Sunday, January 11, 2015

A jazz book club

Building off of my recent "Resolutions" post, I recently finished reading some autobiographies by jazz musicians. I read "As Though I had Wings" by Chet Baker and "Possibilities" by Herbie Hancock. Just like in my Sidney Bechet book club post, I wanted to share some thoughts about the books as well as some music by these two artists.

A jazz book club


1. "As Though I had Wings" by Chet Baker 

"As Though I had Wings" is Chet Baker's memoir, and was published posthumously by his wife Carol. The book takes you through short segments of Chet Baker's life and reads like a diary. In this way, Chet recounts tales of his musical career, but also the downsides of his life, notably his long term drug addiction. 

Listen to Chet playing, "My Funny Valentine":



Chet Baker has always been one of my favorite jazz artists, and his album "Chet Baker Sings" is among my favorite albums. I think what makes this book a good read is the fact that it shows Chet Baker as a person, not just as a musician. The book reads as a conversation, instead of a history book. In fact, in the introduction to the book, Chet's wife Carol explains, "All too often celebrities are reduced to one-dimensional caricatures...Chet cannot be described as merely a musician, drug addict, husband, or legend. He was all of these and more, and this book is a testament to the fact."

Listen to Chet playing, "Minor Yours":



"As Though I had Wings" does bring Chet out of just stereotypes - through the text you can hear a deeply personal voice. What I love about Chet's music is the subtlety, melodicism, and a deep sense of relaxation. I feel patience and space within his music.  

Listen to Chet's version of "Just Friends": 




2. "Possibilities" by Herbie Hancock

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to the Boston Book Festival when Herbie first released his book. Herbie is an incredibly inspiring person, and this book isn't just for jazz fans - this book is for anyone that wants to be inspired by another person's life. Just as a teacher may read Bill Gates's autobiography, I believe "Possibilities" can be read by anyone.

Listen to Herbie playing, "Watermelon Man":



Then listen to Herbie playing, "Watermelon Man" with the Headhunters:



Even though I heard Herbie talk about Buddhism in his Harvard Lectures, I was still surprised about how Buddhism has impacted him. Besides being deeply spiritual, Herbie is very wise - his book gave me many life lessons. Notably, Herbie talked about how he has dealt with frustration since a young age - instead of letting it consume you, you can concentrate deeply on another task such as reading. This sort of simplicity of action and focus has helped me already.

Listen to Herbie playing, "You'll Know When You Get There" with Mwandishi:


What also surprised me about Herbie was that much of his music that is now loved, was initially taken with skepticism and criticism by record companies. This really put his music into perspective for me - he was doing something new, and you have to believe in the future of your music. Just as Miles Davis's 'Second Great Quintet' with Herbie was searching for a new sound, Herbie has always moved forward, even if that meant it would be difficult.

Listen to Herbie playing "Gingerbread Boy" with Miles Davis's 'Second Great Quintet':



I also enjoyed learning about how Herbie utilized music technology throughout his career, from programming synthesizers to using drum machines. He is always creating and using new technologies, which influences music today. I had not listened to much of his electronic music before reading the book, so it was nice for me to immerse myself in it.

Listen to Herbie playing, "Rockit":


Lastly, what I respect about Herbie is his willingness to collaborate with so many musicians. He won the 'Grammy of the Year' in 2008 for "River: The Joni Letters". Herbie has shared the stage with countless musicians from all different genres, which really shows that music is a tool for joy, above all categories.

Listen to Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell play "River":



Final Thoughts: 
I am very grateful that both Chet and Herbie wrote autobiographies. Being able to realize their life through their own eyes gives perspective, empathy, and a deep sense of empowerment. Through reading you start to see how other people deal with obstacles, allowing us all to see our own limitations diminish.

Please visit my jazz poetry blog, "Without a Poem" where I improvise a new poem everyday. I also added a drawing and song of the day, so stay posted! 




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