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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 16, 1992|CHRIS GOODRICH

FACES IN THE CROWD: Essays on Music, Movies, and Books by Gary Giddins (Oxford University Press: $24.95; 336 pp.) What's this--Oxford University Press republishing work that first appeared primarily in the Village Voice? No, it's not a joke, or a mistake: "Faces in the Crowd" is Gary Giddins' third book for Oxford, and once again his main subject is jazz, an Oxford specialty. Although Giddins also writes about films and books, he is best on jazz criticism; a life-long fan, Giddins sheds new light even on such familiar figures as Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie. There are fine pieces here, too, about lesser-known music figures: harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, to whom Ravel willed performing rights to "Bolero" without fee; Frank Morgan, an alto-saxophone prodigy who spent more than a decade in prison, for a time playing in a San Quentin band with Art Pepper. Perhaps the best essay in this collection, however, is the one on Jack Benny, which demonstrates nicely that Giddins has mastered the critic's most difficult trick--being appreciative and analytical at the same time. Giddins identifies Benny's use of "fake candor" and his emphasis on character rather than jokes, but the comedian's sophisticated approach to humor may have been best captured by Benny himself in the course of a television routine. Benny told his audience one night that his initial goal was to be disliked, for dislike of an apparently nice, harmless old man made an audience feel guilty, which led like dominoes to sympathy, laughter and finally applause. "And then when the applause is over," Benny concluded, "you go home and I go to the bank. That's when I laugh."

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