Three Books For The Jazz Lover On Your List Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a singer's biography, a pianist's autobiography, and a fat coffee table book.

Three Books For The Jazz Lover On Your List

Three Books For The Jazz Lover On Your List

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Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews three jazz books out this holiday season—a singer's biography, a pianist's autobiography, and a fat coffee table book. Whitehead says they're all worth a look, though he has a couple of quibbles — and also a confession.


This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, has a review of three jazz books out this holiday season - a singer's biography, a pianist's autobiography and a fat coffee-table book. Kevin says they're all worth a look, though he has a couple of quibbles and also a confession.


SHEILA JORDAN: (Singing) The very thought of you and I forget to do those little ordinary things that everyone ought to do.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: This thing used to happen to Sheila Jordan. Some jazz journalist would interview her about her fascinating life, and the writer would say, we should do a book together. And she'd say, great. And then nothing would happen. I know because I was one of those useless writers, so I was pleased and relieved to get Ellen Johnson's book "Jazz Child: A Portrait Of Sheila Jordan," much of it in the singer's own words.


JORDAN: (Singing) Born in Detroit, Michigan, November the 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse's birthday. My mother she was only 16 years old, and she couldn't raise me so she sent me to live with my grandparents in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania state.

WHITEHEAD: In western PA, she heard grandpa's Cherokee chants and miners singing on the weekends before discovering bebop as a Detroit teenager. Her idol, Charlie Parker, befriended her. She moved to New York and recorded for Blue Note before dropping out to raise a daughter. When Sheila Jordan was in her late 50s, she began a steamrolling comeback and a second career as an inspiring teacher. Thirty years on, she's still going.


JORDAN: (Singing)I should have never left you. My life is...

WHITEHEAD: Much as I enjoyed Ellen Johnson's "Jazz Child," it isn't always the best organized or fact-checked jazz bio. But if I wanted it written to my specifications, I should have done it myself.

Another good but flawed book out now is the dictionary-sized Blue Note Records' "Uncompromising Expression," celebrating the label's 75th anniversary. It's mostly an excuse to reproduce a lot of beautiful LP covers from the '50s and '60s, outtakes from album cover photo shoots and session photographs by a label partner, Frank Wolff.

Richard Havers's text is good on Blue Note's early history and design sense - foggier on the '60s and awful on the '80s. He doesn't even tell us how Lee Morgan's '60s hit, "The Sidewinder," kicked off a Blue Note trend, starting LPs with similar radio-friendly boogaloos.


WHITEHEAD: As a tie-in, Blue Notes issued a mini box of 75 singles, also called "Uncompromising Expression." The book is for the fans, but the box is an introduction, heavy on usual suspects like Jimmy Smith and Horace Silver. It has some of the book's flaws, slighting the '80s and touting the label's current pop-inflected stuff. It ends with five recent cuts, none released as singles, by the way. All unlikely to make Blue Note's next anniversary set. This one will still be there, though - Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man."


WHITEHEAD: When he recorded that in 1962, Herbie Hancock said "Watermelon Man" was based on the cry of a Chicago street vendor. In his new autobiography, he revises that story. It's actually based on how the neighborhood ladies greeted the vendor as he rolled up the block. Hey, watermelon man.


WHITEHEAD: Herbie Hancock's book "Possibilities," written with Lisa Dickey, is full of such clarifying tidbits. By his own account, the pianist was cool and analytical, and he's good at dissecting his own behavior. He tells good stories about being mentored in the business by Donald Byrd and in music by Miles Davis and talks about his love of technology and how it fed his turn toward funk in the 1970s.


WHITEHEAD: Herbie Hancock has had some personal setbacks - notably, a slow slide into a surprise drug problem in the '90s, but not many. He's always come across as engaged and likable, and his book reinforces that impression. I wish he talked about his pianistic influences a little more, but few jazz books are perfect, though Hancock's "Possibilities" comes closer than some.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed a biography of jazz singer Sheila Jordan, an autobiography by Herbie Hancock and the 75th anniversary book about Blue Note records.

And speaking of books, if you're shopping for books to give as holiday gifts, there's a lot of suggestions recommended by NPR staff, including our book critic Maureen Corrigan, on the NPR book concierge which you'll find at

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Myers, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Therese Madden. I'm Terry Gross.

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