Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: Wonderful Feels Like This (Allen & Unwin) by Sara Lovestam

 

As a jazz lover who had to give up watching Whiplash about ten minutes into the film, I approached Sara Lovestam’s novel Wonderful Feels Like This with a certain degree of trepidation. How were my favourite music genre and its characters going to be represented in this book? Would they – unlike that cringe-worthy movie – bear any relation to the music and people I love?

The answer turned out to be yes – though it took a while to feel reassured. Why? Because some of the descriptions of the music seem slightly affected and because so much of the novel doesn’t seem to have been translated into something that reads naturally. I almost did a Whiplash and gave up after reading “Steffi is becoming happy jazz”. And that’s the opening line. Even a friend’s explanation that the Scandinavians refer to traditional jazz as “happy jazz” doesn’t make that sentence sound right. It does, however, increase the sense that this is a book for younger readers – although it’s billed as grown-up fiction.

Unfortunately, that line is not the only one that doesn’t scan. They pop up throughout Laura Wideburg’s translation of Lovestam’s book. It’s like a supposedly wittily worded jazz song that’s been written in English by a Scandinavian; some of it just doesn’t work and quite a few bits jar. However, despite the strangeness of such phrases as “his jazz was sick”, there is much naïve charm to be found in this story of a young girl who finds both a new friend and the hope for a new life through her growing interest in jazz.

Steffi Herrera may feel like the odd one out at home and be the victim of bullies at school, but she finally begins to feel that she has a place to go when she becomes friends with an old man at the care home in her small Swedish town, thanks to their shared love of 1940s jazz. For the teenage Steffi, jazz – learning to play her instruments, listening to the music and hearing her new friend Alvar’s story about how he came to be part of the Stockholm jazz scene during the war – is a means of escape from her current grim reality and provides hope. For Alvar, when he was only a little older than Steffi is now, jazz and the city provided an alternative to the small-town life in which he would otherwise have found himself trapped.

The two characters’ stories unfold throughout the book as Steffi hears about Alvar’s Stockholm years during her regular visits to the care home. These parallel tracks of the book mostly complement each other well apart from the formulaic way in which most passages from the present day end with a line which is then repeated – often rather gratuitously – in the opening section of one of Alvar’s reminiscences. The first few times it works well, but it soon becomes an irritant. It also seems a little unrealistic that the old man should tell his story to his visitor in such a structured way, so that she only learns about his marital status, for example, in their last visit of the book. Alvar’s story is akin to a wartime jazz soap opera to which Steffi tunes in for regular instalments.

Where Wonderful Feels Like This comes into its own is in the way Lovestam deals with the subject of bullying: what it feels like to be picked-on all the time at school, how Steffi handles it, and how having a life outside school which her peers don’t know about helps her to cope. There’s also some moving insight into dementia and how it affects those around the person suffering from it.

But overall, this is a loving, quietly charming – if often irritating – portrayal of jazz as a music which salves the soul of a misfit, brings her friendship and a sense of camaraderie and connects the future with the past.

  • First published in the Sunday Herald, April 30th.
Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Book reviews, Uncategorized

Book Review: All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast – The Memoirs of a Geriatric Jazz Buff, by Jim Godbolt (Proper Music Publishing)

GodboltWell, this was supposed to be a jolly book review; timed to usher in jazz festival season. Of course, it is still timely in that respect, but jolly? Nae chance. This is a bitter biography which highlights the fact that fierce divisiveness is not a new thing in jazz – it’s been going since the music first began to evolve. It also reminds us that one man’s jazz pleasure can often be another’s poison.

Jim Godbolt was (he died last year, aged 90) a well-known jazz expert who managed one of the biggest bands in the trad revival of the late 1940s, worked as an agent for rock groups in the 1960s, and spent years editing the house magazines for two leading London jazz venues – Ronnie Scott’s and the 100 Club.

He was also the author of several books – two volumes of memoirs (the second incorporating the first), plus the History of Jazz in Britain 1919-1950. This final book, assembled by friends to whom he dictated new passages while he was bedridden and cursed by problems with his vision, covers his declining health (cue rants against the NHS in particular) and revisits parts of the earlier autobiography. At times, he seems to go round in circles, repeating himself (occasionally word for word); his heyday of the late 1940s proving a favourite stop-off point in the circles of memories.

Tellingly, Godbolt wrote in his opening chapter of All This and Slowly Deteriorating Fast that he was including characters from the earlier books again in this new one, “but viewed from different angles”. It’s soon clear that what he really meant was “now they’re dead, I’ll say what I really thought of them” – since there is actually a fair bit of bitchiness in his comments, notably about the otherwise universally loved Humphrey Lyttelton.

Indeed, it was while reading the fourth chapter, entitled The Gentlemen of Jazz, of this dinky, CD-square shaped book (which comes with a compilation disc of relevant tracks) that I realized that I was not warming to Godbolt one iota. His gripe against Lyttelton, about whom he wrote at length as if the quantity of words alone suggested at least that he acknowledged his importance in British jazz, was – according to the book at any rate – not personal. He blames it on Humph’s “most memorable volte-face” when Godbolt says he first abandoned then publicly condemned the principles of the post-war Revivalism movement  – during which young jazz musicians, including Humph himself, had revived the style and format of the original American jazz bands of the early 1920s.

But one senses that there’s more to it than Godbolt’s outrage at the popular Lyttelton’s decision to distance himself from trad purists. Perhaps it was his natural charisma, or his privileged background and Eton education that made the author – who emerges as someone who could find something to take exception to in any situation – seethe with polite venom?

Godbolt does seem to have a chip on his shoulder about class. Indeed, he comes across as someone weighed down by shoulder chips: the chapter on his years working as an agent contains much that is fascinating about the day-to-day – apparently thankless – business of being an agent, but it is also an opportunity for Godbolt to reel off a series of gripes about misconceptions about agents, and about what agents had to put up with.

In another section, he appears to be providing a potted biog and career overview of the great maverick clarinettist and composer Sandy Brown, but it soon morphs into an ill-judged moan about the fact that musicians at the bar drowned out his speech at Brown’s 100 Club memorial. He quotes one of the musicians’ well-meaning attempt at an apology and adds that it “was not a great comfort for this disgruntled speaker who had spent hours working on the speech.” Brown died in 1975. It seems that Godbolt’s “huff” – as he himself described it – continued until his own passing.

Never mind the “Mouldy Figs” – the term used in the British scene to describe the jazz purists who waged battle with the beboppers in the postwar years – this memoir reeks of sour grapes. It’s a damn shame. In the name of background research, I texted a musician friend who’s been on the London scene since the 1980s and dealt with all the jazz “characters”. Unprompted, he volunteered that Godbolt had long been known as a “grudge-bearer” and a “misanthrope”.  In which case, he certainly gives an accurate portrayal of himself in his final book.

* First published in the Sunday Herald on June 22nd

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book reviews, Profiles

Book Review: The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild (Virago)

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a late-night BBC4 documentary about
a jazz character whose story was completely unfamiliar to me. The Jazz Baroness was an intriguing film about a vivacious, jazz-loving British aristocrat – one of the Rothschilds no less – who, upon hearing the eccentric pianist/composer Thelonious Monk on record for the first time, abandoned her children and her marriage to set up home in New York and lead the “jazz life”. She became a sort of girlfriday to the bebop pianist who was troubled by mental problems and addiction. She acted as his muse, his manager, his chauffeur, his best friend, his protector and even, when his drugs were found in her car, his fall guy. And she, alone, cared for him during the last decade of his life.

The story may have been unfamiliar, but the name of this fascinating character wasn’t: Pannonica or “Nica” Rothschild inspired more than 20 jazz compositions, several of them by Monk, whom she described as “the eighth wonder of the world”; the others by musicians whom she helped during her three decades driving them around in her famous Bentley, providing welfare and opening her door to them in times of trouble.

Indeed, it was in her suite at the swanky Stanhope Hotel that Charlie Parker died; a tragedy which propelled Nica’s name into the gossip columns – much to the chagrin of her family back home.

Now, the filmmaker Hannah Rothschild (clearly no jazz expert, judging from some of the gauche references to jazz which are scattered through the early
part of the book) has penned a compelling biography of her great-aunt, whom she only met briefly at the end of her life – and had hoped to get to know better. (That frustration – that she was just a little too late in forging a relationship with her elderly relative – is tangible.) Unlike her documentary, which mostly concentrated on the relationship between Nica and Monk, and the unexpected similarities between their two backgrounds, Hannah’s book also fully fleshes out her first three decades, before (thanks to her friend Teddy Wilson) she heard that life-changing recording of Round Midnight.

And what a three decades she had already had. Although she was born into a the oppressive world of high society where children were seen and not heard, and girls didn’t have any function other than to be decorative, marry well and produce heirs (fewer options even than the black, southern-born Monk), the slightly wild Nica had had a few attempts at breaking out before – but always ended up being caught and put back in her gilded cage.

Shackled by marriage, status and motherhood, Nica came to life during the war when she joined the French Resistance and served alongside her husband in Africa. Like women from all social strata, she was expected to slip back into her domestic role once peace had broken out but she was bored and frustrated.

Hannah Rothschild was given access to interviews conducted with Nica not long before she died. In one of the tapes, she heard Nica explain that she had a “calling” to jazz in 1949 when she heard Duke Ellington’s symphony Black, Brown and Beige. Shortly afterwards came the exposure to Monk’s music. And she knew what she had to do.

Had Hannah Rothschild not had access to Nica’s own explanation of why she never returned to her husband and children, and had merely speculated, this “calling” explanation would be laughable. But what shines through on every page is the amount of passionate research and foraging through her family’s past – often to the fury of some Rothschilds – that Hannah has done in her multi-pronged quest to understand Nica, to understand her relationship with Monk, to answer the question “is it possible to escape from one’s past or are we forever trapped in layers of inherited attitudes and ancient expectation?”.

In the film, Hannah Rothschild’s presence and personal connection to Nica get a little in the way of the story. But in the book, her unique, insider, understanding of her family – the history of which she traces back to the squalid Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt in the 1700s – arguably helps her to make better sense of Nica than an outsider might. Her obvious empathy and affection inspire her to perhaps delve deeper for an explanation for some of Nica’s more questionable decisions (those involving her children) – and perhaps to want to make her a sympathetic character.

She recognises Nica’s all-consuming passion (in her case, for jazz and Monk) as a family trait. And, having known Nica’s siblings – and, briefly, Nica herself – she understands the family dynamics and the Rothschild pragmatism, as well as the family’s familiarity with mental illness. It could well have been one of the bonds between Nica, who had watched her father go insane and eventually kill himself, and Monk, whose mentally ill father died in an asylum.

What emerges is a colourful, entertaining study of a fearless, fiercely loyal, independent, audacious and slightly bonkers adventuress who was regarded with tremendous affection – and bemusement – by those who knew her in the jazz community. There is a nod to the school of thought that she was nothing more than a rich white lady who bought her way into the jazz scene, and to the theory that perhaps the Monks saw her as a golden goose.

Hannah herself admits, late on in the book, that she couldn’t bear to think that Nica’s blind devotion to Monk might have been taken advantage of. She prefers to think that in return for friendship, which had been missing from her childhood, Nica “made her sliver of a great fortune go a little further. She made a difference”.

But whether she was a glorified groupie or not, the Baroness emerges just as Hannah describes the impression she formed of her when they first met: “a woman who seemed at home and knew where she belonged”. Their meeting place? A New York jazz club.

* The Jazz Baroness is available on DVD.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book reviews, Profiles