Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday Essay
Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday
Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes is a thought-provoking, often amusing collection of stories from within jazz’s inner circles, told by and about some of the genre’s leading figures. While not a history of jazz, it gives readers some insights to how jazz artists worked, lived, bonded, and coped with an America in which many were still outsiders. The book’s forty-three chapters (expanded from the original 1990 edition) describe the life jazz musicians shared, offering insights into a rather exclusive, unconventional circle of performing artists.
The numerous anecdotes are categorized by chapters, gathering related tales and moving from a general overview of jazz life to anecdotes about individuals, like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Benny Goodman. Essentially, Crow creates a context in which jazz musicians lived, and then places individual musicians within it, giving readers a better understanding of how they functioned in this rarified climate. For example, the volume opens with “Wild Scenes,” which Crow says describes how “the individuality of jazz musicians combines with the capricious world in which they try to make a living” (Crow 3).
The brief chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book, giving glimpses of the unconventional world jazz musicians inhabited (which explains to some degree their relationship to society at large). “The Word ‘Jazz’” contains attempts to explain the origins of the genre’s name, and “Inventions” offers accounts of how certain innovations occurred (such as Dizzy Gillespie’s distinctive bent trumpet), giving the reader a sense of history though the work is not an orthodox history per se. Many of the stories contained in Jazz Anecdotes convey the musicians’ camaraderie and warmth toward each other, as well as each other’s idiosyncrasies.
Others convey how difficult and often arbitrary the jazz lifestyle often was. “Hiring and Firing” demonstrates how unstable many musicians’ careers were, rife with disputes over money or dismissals for their personal quirks. (For example, Count Basie fired Lester Young for refusing to participate in recording sessions occurring on the 13th of any month. ) “Managers, Agents, and Bosses” offers a glimpse into the seamier underside of jazz, where dishonest managers and mobsters often trapped jazz performers in unfair contracts or worse.
Though jazz musicians appear to inhabit a special world, Crow does not discuss jazz in a social vacuum, tying it to social phenomena like race relations. In “Prejudice,” the tales take a more serious tone by showing how black jazz artists faced abundant racism, particularly in the South. However, Crow notes that “Jazz helped to start the erosion of racial prejudice in America . . . [because] it drew whites and blacks together into a common experience” (Crow 148). Jazz artists dealt with racism in various ways – Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday stood up to it while Zutty Singleton accepted it.
Meanwhile, even white musicians like Stan Smith angered both races – whites for performing with blacks, and blacks for “intruding on their music” (Crow 152). The final chapters focus on individual artists, illustrating the greats’ personalities. Louis Armstrong emerges as earthy and good-hearted; Bessie Smith as strong and willful but ultimately self-destructive; Fats Waller is an impish pleasure-seeker given to excellent music but poor business decisions; and Benny Goodman as gifted but tight-fisted and controlling.
Taken as a whole, Jazz Anecdotes offers a look at jazz’s human side, including its foibles, genius, camaraderie, crookedness, and connection to an American society from which it sometimes stood apart. Its legendary figures are depicted as gifted, devoted artists who enjoyed hedonism, companionship, and particularly independence. If any single thing stands out in this book, it is the latter; for the figures in this work, jazz meant creativity and freedom, which they pursued with equal vigor and vitality. Crow, Bill. Jazz Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.