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Between the Covers: From the Obscure to the Popular

December 16, 1990|LEONARD FEATHER | Leonard Feather is The Times' jazz critic.

In the past months, several jazz-related books have reached the stores, some of which are worth keeping in mind.

JAZZ SINGING By Will Friedwald (Scribners: $29.95; 477 pages)

Friedwald, at 29, is young enough to have total dogmatic belief in his every statement. Highly opinionated and not always accurate (he credits Fats Waller's song "Black and Blue" to Eubie Blake), "Jazz Singing" could more accurately have been titled "Jazz and Pop Singing," since many pages are devoted to obscure pop figures such as Al Bowlly and Cliff (Ukulele Ike) Edwards, along with Doris Day and Dick Haymes.

Friedwald later rambles on at length about Betty Carter and Mark Murphy, but dismisses Helen Merrill in one line, then consigns Cleo Laine and the Manhattan Transfer to the dust heap. Irreverent and iconoclastic, Friedwald nevertheless is readable, informative and witty. You may even enjoy indulging in mental arguments with him and will wish you could reply to some of his more outrageous statements.

REMINISCING IN TEMPO By Teddy Reig (Scarecrow: $29.50; 204 pages)

Subtitled "The Life and Times of a Jazz Hustler," the story of Reig (1918-1984) was fleshed out after his death by Ed Berger and by friends who recall him with affection. A fringe character, almost literally larger than life at 350 pounds, Reig went to jail in 1942 for possession of marijuana (a big scandal in those days). Later he became a close friend of jazzmen, producing records with Basie, Bird, Belafonte and others. With its nostalgic recollections, mostly of Harlem, this is a useful social document marred by its brevity and its omissions. For example, Reig worked with Birdland owner Morris Levy, whose organized crime connections, detailed in the recent book "Hit Men," are ignored here.

DRUMMIN' MEN By Burt Korall (Macmillan: $24.95; 381 pages)

The author, briefly a drummer himself, informatively examines what he calls "The Heartbeat of Jazz (in) The Swing Years," with affection. Seven drummers are spotlighted: Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Ray McKinley (the only one still alive), Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, the greatly underrated Dave Tough, and Buddy Rich. Seven others are dealt with briefly. Korall enlivens his essays with plenty of quotes from admirers of his subjects. This will appeal not only to drummers but to anyone interested in the social and musical overtones of the role played by percussionists in jazz. Drummer Mel Torme's foreword is delightful.

POETS OF TIN PAN ALLEY By Philip Furia (Oxford: $22.95; 322 pages)

What Alec Wilder did for melodies in his classic "American Popular Song" (see below), Furia now does for the lyricists. It is odd that a work so microscopically analytical of Berlin, Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and the rest should be unaware (like Friedwald) of the difference between who and whom, yet Furia is on firm ground most of the way. The balance between historical detail and examinations of specific songs is well maintained, resulting in a volume that devotes, for example, 20 valuable pages to Johnny Mercer.

It is unfortunate that Furia chose to segregate what he calls "jazz lyricists" into a separate chapter (there is no such animal). He all but ignores the magnificent work by Andy Razaf ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin' ") while crediting Irving Mills--a manager and publisher (mainly associated with Duke Ellington) who was never seriously regarded as a songwriter--with lyrics to which Mills himself probably would not lay claim (he employed many collaborators).

INSIDE PAUL HORN By Paul Horn with Lee Underwood (Harper Collins: $19.95; 284 pages)

Well known in the 1960s as a Los Angeles based sax-and-flute soloist, Horn wrote the first jazz mass, then became involved in a spiritual odyssey and was a student of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He ultimately opted for a life of serenity and seclusion, though he still travels the world from his home in Victoria, B.C., where he's been based since 1970. Though the second half of the book is concerned with Horn's travels rather than with music, the story, reflecting his evolution as a global thinker and his sensitive self-awareness, is of absorbing interest.

AMERICAN SINGERS By Whitney Balliett (Oxford: $9.95; 244 pages)

Written between 1970 and 1984, these 27 essays exemplify the insightful grace of Balliett's prose. Though some of the singers are obscure (Hugh Shannon, Mary Mayo) and one deals with a pianist who rarely sings (George Shearing), each piece justifies itself as a stylistic gem. Regrettably, no dates are given, and several deceased subjects (Helen Humes, Alberta Hunter) are discussed in the present tense. At its paperback price, this is an essential purchase.

FROM BLUES TO BOP By Various writers (Louisiana State U. Press: $24.95; 295 pages)

This is, perhaps inevitably because of the sporadic use of jazz as a subject for fiction, a highly uneven collection. Edited by Richard Albert, it includes a few valuable pieces: Langston Hughes' "Dance," James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," and an evocative work by Josef Skvorcky, best known for "The Brass Saxophone."

In Brief:

"American Popular Song" by Alec Wilder, $29.95, 536 pages, now with a foreword by Gene Lees, has been reissued by Oxford and remains the definitive work on the great innovators from 1900 to 1950 . . . "As Thousands Cheer," by Laurence Bergreen, $24.95, 658 pages) is the well-researched (with no help from the subject) biography of Irving Berlin, who detested jazz but many of whose songs became jazz standards . . . "Meet Me at Jim and Andy's," by Gene Lees (Oxford, $8.95, 265 pages) is a paperback reprint of 13 brilliant essays by Gene Lees, culled from his monthly Jazzletter.

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