists, published in 2008.

 

Looking at the covers, I began to wonder: Would this book get signed up right now? Does it have a prayer in the Kindle store? It’s not difficult to imagine the conference room discussions at the top publishing houses were these under consideration today: “Face it, nobody reads essays anymore.” “Brazilian music, that’s something your parents liked.” “The writing’s great, but does anyone really care about those movies today?” “What need does this book answer?” And on and on.

Which is why even a relatively current work – Woods’ 2008 volume – can seem to hail from a whole ‘nuther era, a higher-faluting time when an editor somewhere thought it prudent to share one sharp reader’s observations. Of course there’s a ton of spirited and highly inventive narrative non-fiction on the shelves, but the abovementioned titles are concerned with something other than “story” – they’re essays and meditations and histories that offer a different kind of reading experience. Which means these ambitious and praiseworthy undertakings are bound for the dusty back room at the library. They just don’t sync up with our Snooki moment.

I’m wondering if they’re relics. And if so, is this troubling? Should it be? What implication does this have for writers, creators, thinkers? One disheartening answer can be found in another now-classic on the shelf: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published in 1985.

 

Moment of Silence X2

And now some quiet.

First for Johnny Otis, the great bandleader and composer of “Willie and the Hand Jive,” who died on Tuesday at age 90. (Obit here.)

And then for Ms. Etta James, one of Johnny Otis’ signature discoveries, who died today. (Obit here.)

It’s striking and maybe even a little eerie that we’ve lost these two legends — who first met in the early ’50s, when James was still a minor and singing on streetcorners in San Francisco — within the same week. At least both left troves of great music — to quickly appreciate James, skip over “At Last,” which will be played endlessly this week, and seek out “I’d Rather Go Blind” from Tell Mama. It’s one unassailable triumph of soul singing.

 

Shadow Classic: Black Talk! by Charles Earland

CHARLES EARLAND: Black Talk!

(Prestige, Recorded 1969)

When organist Charles Earland snagged a day in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with his sextet in December 1969, he was already participating in a rapidly evolving jazz debate – about whether, and how, to embrace the songs and rhythmic styles of rock and R&B. He ’d been a regular in the band of alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson for more than a year, contributing a crisp, rhythmically percussive approach that made Donaldson’s bands stand out among the many groups slinging instrumental blues and sassy-backbeat soul jazz.  The purists called what they did selling out. The younger musicians regarded it more as an inevitable step, an engagement with the modern world. (Versions of this debate persist….).

Like Donaldson, Earland recognized the ear-candy value of material that was familiar to ordinary listeners, not just jazzheads. The covers on this record – “More Today Than Yesterday,” “Aquarius,” and “Eleanor Rigby” (which is significantly and satisfyingly overhauled as “Black Talk!”) – fit that mold, and advance the debate ever so slightly. The spry arrangements provide excellent platforms for soloing: Check trumpeter Virgil Jones peering through the mists on “Aquarius,” and Earland swinging fiercely on “More Today.”

The track that destroyed me on this wasn’t a cover, however. It’s the effortlessly flowing tavern blues called “The Mighty Burner,” after Earland’s nickname. Here is a means of teleportation back to the no-artifice jazz playing that happened in small lounges throughout urban America in the 1960s: Once the comfortable medium tempo is established, Earland just snaps off chorus after chorus of vital and wonderfully melodic improvisation. He’s not trying to change the world – he’s just rolling through some blues, having fun, playing the kinds of lines he knew could connect with people who don’t have advanced music-calculus degrees.