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Jazz, booze and improper Englishmen – a Marian McPartland reading list

Marian McPartland, the NPR host of “Piano Jazz” and the subject of Paul de Barros’ biography “Shall We Play That One Together?”,  lived through not only a lot of jazz history, but a lot of world history as well. She lived and worked in England, France and the U.S., as well as a lot of other countries. Quite a life for a proper English schoolgirl!

I’m going to suggest some books that relate both to Marian’s life and to her work.

The first book is really a series of books called “Dance to the Music of Time” by English author Anthony Powell (rhymes with Lowell). A twelve-volume cycle! I admit, I have only read the first one, but it was great. Powell’s  masterwork starts out in 1914, right at the outbreak of World War I, and follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a series of schoolboys, and continues on into the 1970s. It’s a devastating portrait of class-conscious English society; the long-gone rules it lived by, the division between the aristocracy and everyone else, and other strictures that were pretty much blown away by the cataclysm of World War II. As it did with Marian McPartland, the war changed everything for a lot of the English. Lots of serious misbehaving, and fascinating character sketches; probably the most fascinating is that of the boy Widmerpool, a schoolboy of mediocre talents who’s pretty much detested by his fellow students at boarding school, who goes to become a politician of ravening ambition. Friends and lovers meet, drift apart and then re-encounter one another in some of the most surprising places.

These books were made into a great four-part BBC television series that I actually did get to the end of.

Well, enough of England. Let’s hop back across the ocean to America, where the jazz was really happening.

One work of popular history that dovetails with the rise of jazz in this country is “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” by Daniel Okrent. This 2010 book documents the exceedingly weird Prohibition era, when the government tried to ban a behavior practiced by a large percentage of the country – namely drinking alcohol.

What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Okrent quotes the writer Willa Cather, who commented on the way life changed in the 1920s – “Nobody stays at home anymore.” A good chunk of the population that didn’t stay home would up in speakeasies, illegal drinking establishments that people flocked to. As they drank, they wanted to dance and listen to music, either lives and on records, and that’s w here jazz came in. These joints provided employment and a venue for a lot of emerging jazz musicians. Though by the time Marian McPartland arrived in America, Prohibition was over, her hard-drinking husband Jimmy got plenty of work in the joints of Chicago, as well as a lot of “inns’ in the wilds of Wisconsin that ran on a similar combination of music and drinking. This topic comes up in two Ken Burns PBS series, both his “Jazz” multipart series and “Prohibition,” which is based in part on Okrent’s book.

One jazz biography not to miss is  the wonderful “Pops,” the 2009  biography of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout.

As you know from reading Marian McPartland’s biography, she and her husband Jimmy crossed paths with Armstrong, the great trumpeter and vocalists, many times over the years (as they did with so many other jazz greats).

“Pops” is one of the most readable music biographies ever. Armstrong literally revolutized music and was the first black entertainer many white Americans fully embraced. Armstrong took a lot of flack about this from fellow black musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, who were angry about segregation in this country and felt that Armstrong didn’t take a big enough stand.

Teachout gets to the core of Armstrong’s world view; he genuinely liked people, regardless of race. He was born and raised in multicultural New Orleans; he was an ebullient personality who, in his own way, dismantled a lot of racial barriers, intregrating both the airways and hotels in a very segregated era. He was, simply, loved, and that  had a powerful unifying influences for Americans.

Do I get to mention a television series here? I’m gonna. You can get Ken Burns’ great public television series “Jazz” on any streaming video service. As I was reading through Paul’s books I went back and viewed portions of Burns’ series. It was a multimedia experience, reading about all the jazz greats the McPartlands rubbed shoulders with, and then going back to the Burns programs and seeing their faces and hearing their music.

Finally, I want to mention a 2004 book that chronicles one of the true geniuses of jazz, “So What: The Life of Miles Davis” by John Szwed. Davis was unique in his genius, Like a lot of other jazz musicians, he was awash in contradictions; he was the son of middle class parents , but he embraced the hard life of a jazz musician, and had the same problems with drugs and alcohol that many jazz musicians struggled with, including Marian’s husband Jimmy McPartland. : Szwed writes that Davis  “he told every woman he became involved with that music always came first, before family, children, lovers, friends.” This book vividly illustrates that compulsion, whether you’re a listener, a musician or just an interested reader.


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‘Shall We Play That One Together?’ by Paul de Barros

Jazz critic Paul de Barros chronicles the life of Marian McPartland, an English-born jazz pianist who was the longtime host of NPR’s “Piano Jazz” series. Watch an interview with Paul de Barros on this week’s edition of “Well Read.”

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Great books by and about Native Americans – a “This Indian Country” reading list

Frederick Hoxie’s “This Indian Country” is the kind of history I love to read. It treats a particular strand of U.S. history – the struggle of native Americans for rights and recognition – but as you follow it you learn a lot of things about the big picture of history along the way.

One book that also recounts how Indians fared before, during and after the American revolution is Maya Jasanoff’s tour de force: “Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World.” This 2011 book tells the story of Americans who remained loyal to Britain during the fight, and what happened to them afterward. To make a very long story short – they weren’t treated so well by the rebels, and many fled, dispersing throughout the world to other British colonies, leaving behind the way of life that they had put together in America – their homes, their families, their land. Some survived and thrived, others could never recover their losses.

Those loyalists included Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader Frederick Hoxie writes about. Brant was a virtual adopted son of William Johnson, an influential  British bureaucrat who headed up Indian affairs in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Brant  had a military commission in the British Army – educated, well-spoken, Brant knocked the socks off when he visited England to lobby for his tribes’ rights. There’s a famous portrait of Brant dressed up in a plume of scarlet feathers, a tomahawk in his right hand, a crucifix glittering around his neck. The man knew how to make an impression!

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“This Indian Country” by Frederick Hoxie

In “This Indian Country,” prominent historian Frederick Hoxie tells the story of Native American political activists who have fought battles in the courts and the political arena. Watch an interview with Hoxie on “Well Read” below.

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Wild Alaska memoirs – on the sea, on the land and in the air

Dean Adams on "Well Read"

I enjoyed reading “Ten Thousand Hooks.” It’s fascinating how a little-known profession (Alaska commercial fishing) has achieved so much notoriety as the result of the show “The Deadliest Catch.”

I confess to watching more than one episode of this show. Maybe it’s because being on a storm-tossed boat in the middle of a cold ocean is my idea of, er, hell. That’s what reading is for – to take us places we have never gone before! I’ve spent my share of time in Alaska, though mostly on land, thank goodness, and I’d just like to echo this quote from the editor of the Alaska Fishermen’s Journal.

“Alaska, in a lot of ways, is another planet….There are things going on there that many people can’t quite comprehend, volcanoes, earthquakes and so many storms with hurricane winds they don’t even name them.”

Speaking of “The Deadliest Catch,” you can get the word from the star’s mouth with Sig Hansen’s memoir, “North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters.” Hansen, of course, is one of the featured fishermen on “The Deadliest Catch.” Written with the help of outdoor writer Mark Sundeen,  Hansen’s story vividly portrays the joys and hardships of crab fishing in the Bering Sea.

Like Dean Adams, Hansen comes from a Norwegian fishing family that plied its trade in an era before Gortex and GPS (Hansen says he still speaks Norwegian at home). The stress and drama inherent in this way of making a living loom large in this book as well – Hansen’s two brothers also have adopted this dangerous way of making a living. The family has endured its share of sinkings and rescues, as you will see if you dip into this gritty book.

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‘Four Thousand Hooks’ by Dean Adams

In “Four Thousand Hooks,” author Dean Adams tells the true story of his adventures as a 16-year-old aboard an Alaska fishing boat. Watch an interview with Adams below.

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A wild and wonderful Jasper Fforde reading list

Jasper Fford on the set of "Well Read"

Coming up with a list of books that are “like” Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series was a challenge, because I don’t think there really are any books just like them. They are unique, both in their construction of an alternate fantasy world and in their reliance on the ENTIRE FIELD OF ENGLISH LITERATURE to populate that world.

Well, here goes.

A digression –  Mr. Fforde also writes children’s books. He must be a child at heart anyway, so this strikes me as an appropriate match-up. Called the Dragonslayer series, these books concern a young woman named Jennifer Strange who runs an employment agency for wizards, who have fallen on hard times for reasons having to do with government regulation, and who are making ends meet with odd jobs like installing electrical circuits by telepathy. Needless to say, events don’t linger long in the home improvement field, but move on to something much bigger and darker.

Next up is a fantasy author whose works I really like, but whose vision is considerably darker than Mr. Fforde’s. That would be Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  Zafon is an immensely imaginative, talented and productive guy –he writes children’s books, too – but I’m going to stick to three of his books which, like Fforde’s,  feature a fantasy world inhabited by books. At least I hope it’s imaginary, because there are some pretty scary characters in these books that I hope will remain between the covers.

The first, “The Shadow of the Wind,” concerns a young boy, Daniel Sempere, who lives in Barcelona right after the Second World War. Beneath the streets of Barcelona lies a fast underground cavern called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which contains a huge library of obscure books maintained by those few initiated into the place. Once you’re initiated, you get to check out one book, and then you have to preserve it and protect it. Daniel selects a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” and becomes completely engrossed in its story, but he can’t find any other books that have been written by the same author. So he sets out to find him, and them. .

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‘The Woman Who Died A Lot’ by Jasper Fforde

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” is the seventh installment in Jasper Fforde’s humorous crime series starring policewoman Thursday Next. Watch an interview with Fforde right here.

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‘My People Are Rising’ by Aaron Dixon

In 1968, Aaron Dixon founded the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party at the age of 19. “My People Are Rising” is a memoir of his life. Watch an interview with Dixon below.

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