Gerald Nachman, author of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s

August 21st, 2003

The comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s were a totally different breed of relevant, revolutionary performer from any that came before or after, comics whose humor did much more than pry guffaws out of audiences.

“The new post-Korean War comedy poked and prodded and observed, demolishing fond shibboleths left and right; it didn’t just pulverize with a volley of joke-book gags,” critic Gerald Nachman writes in Seriously Funny; The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  “Nearly every major comedian who broke through in the 1950’s and early 1960’s was a cultural harbinger.”  The names back his claim up, among them Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, Shelley Berman, Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby, Nichols and May, and, of course, Lenny Bruce.

Nachman discusses the comedy created amid an era he describes as “much maligned” and far from the innocuous and innocent image we have come to associate with it, in our August, 2003 interview.

Interview by Paul Hallaman.

 

 

 

 *

 

 

 

 

“The hothouse rooms of the late 1950’s and ’60’s, where this era’s young comic geniuses were planted, nurtured, and bloomed, had little in common with the posh showrooms of America’s comic past.  These small clubs didn’t start out as snug parlors for comedians but as hang-outs for folksingers and beat poets.  Cheap wine was served in carafes and the price for the evening was a few bucks, no cover charge.  People smoked cigarettes (of various composition) and argued politics and poetry.  The shock troops who waded ashore and established beachheads in the small rooms were not comedians at all, but folksingers and jazz musicians.  They struck the first antiestablishment chords while the comics strummed their own themes mocking the government, suburban life, the sanctity of marriage, and every other hand-me-down value and vaunted institution.  The folksingers sang about it and the comedians dissected it.”

– Gerarld Nachman

______________________

JJM   I would like to start with the title of your book, “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s.”  To crib one of Mort Sahl’s lines, maybe you could define your terms?  What makes them rebels?

GN  They are rebels in the kind of comedy that they did. “Revolutionary” might be a better word that would have defined all the comedians of the era, because when you think of “rebel” you do think of a Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce or Dick Gregory — but rebel is a shorter and a sexier word, so I went with that.  It is true that “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” would be good descriptions, because the kind of comedy that all these people performed was satirical and socially relevant.  It was a new kind of comedy for this country to experience.

JJM  You quote the Village Voice writing in 1971 that the fifties were “a dismal decade of cultural rubbish.”  Your book does a lot to refute that.

GN  Yes. The fifties, when I grew up, is too easily dismissed and condescended to as a time when nothing much was going on  While it was a politically repressive era, it was not so culturally.  The things that exploded in the sixties, politically, socially and culturally, were set up by what happened in the fifties. There is a whole list of people in my book — Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, J.D. Salinger, Tennessee Williams, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, to name a few — who were making waves artistically, saying things about the “buttoned-up” society that contributed to changing it.  Add the comedians like Mort Sahl, Nichols and May, Dick Gregory, Bob and Ray and a host of others to this group.  The fifties were an era when things were really starting to happen.  The forties is looked upon as being such a dramatic time because of World War II, and the sixties because of the social turmoil and political activism.  The fifties have been lost in between, and there has to be a reevaluation of it.  Hopefully my book does a little of that by pointing out some of the groundbreaking comedy that was being performed.

JJM The comedian Jean Shepherd said, “There is a nostalgia for an unlived past.”  Popular historians like David Halberstam write of the cultural icons of the fifties in the rock and roll and sports worlds, yet chronicle very little about those in jazz, literature, the arts — whether it is Allen Ginsberg or Paul Desmond or Nichols and May.  The result is that we are left with the images of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and Ward and June Cleaver as symbols of a past that didn’t necessarily exist.

GN  It was innocent in a way, it was naïve in a way, and it was also much more than that. You can’t just stamp one word on a decade and have it apply to everything. While there is a certain kind of innocence associated with that decade, there also was a lot about it that wasn’t. The rebel comedians were satirizing all of that.

JJM  What was a typical 1950’s nightclub setting?

GN   Prior to the era we are discussing, nightclubs in the big cities tended to be big posh show rooms that required lots of money to see a band, show girls, and dance.  These clubs had cigarette girls and sold orchids while on stage a comedian in tuxedo told jokes he had either stolen or bought.  All that changed in these intimate clubs like San Francisco’s hungry i and the Purple Onion, Chicago’s Mister Kelly’s, and New York’s Bitter End and Village Vanguard.  These clubs were little rooms that lent themselves to an intimate, intellectual kind of comedy.  Much of the audience was made up of college students and educated professionals and the atmosphere provided a much different experience.  You could go in and spend a few bucks on a bottle of wine or coffee or a hamburger, and it was much more conducive to truth telling.

JJM So it was a perfect venue for someone like Mort Sahl to speak his mind.

GN  Yes. He came out of Cal Berkeley and the coffee houses there, and these little rooms like the hungry i were like classrooms.  You couldn’t rely on schtick even if you wanted to, because it was a different sensibility — and Sahl was not into that.  He was into ideas and talked about what was on his mind, including details of his personal life — all of which was really new in comedy.  Comedians of that era and before mostly just told a lot of one liners about their mother-in-law, and jokes that were just jokes that didn’t have much to say about anything.  They weren’t about the comedian’s life or the audience’s life, and certainly not about American life.

JJM  Today there are the likes of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, who seem to be following in the footsteps of Mort Sahl.

GN  Yes, and I would include Dennis Miller as well. They are the closest to Sahl, although many of the comedians of this era are more of what I call “attitude comedians.”  Sometimes their content isn’t all that great, but their attitude is “scoffing,” which was what Sahl and other comedians from his era did.  I like Maher a lot because he is very outrageous and will say anything — and he has a lot to say.  He is a very smart guy and at times a little hostile.  Although Sahl’s lines might be read as being a little hostile, he never was.  He always had a cheery way about him — in the early days, anyway.

JJM  When you asked him for an interview, you quote him in the introduction as saying, “It pains me to say no. I just don’t want to be in there with all of those other guys.  Who are all those other guys?”  And then he goes on to say, “You should write a book about me.”  He is the subject of the cover of the book and his profile leads off the book. Was he right?  Should you have written a book just on Sahl?

GN  Well, he wrote a very bitter memoir in the mid-seventies called Heartland.  It is a very vengeful kind of book, filled with bitterness.  It is not very good.  It doesn’t say a lot about him.

JJM   There was a lot of paranoia in that book.

GN  Yes. At that time he was still reeling from the problems he had when he was working shows to prove a conspiracy behind the assassination of Kennedy.  It was disappointing that he didn’t want to talk to me because he was an idol of mine. I grew up here in San Francisco, and saw him perform at the hungry i.  I always reviewed him very positively and interviewed him many times.  We got along fine, so there wasn’t anything personal.  Quite frankly, he is a very quirky guy with a big ego who didn’t know what I was going to write.  I should add that he has since changed his mind.  I did a panel in Los Angeles with he and Tom Smothers recently and he apologized profusely for not talking to me.

He is a man who thinks he is not just another run-of-the-mill comedian and feels he is above the others.  He makes fun of his own ego — he realizes that.  He is right about being a good subject for a biography, but I said most of what I wanted to say about him in the long chapter on him in my own book.

JJM  During the course of your research for the book, you interviewed many great talents, among them Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Steve Allen, and Joan Rivers.  People have asked you if they were funny.  My question is who was the most fun to talk to?

GN  During interviews they are not necessarily trying to be funny.  Professional comedians are generally only funny when there is a camera or a microphone on them.  They didn’t have to be funny for me, and I am glad they didn’t try to be because I wanted to talk to them personally, one to one, and hear their stories.   As for who was the most fun, to be honest, I enjoyed talking to every single one of them.  I hated for the conversations to end, because after an hour or two I really got a feeling for them.  I enjoyed talking to Mike Nichols a lot.  He gave me almost two hours of his time and I wasn’t sure if I would get to him at all because he is a very busy guy who is very much in demand.  I also enjoyed talking to Phyllis Diller, who was very candid, honest, feisty and likable. Shelley Berman, who had sort of disappeared from the scene for many decades, had very good stories.  Jonathan Winters was fun because he was the only one who invited me to lunch with him.  We ate in a restaurant in downtown Montecito and I got to know him a little more socially that way.  When they had good stories to tell, I was all ears, and I loved talking to them.

JJM  You mentioned Shelley Berman, a comic who was ambushed in 1963 and never really recovered from it.  What were the circumstances around this?

GN  Berman was the hottest comedian in the business in 1963. You could say that he was the Chris Rock of his day.  He was everywhere, and was in great demand, playing Las Vegas and making a ton of money.  He was so popular that they would call him in to doctor sitcoms as a way to boost ratings.

Because he was so celebrated, a behind-the-scenes documentary called Comedians Back Stage spotlighting Berman aired on prime-time television.  During a crucial moment of one of his performances being filmed for the documentary, a phone rang off stage twice, virtually destroying the mood of the vignette he was doing.  During intermission, the cameras followed him backstage, where he proceeded to blow his top and tear the phone off the wall, as he should have. This show of anger was shown in the documentary, which the country saw, and in those days that was enough to ruin a guy’s career.  Clubs subsequently didn’t want to book him because he got the reputation of being a hot head, and he was a kind of temperamental guy.  So, this incident caused him to fade from the scene and basically ruined him.  The book tells a lot about the career slides of some of these performers.  They were hot and they weren’t so hot for all kinds of reasons. Some of them self-destructed, many experiencing how the up’s and down’s of a comedian’s life takes its toll.

JJM  You included impressionists like Will Jordan, David Frye, and Vaughn Meader in your book.

GN  I wanted to include impressionists, although based on the premise of the book the only one that really belongs is probably David Frye, who was the first comedian to do impressions of politicians.  He had a lot to say.  It wasn’t just that he could reproduce the voices or the faces, but he provided a kind of pithy commentary.  I wanted to include Will Jordan because his story was so compelling.  His signature impression was Ed Sullivan and everyone stole it.  He wound up not being able to get any work because everyone stole the impression of Sullivan that he had created.  In a way, it put him out of business.  He was somewhat of a problematical man.  Some of these guys are kind of trouble.  It takes a special kind of a psyche to become a comedian — many of them are insecure and easily destroyed emotionally.  It is very hard to stay healthy in show business in any aspect, whether you are a singer, dancer or comedian, but comedians are always on the line.  They live laugh to laugh and line to line, and it makes for a very tenuous life.

 

JJM  Yes, in the chapter on Woody Allen he talks about how incredibly difficult the life of a comedian is, to be funny for forty-five minutes, three shows a night.

GN  That’s right, and again the next night, and the night after that, and you just never know what kind of audience you are going to face.  In the documentary film on Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian, it was interesting to see that even the most famous and wealthiest comedian of this era remains unsure of his performance and how the audience will react to it.  The film shows that even a talent at that level, who has achieved the very pinnacle of success, is very nervous about his material working.

JJM  You describe Woody Allen as America’s first beloved nerd.  He is not a schnook, and never was.  The profile of him is as a good ball player in school and his friends say he was always able to get the girls that he wanted.  Is that true of Seinfeld too?   Is his nerdiness a stage character?

GN  I don’t think of Seinfeld as a nerd, I think of him as a kind of “Mr. Average.”  Woody Allen, first of all, looks like a geek, and many of the jokes that come up during his films about how he looks, and how he plays up his twitchy, nervous mannerisms, came out of his career as a standup comedian.  Many people now in their thirties may never even know that he had a standup comedy career — they only know him from his movies.  But laughing at his own expense worked so well as a comedian that he made that part of his movie roles as well.

JJM  Before he was a stage performer, he was a brilliant joke writer in the classic one-liner style.

GN  Yes, he came up the usual style, as a writer.  He never wanted to be a comedian — maybe only as a fantasy — but he didn’t really have the nerve for it.  He was kind of pushed on stage by his managers — Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe, who later went on to produce his films — who thought he was hilarious when reading his own material.  They could see him as a successful performer, and they basically created him to be one.  As you say, Allen is a very un-nerdy, focused, single-minded, organized guy.  He couldn’t possibly produce a movie a year for thirty years and not be.  He is the most well put together, psychologically, of the comedians, even though he has his own personal problems as we have learned.  Allen is a “worker bee.”  He loves writing, making movies, and never takes vacations.  He seems to truly enjoy doing what he does.  His most recent films have not been so hot, but for twenty years he was producing some of the best comedy in the country.

JJM Lenny Bruce plays a major role in your book.  The chapter on Bruce is entitled, “The Elvis of Stand-Up.” How so?

GN  He exploded on the scene the way Elvis did.  He was catnip to women, very sexy, and he was doing a new kind of comedy that nobody had ever done. He pushed the envelope further than anyone in terms of material and language, and then had problems with drugs that led to an early death, just about the same age as Elvis.  “The Elvis of Stand-up” is a short-hand title, of course, but I think there are some real similarities, mainly the way they both exploded on the scene, made such a difference, and left such a huge legacy. Unfortunately, the legacy has not been picked up by anybody since, except that he opened things up in a way comedians could use any language they wanted and they could talk about any subject they wanted. But the ones that followed him — the Howard Sterns, Andrew Dice Clay — coasted primarily on crude humor to get reactions and laughs.

Bruce had a really creative, free wheeling, intelligent mind. He was a very original comedian who performed some very funny routines.  He wasn’t just a guy using four or twelve letter words to get a laugh, he used them because he thought they fit within the context of his routine.  When he got embroiled in the obscenity cases and the drug busts, it all blurred together in the public’s mind, and the result is an image of him being a dirty comic.  But Lenny was very much more than that, which is quite evident on his records.

He influenced many people just because he opened things up generally — it wasn’t just the language.  He made it possible to talk about anything.  Unfortunately, the down side of that is that comedians today coast on the dirty stuff they can get away with, consequently they don’t create anything original or make any kind of commentary.  Lenny had a lot to say.  Some people call him a philosopher, and in a way he was a social and cultural philosopher.  He made fun of social, sexual and racial hypocrisies, and guys like Howard Stern don’t come close to that.  He was the guru of all that type of comedy, and today’s comics don’t really have all that much to say.  It is sad.  That is the legacy that Lenny left, and it is really being distorted.

JJM  He had a point to make, whereas the Sterns of the world are successful because their humor is outrageous and somewhat shocking.

GN  I don’t find him particularly clever. He is quite popular, obviously, and some of my friends like him, but I don’t get it.

JJM  In the Lenny Bruce chapter you write about a very interesting character named Joe Ancis, who was a guy from Lenny’s old neighborhood of Bensonhurst. He was quite a storyteller — a spritzer — who hung out at Hanson’s Drug Store.  Few people know much about him, yet he had an influence on Bruce, who helped him get in touch with his “Jewish side.”

GN  Yes, and his surreal side, in a way, as well.  I’ve never even seen a picture of Joe Ancis, he is a kind of phantom figure who looms in the back of Lenny Bruce’s path, as well as those of Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett and Will Jordan.  He was kind of a guru or something like it.  He was a strange guy who was so off the wall and daring, and who said things no one else was saying at the time.  Many comedians were very influenced by him, and took ideas from him.  He didn’t mind because he didn’t want to be a professional performer.  He hung out with these comedians and provided them with performance concepts that were “out there,” well beyond what anybody else was doing at the time.  Bruce was indeed heavily influenced by Ancis.  I have to say that I don’t even know if he is still alive or what became of him.  I have never read a piece about him.  It is possible he just doesn’t want to be interviewed and loves being a shadowy guy.

JJM  Yes, an enigma of sorts.  There is a passage in your book about Lenny’s great routine where he discusses how chocolate is Jewish but fudge is Goyish.

GN  Yes, that is very Ancis like. He was able to spin that out and perform it.  Ancis, on the other hand, couldn’t perform. I believe he only did one gig that someone was able to talk him into doing, but it was viewed as a disaster. He could do the routines in the luncheonette around his friends and in the neighborhood, but he just couldn’t do it in front of an audience. Lenny Bruce could. He was a performer.

JJM  You profile three black comics in the book, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby.  The line that stands out is, “Dick Gregory cracked the color line, Godfrey Cambridge crossed it, and Bill Cosby whited it out.”  Tell me about that?

GN  Gregory was the first black comedian to play any mainstream white clubs.  For instance, he opened up at the Playboy Club in Chicago, which had never had a black comedian.  He played a lot of ghetto clubs and was the first black comedian to break through.  Other comedians like Nipsy Russell and Slappy White broke through after Gregory.  Gregory was able to ingratiate himself with white audiences because, while he would tell standard one-liners, he also talked a lot about racism, but in a non-confrontational, non-threatening way.  He would smoke a cigarette and look very sleepy-eyed out at the audience, and then drop lethal lines on them.  He was able to cross over and address a white audience in that way.

A short time after that, Godfrey Cambridge came along.  Cambridge has been kind of forgotten.  He had a lot of health problems and died at a very early age — in his forties.  He just started breaking through in movies like The President’s Analyst, and Watermelon Man before he died.  He was a very warm, ingratiating, funny man.  He had Jamaican ancestry and an almost British wit.  He would make fun of the whole racial issue, and of how he was expected to perform only racial humor, but he cared about a lot of other things.  In a way, I put him higher on the rung of black comedians than Gregory.  While Gregory was a pioneer, I think Cambridge took his comedy to a higher level.

Bill Cosby came along after that and found that he didn’t have to do racial humor. He actually started out to be another Dick Gregory, but his manager, Roy Silver, talked him out of it.  He didn’t want Cosby to be the second Dick Gregory, but to be the first Bill Cosby, which was very wise.  He talked Cosby out of talking about his own childhood in a ghetto home in Philadelphia and told him to just be funny, to talk about his childhood as if it was everybody’s childhood — and in fact it was, the way that he told it.  Cosby rose to the greatest fame of them all by not reminding people that he was black.  These three comics all had a different approach to being black, and all were big successes as comics.

JJM You write about the importance of the comedy LP in the fifties and sixties, and suggest that it was the last time all Americans enjoyed a shared sense of humor.  I remember how hard my family laughed together at the records of Berman, Allen, and Winters.  They were very important to their careers.

GN  Absolutely.  A lot of these guys probably wouldn’t have broken through as quickly as they did without the comedy record.  The LP came along in 1948, and by the early fifties it was discovered by comedians.  A guy named Stan Freberg started making pop music parodies of Johnny Ray and Harry Belafonte songs, as well as radio and television shows. He did devastating parodies of Gunsmoke and Dragnet.  He was probably the first comedian to come out with an LP, and then people like Shelley Berman came along, who was the first of them to have a comedy album on the charts.  The comedy record was a whole new phenomenon that allowed Berman to become an overnight success, as it did Vaughn Meader when he came out with the JFK impersonation record called The First Family.

JJM  Yes, and Bob Newhart too.

GN  That’s right. Newhart had never even played a nightclub when he made his record.  Some Warner Brothers record executives heard his tape and decided they wanted to cut an album. They asked Newhart where he was playing and he replied by saying he doesn’t play in a club, and in fact had never been in one except as an audience member.  So, they had to find him a nightclub in order to record his act, and found one in Houston.  That was the first time he had ever been on stage as a comedian.

JJM  What comics do you admire today?  You mentioned Bill Mahar a little earlier in the conversation…

GN  I have yet to see his new HBO show, but I liked Politically Incorrect.  While I don’t think he is a very good standup comedian, I laugh out loud when he is interviewed by Larry King.  He comes up with some really outrageous stuff, and he is not afraid to say what he thinks.  He has a good mind.  It is one thing to say something and not have anything interesting to say, but Maher, I believe is very much in the tradition of Mort Sahl.  I just wish he were a better standup performer.  I thought that was the weakest part of Politically Incorrect.  He is a better talk show host, and Jon Stewart may be also.  I understand he has done a lot of standup, but I think of him sitting at the desk, being funny.

There is nobody around now who has the stature of the great comedians of the fifties and sixties, nor of Robin Williams and Steve Martin of the seventies. Nobody knocks me out enough to say I look forward to seeing him or her in a club.  I always liked Richard Lewis, and saw Seinfeld when he was here in a small club.  I think Jay Leno is very funny but I don’t like his show.  His monologue has become so predictable and unwatchable, and the same for David Letterman. These guys are much better when they are just out in front of an audience doing standup.  I remember reviewing Leno long before the Tonight Show when he was out here, and he was making some relevant and cutting commentary on men and women, relationships, and topics like that.  I don’t think he does much of that at all on television, but instead plays off the headlines now, or talks about McDonalds or a stupid commercial or something.  It is all dumbed down, and it think that’s too bad. He and Letterman have so much more potential.

I like Conan O’Brien. I don’t stay up late enough to watch him very much, but whenever I see him, there is something about him that I find funny.  Maybe it’s the way he looks, or his attitude, but whatever it is, he makes me laugh. But these guys get locked into these formulaic talk shows and they can’t break loose. I think Jon Stewart has done it because he has very good writers. Existing on television as just a standup comedian is very hard to do.

JJM  In your book you touched on the comedy explosion of the seventies.  Three of the great comedians from that era, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield, began their careers in the sixties.  Why don’t they appear in your book?

GN  While they were around in the sixties, they didn’t break through until the seventies.  I have this arbitrary timeline that begins in 1953 with Mort Sahl at the hungry i and ends with Joan Rivers in 1965.  It could have gone on and on but I just felt that that timeframe of a dozen years defined a specific era.  Carlin went through a whole transformation.  He was a very buttoned-up comedian in the sixties when he was doing the “Wonderful Wino” weatherman routine.  Then he got down and dirty and came back as a hippie with a pony tail, dressed up in a t-shirt and Levis.  He went through a physical and psychological transformation.

JJM  Yes, the Ed Norton look.

GN  Exactly, the hippie Ed Norton look.  And then the same thing happened with Pryor, who looked like a cute little college guy when he was on the Merv Griffin Show, wearing a bow tie and cardigan sweater.

JJM  Which is no mean feat when you are sitting next to Merv Griffin.

GN  Pryor did the same thing as Carlin.  He went through a major transformation and came back down and dirty as the Richard Pryor we all know, doing all that ghetto, street comedy stuff.  Rodney Dangerfield had two lives, much as these other guys did.  He was first known in the late forties as Jackie Roy — his real name is Jacob Cohen — but he couldn’t make it. So he retired and went back to selling aluminum siding.  When he returned, he took the very preppy sounding name of Rodney Dangerfield, when in fact he looked exactly the opposite.  He returned with his famous hook of “I Can’t Get No Respect,” and on the basis of that he made it in a big way.

And Jackie Mason was just about to break through when he had that famous incident on the Ed Sullivan Show, where Sullivan thought he flipped him off — and in fact he may have — it was off camera so we will never know.  Sullivan read it that way and subsequently banned him from his show, which made it tough for him on television anywhere given Sullivan’s ability to make or break anyone at the time.  Consequently, Mason disappeared until he came back in the eighties in his one man show on Broadway. All of these comedians have a presence in the book.  I did a long interview with Mason because he has a lot to say about comedians, and he is not afraid to say it.  He has become very political, where he wasn’t twenty years ago. He is very pithy and very devastating.

JJM  No sacred cows for him……

GN  Absolutely.  He stepped on a lot of toes and you can fault him for maybe being a little insensitive ethnically, but he doesn’t care, and out of that comes great comedy.  You have to go further than maybe you should, sometimes, to make great points, and that was certainly true of Lenny Bruce and many of the comedians I profile in the book.

 

______________________________________

Seriously Funny:

The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s

by

Gerald Nachman

________________________________

Gerald Nachman products at Amazon.com

_______________________________

Interview took place on August 21, 2003

*

If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Lenny Bruce biographer David Skover.

 

Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

photo via RawPixel.com
“Style” by Laurie Kuntz

Poetry

Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Black History

The Harlem Globetrotters/photo via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: The Harlem Globetrotters...In this 2005 interview, Ben Green, author of Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, discusses the complex history of the celebrated Black touring basketball team.

Black History

photo of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress
A Black History Month Profile: Zora Neale Hurston...In a 2002 interview, Carla Kaplan, editor of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, talks about the novelist, anthropologist, playwright, folklorist, essayist and poet

Black History

Eubie Blake
A Black History Month Profile – Pianist and composer Eubie Blake...In this 2021 Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Eubie Blake biographers Ken Bloom and Richard Carlin discuss the legendary composer of American popular song and jazz during the 20th century

Feature

Jamie Branch's 2023 album "Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))"
On the Turntable— The “Best Of the ‘Best Of’” in 2023 jazz recordings...A year-end compilation of jazz albums oft mentioned by a wide range of critics as being the best of 2023 - including the late trumpeter Jamie Branch's Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))

Essay

"Lester Leaps In" by Tad Richards
"Jazz and American Poetry," an essay by Tad Richards...In an essay that first appeared in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry in 2005, Tad Richards - a prolific visual artist, poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer who has been active for over four decades – writes about the history of the connection of jazz and American poetry.

Interview

photo of Pepper Adams/courtesy of Pepper Adams Estate
Interview with Gary Carner, author of Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer...The author speaks with Bob Hecht about his book and his decades-long dedication to the genius of Pepper Adams, the stellar baritone saxophonist whose hard-swinging bebop style inspired many of the top-tier modern baritone players.

Interview

IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song...The author discusses her book, a rich, emotionally stirring, exceptional work that explores every element of Ella’s legacy in great depth, reminding readers that she was not only a great singing artist, but also a musical visionary and social activist.

Poetry

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole is an occasional series of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film. This edition is influenced by Stillpoint, the 2021 album by Zen practitioner Barrett Martin

Playlist

“Latin Tinges in Modern Jazz” – a playlist by Bob Hecht...A nine-hour long Spotify playlist featuring songs by the likes of Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, and Dizzy Gillespie that demonstrates how the Latin music influence on jazz has been present since the music’s beginnings.

Poetry

[Columbia Legacy]
“On Becoming A Jazz Fanatic In The Early 1970’s” – 20 linked short poems by Daniel Brown

Short Fiction

Christerajet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #64 — “The Old Casino” by J.B. Marlow...The author's award-winning story takes place over the course of a young man's life, looking at all the women he's loved and how the presence of a derelict building informs those relationships.

Feature

George Shearing/Associated Booking Corporation/James Kriegsmann, New York, via Wikimedia Commons
True Jazz Stories: “An Evening With George,” by Terry Sanville...The writer tells his story of playing guitar with a symphony orchestra, backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

Short Fiction

Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/via Picryl.com
“Afloat” – a finalist in the 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest – is about a troubled man in his 40s who lessens his worries by envisioning himself and loved ones on a boat that provides safety and ease for all of them.

Poetry

The poet Connie Johnson in 1981
In a Place of Dreams: Connie Johnson’s album of jazz poetry, music, and life stories...A collection of the remarkable poet's work is woven among her audio readings, a personal narrative of her journey and music she considers significant to it, providing readers the chance to experience the full value of her gifts.

Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt from Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song, by Judith Tick...The author writes about highlights of Ella’s career, and how the significance of her Song Book recordings is an example of her “becoming” Ella.

Community

Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII

Interview

photo courtesy of Henry Threadgill
Interview with Brent Hayes Edwards, co-author (with Henry Threadgill) of Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music...The author discusses his work co-written with Threadgill, the composer and multi-instrumentalist widely recognized as one of the most original and innovative voices in contemporary music, and the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Poetry

art by Russell duPont
Three jazz poets…three jazz poems...Takes on love and loss, and memories of Lady Day, Prez, Ella, Louis, Dolphy and others…

Playlist

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
“A Baker’s Dozen Playlist of Ella Fitzgerald Specialties from Five Decades,” as selected by Ella biographer Judith Tick...Chosen from Ella’s entire repertoire, Ms. Tick’s intriguing playlist (with brief commentary) is a mix of studio recordings, live dates, and video, all available for listening here.

Poetry

"Jazz Trio" by Samuel Dixon
A collection of jazz haiku, Vol. 2...The 19 poets included in this collection effectively share their reverence for jazz music and its culture with passion and brevity.

Jazz History Quiz #169

This trumpeter was in the 1932 car accident that took the life of famed clarinetist/saxophonist Frankie Techemacher (pictured), and is best remembered for his work with Eddie Condon’s bands. Who was he?

Interview

From the Interview Archive: A 2011 conversation with Alyn Shipton, author of Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway...In this interview, Shipton discusses Cab Calloway, whose vocal theatrics and flamboyant stage presence made him one of the country’s most beloved entertainers.

Community

Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII...announcing the six Jerry Jazz Musician-published writers nominated for the prestigious literary award

Poetry

Gotfryd, Bernard, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Devotion” – a poem and 11 “Musings on Monk,” by Connie Johnson

Photography

photo of Mal Waldron by Giovanni Piesco
Beginning in 1990, the noted photographer Giovanni Piesco began taking backstage photographs of many of the great musicians who played in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, that city’s main jazz venue which is considered one of the finest in the world. Jerry Jazz Musician will occasionally publish portraits of jazz musicians that Giovanni has taken over the years. This edition is of the pianist/composer Mal Waldron, taken on three separate appearances at Bimhuis (1996, 2000 and 2001).

Interview

Leffler, Warren K/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin...

Community

FOTO:FORTEPAN / Kölcsey Ferenc Dunakeszi Városi Könyvtár / Petanovics fényképek, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
.“Community Bookshelf, #1"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Short Fiction

photo by Pedro Coelho/Deviant Art/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DEED
“After The Death of Margaret: A True Novella” by S. Stephanie...This story -- a finalist in our recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest -- harkens back to Richard Brautigan's fiction of the '70s, and explores modern day co-worker relationships/friendship and the politics of for profit "Universities"

Short Fiction

painting of Gaetano Donizetti by Francesco Coghetti/via Wikimedia Commons
“A Single Furtive Tear” – a short story by Dora Emma Esze...A short-listed entry in the recently concluded 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, the story is a heartfelt, grateful monologue to one Italian composer, dead and immortal of course, whose oeuvre means so much to so many of us.

Interview

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Interview with Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950’s Quartets...Long regarded as jazz music’s most eminent baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan was a central figure in “cool” jazz whose contributions to it also included his important work as a composer and arranger. Noted jazz scholar Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets, and Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Bob Hecht discuss Mulligan’s unique contributions to modern jazz.

Book Excerpt

“Chick” Webb was one of the first virtuoso drummers in jazz and an innovative bandleader dubbed the “Savoy King,” who reigned at Harlem’s world-famous Savoy Ballroom. Stephanie Stein Crease is the first to fully tell Webb’s story in her biography, Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America…The book’s entire introduction is excerpted here.

Short Fiction

pixabay.com via Picryl.com
“The Silent Type,” a short story by Tom Funk...The story, a finalist in the recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest, is inspired by the classic Bob Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue” which speculates about what might have been the back story to the song.

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music, by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Art

Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance: “Outtakes” — Vol. 2...In this edition, the authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder share examples of Cha Cha Cha record album covers that didn't make the final cut in their book

Pressed for All Time

“Pressed For All Time,” Vol. 17 — producer Joel Dorn on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1967 album, The Inflated Tear

Coming Soon

An interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 - 1960;  an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the 60's Girl Groups;  a new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive