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All the Right Notes

PORTRAIT OF THE BLUES. By Paul Trynka . Photographs by Val Wilmer . Da Capo: 160 pp., $25 : A CENTURY OF JAZZ. By Roy Carr . Da Capo: 256 pp., $28.95 : HEART & SOUL: A Celebration of Black Music Style in America 1930-1975. By Bob Merlis and Davin Seay . Stewart, Tabori & Chang: 160 pp., $40 : RHAPSODIES IN BLACK: Art of the Harlem Renaissance. By Richard J. Powell and David A. Bailey . University of California Press: 182 pp., $60 cloth, $34.95 paper

January 11, 1998|MARC CARNEGIE | Marc Carnegie is a critic living in London

For jazz and soul fans, the arrival of the new year brings several superb coffee table books about the music. I'm happy to report that this year's selection is especially fine. Paul Trynka's "Portrait of the Blues," with photographs by Val Wilmer, is the best of the lot; indeed, it's one of the best books ever published about the blues. Trynka wrote that he was aiming to produce something as "honest and unfiltered as possible," and here it is--America's greatest blues musicians, some legends and some barely known, telling their stories in their own words.

And what stories they are! From the Mississippi Delta and the chicken shack to racist sheriffs and the arrival of the electric guitar, it's all here: anecdotes and recollections from the heart and soul of America's original music that are more illuminating than any dozen other volumes on the subject. Koko Taylor recounts taking that proverbial Greyhound bus to Chicago with only 35 cents to her name; the great guitarist Hubert Sumlin recalls how Muddy Waters nearly worked him to death; and Willie Dixon sets the record straight about revered Chess Records president Leonard Chess.

Yet for all its anecdotal riches, "Portrait of the Blues" also offers a wonderful guide to the development of the music itself. Trynka has painstakingly arranged excerpts from the interviews in order to provide a narrative feel, and readers see how the blues evolved from the holler of the Deep South into the witty mid-70s funk of Johnny Guitar Watson. Wilmer's black-and-white photographs alone--a beautiful and often haunting distillation of life on the blues road--are worth the cover price.

Jazz fans will be immensely happy with Roy Carr's "A Century of Jazz." Carr is an energetic and knowledgeable writer, and the book is peppered with lingo and little-known facts. Tracing the music's history from post-Civil War New Orleans to postmodern acid jazz, Carr provides an authoritative account of the music, a rare thing in such a lavishly illustrated volume.

Carr is particularly good on topics that are too often ignored by jazz writers, such as the importance of European jazz and the development of jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s. Purists may balk at the space Carr devotes to some of these more ephemeral subjects, but they are undeniably part of the music's bountiful tradition and have grown even more important to the story since hip-hop "rediscovered" jazz in the '90s.

"A Century of Jazz" is beautiful to behold as well. Every one of its pages is plastered with album covers, old promo photos, concert programs and other memorabilia: the kind of stuff that makes a true fan's heart skip a beat. Indeed, I would be surprised if even the most devoted students of the music had seen many of these photos before; Carr and his team have done a first-rate job in tracking down images that are as absorbing as the writing itself.

If you've forgotten that soul singers once wore lace shirt cuffs or that there used to be matchbooks that read "Vote For James Brown, World Ambassador," then "Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style in America 1930-1975" by Bob Merlis and Davin Seay is worth a look. Merlis and Seay make an effort to trace the history of style in soul and blues music and offer a delightful assortment of pictures: everything from old album covers and posters to, yes, those James Brown matchbooks. The writing is often tedious but no matter; surely what counts are the photos of now-forgotten soul stirrers like the turban-wearing Lynn Hope ("The Maharaja of the Saxophone") and J.J. Jackson, a red-suited side-of-beef kind of fella who sang the classic "I Dig Girls."

Beyond the performers themselves are the promotional trinkets and doodads upon which the record business is built, and Merlis and Seay have uncovered a treasure trove. There's the hand-fan featuring gospel great Mahalia Jackson, "picture discs" with elaborate drawings on the vinyl, even early advertisements for what was then called "race music" (like the rather unsubtle "Romance in the Dark" by the Four Blackamoors). There are plenty of frightening reminders, too, of how stunningly popular the wide-lapel velvet suit used to be--not recommended for the faint of heart.

"Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance" is the catalog for a traveling exhibition opening Saturday at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The show is sure to be worth a visit, if only to see James VanDerZee's photos of Harlem life. Also included in the show are several fine Jacob Lawrence paintings and a couple of masterpieces by the little-known Winold Reiss: all reproduced here.

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