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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

Bright Lights

December 08, 1996|Michael Tolkin | Michael Tolkin is a novelist and screenwriter. His recent books include "Among the Dead" (Avon) and "The Player, the Rapture, the New Age: Three Screenplays" (Grove Atlantic)

The great charm of those books that rest on coffee tables--handsome big books with beautiful pictures--is that they tell us more about what our friends think of us than about their subjects. After all, no one ever reads them all the way through or absorbs the pictures in a coherent way. One should be careful leaving them around: They tell bored strangers and the depressed children of visitors what kind of impressions we make on those who gave us those big books as gifts.

Big books are best approached casually, without the reminder of how much they cost pushing us to read them. They can only be approached in bits and pieces, most preferably when you're in a dull mood. Since big books are created to overwhelm us, almost as though movies and television had never existed, all offer a similar vent into the possibility of escape.

But there are dangers, especially in books filled with photographs of famous people. To avoid corrosive jealousy, we risk too many applications of irony to distance us from the way that big books offend self-respect. Too many photographs of movie stars make us crazy: We are not them. Even these movie stars won't feel like movie stars when given a book featuring other celebrities, since someone is always greater or younger or prettier or richer or just better. We cannot be them, and the longing hurts--hurts worst when the photographs mimic the effects of art, for which black and white causes the most pain. We want to be part of the endeavor that created the alchemy from which this picture comes to us--as proof of the efficacy of the magic of the stars and their cabals. Impossible idol worship.

Photographs of jazz musicians offer a different pain than the photographs of actors. A 1961 photograph of Johnny Hodges in Lee Tanner's Images of Jazz shows Duke Ellington's great saxophone player deep in a phrase, with his eyes closed, just below a small cloud of smoke. There's a woman in the lower corner, almost hidden in the dark, talking to someone, probably a man. What a luxury! Imagine being so accustomed to Ellington live that the music can support their conversation! A good definition of heaven! Or imagine being so absorbed in one's work that even the fool who ignores the effort offers no threat, or better, offers the challenge to overwhelm her.

So jazz books are better than movie star books. Movie star books diminish us because there is nothing we can hope to be when we look at them, except dead and freed from the pain of our insignificance. Jazz books give us a longing for concentration. The concentration of movie stars or actors brings us to mysteries of pretense, but musical concentration has nothing to do with pretense. Photographs of great musicians in their work are as close as we can come to an idea of what we would like to look like if we were always true or if we could really pray but never be photographed at it.

Author photographs, politician photographs--the kind taken by Yousuf Karsh in Karsh: A Sixty-Year Retrospective and favored as the Life magazine style when they wanted something formal instead of candid--have begun to look stupid. The photograph posed only for publicity, the photograph taken purely for self-promotion: Why would anyone want to own that book? And what kind of person attracts friends to torment their narcissism by giving them books of famous people doing nothing more than trying to conjure for a magazine a face of mockery and irony? Trying to cover their naked ambition for the rewards of a project, whether book, film or campaign, of which the need to take this picture is only one piece of a complicated strategy?

So it comes to a strange end, this thought, that photographs of music are valid. Or even paintings of music, a notion incomplete without credit to Tony Bennett and his beautiful book, What My Heart Has Seen. We would call Bennett an amateur painter in the old true sense of one who loves to paint. Never mind that some of his work is faux primitive or that he paints in too many styles. This doesn't matter. Bennett is an artist and we should respect him, whatever the form. There are two important paintings in the book, next to each other, one of David Hockney and the other of Ralph Sharon, Bennett's pianist. His picture of Hockney is like a Hockney, but a good portrait--the artist poses a bit doubtfully but with respect and a hesitant patience. The picture of Sharon is different, of a higher order than anything else in his work. It's another great picture of a musician, this time, doing nothing except sitting in a chair. Here Bennett understands the soul of his accompanist, which is surprisingly unaffectionate toward him. Yet he paints this anyway.

There is nothing in the portrait to flatter either Bennett or his subject. Sharon doesn't want to be there: He pulls on one finger to keep from slapping the arms of the chair. All that holds him in his place is the bond to his singer. And how complicated that must be, to be on the side of a genius!

****

IMAGES OF JAZZ. by Lee Tanner (Friedman/Fairfax: $27.50, 144 pp.)

WHAT MY HEART HAS SEEN. By Tony Bennett (Rizzoli International: $40, 151 pp.)

JAZZ. By William Claxton (Chronicle: $22.95, 124 pp.)

KARSH: A Sixty-Year Retrospective. By Yousuf Karsh (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown: $65, 192 pp.)

OBSERVER. By Jane Bown (Thames and Hudson: $19.95, 128 pp.)

THE PRIVATE WORLD OF THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF WINDSOR. By Hugo Vickers (Abbeville Press: $67.50, 240 pp.)

THE KING ON THE ROAD: Elvis Live on Tour 1954-1977. By Robert Gordon (St. Martin's: $30, 208 pp.)

PICTURE THIS: A Visual Diary. By Tipper Gore (Broadway: $32.50, 160 pp.)

STAR TRAK. By Anton Corbijn (Stewart, Tabori & Chang: $55, 144 pp.)

MANDELA: An Illustrated Autobiography. By Nelson Mandela (Little, Brown: $29.95, 192 pp.)

PAUL NEWMAN: A Biography. By Eric Lax (Turner: $29.95, 192 pp.)

MUHAMMAD ALI: In Perspective. By Thomas Hauser (CollinsPublishers: $50, 179 pp.)

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