Book Review: Peter Vacher - Mixed Messages: American Jazz Stories



Peter Vacher - Mixed Messages: American Jazz Stories
(Five Leaves Jazz, 314pp £14.99. Book Review by Mark Ramsden)


Peter Vacher has been interviewing American musicians since the 1950s. He is familiar to readers of Jazz Journal, Melody Maker, Jazz UK, Coda and more recently ‘too many obituaries’ in the Guardian. This is his second collection of unhurried pieces, with the interviewees getting plenty of space to recall their lives in music.

Throughout you get a sense of the massive size of America, the many working professionals devoting decades of blood, sweat and tears to their beloved music, sometimes to the detriment of stable personal lives. Benny Powell was advised, “Be faithful to your wife, do everything to have a good marriage, so, if anything does happen, you won’t have any regrets.” Just as I was nodding solemnly, ruing my own chaotic past, I turned the page to find the author informing us ,‘Ironically both men went on to marry and divorce three times.’

Proving the old adage that musicians can either work too much or too little Hal Galper left the Nat Adderley band because 300 gigs a year was too much. Curiously enough Harold Vick, who stood 6’2” or 6’3” left Adderley, who was considerably shorter, because he felt he might be overwhelming his bandleader, although the brilliant brass man apparently didn’t mind.  I was chuffed to see the excellent Alan Barnes honoured in stride specialist Judy Carmichael’s interview. Like anyone else who’s ever had the good fortune to meet Alan she’s in thrall to his sense of humour as well as his playing. If you’ve ever tired of Keith Jarret’s on stage demeanour Ms Carmichael’s comments will elicit a smile.

Ruby Braff is less acerbic than his reputation, perhaps it was the influence of a wise interviewer who knows the right questions.  Rufus Reid somehow manages a courteous, informative exchange at 8.30 am, typical of the professionalism displayed by these (mostly) men. “I teach the bassists that if the piano player or the drummer don’t make the gig everything’s all right because we can take care of it.”  Musicians interviewed are Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield Iv, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer and Byron Stripling.

Fascinating stories, plenty of fresh insights, lots of rare photographs, a helpful index: a very good scholarly addition to any jazz library. 

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