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Book Review

Sittin' In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s


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Jazz was really the music that facilitated integration among the races in this country and never got credit for it.
—Sonny Rollins
Sittin' In
Jeff Gold
256 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0-06- 291470-5
Harper Design

Every picture tells a story. After mining for gold in the form of photographic riches, author Jeff Gold knew he had a rare and precious find. Previously undiscovered vintage photographs from jazz clubs of the 1940's and 1950's. Oh, we've seen plenty of shots of Count Basie or Miles Davis, but not of the people at the clubs. The audience is no longer invisible, and they have a lot to say after all these years. To our good fortune, Gold shares these until now unseen images for us to ponder, enjoy, and feel the untold stories. Your own personal imagery of another time and place, a different era, unfolds before you. Perhaps better said, inside you. Merely flipping through this treasure trove of photographs, jazz club menus, tickets, and assorted other vintage jazz memorabilia is to cheat yourself of the experience. This book is presented as an art gallery or museum. Put your motor scooter aside and walk through leisurely and thoughtfully. Pause along the way to absorb the depth and meaning of what is before you. Without reading so much as one word, this book speaks volumes.

That said, this certainly is a beautiful coffee table book, suitable and to be admired by any jazz aficionado. However, it is so much more than that. Wisely, Gold let the photographs speak for themselves. As already mentioned, they are going to say different things to different people. Instead he followed the stories by location. Starting with New York City and moving about the country, using the nightclubs as his compass, he provided the facts about the many jazz clubs represented in these photos. He gave us years and dates, ownership, methods of operation and a couple of consequential benchmark occurrences or noteworthy incidents. He set the table but allowed us to devour the meal in our own way at our own pace. So many once hoppin' jazz clubs, now only to be heard in the wind, are honored and remembered.

This pertinent information adjoined with the two hundred exclusive archival photographs would be more than enough to make for a good book. Gold ups the ante to excellent, by including five insightful interviews. Legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins spoke in depth of his experiences playing at many of these clubs. He also addressed racism and the realities of integration. Rollin's first-hand perception is that the shared love of jazz brought white and black people together. This predates Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. In the extensive and eye-opening interview, Rollins states "Jazz was really the music that facilitated integration among the races in this country and never got credit for it."

Quincy Jones was quite thoughtful and provocative in his comments concerning racism. He had much more to say, but to share one quote that echoed Rollins sentiment, "Back then it wasn't about color in the clubs, it was about how good you can play. Racism would've been over in the 1950's if they'd listened to jazz guys."

A contemporary point of view is offered by pianist and composer Jason Moran. Much too young to have been there, he was struck by the genuine happiness of the people in the audience. Indeed, almost every picture is laced with broad smiles and easy-going carefree body language.

Fashion etches a large imprint and is discussed with fashion designer Robin Givhan. She comments that, "I'm struck by the formality of their attire. The fact that in many instances, it's almost like you could take some of the women and they could just as easily be walking into Sunday church as a nightclub." Yes, and the men all had coats and ties. I imagine that many in our more casually dressed society would be struck by that. That's just the way it was back then. People dressed up when they went out to dinner, to a ballgame, to the theater, to a nightclub, or even just to go downtown. It was part of the culture and self-esteem. Jeans and a t-shirt were fine—to mow the lawn.

Notable jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, in one man's opinion, was the most interesting of them all. Here is a man that has seen, heard, and experienced a lot in the jazz world. He had me when he started talking about seeing Django Reinhardt in Europe in the early 1940's.

Sittin' In is a book that has a lot to say, with or without words. Sure, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and a few other jazz luminaries are mentioned, but it is not intended as a book on the history of jazz. It speaks as lightly or deeply as you choose about our culture. It champions and shines a long overdue light on a golden era of our society. Jazz is the backdrop and, as it still does today, feeds the very soul. But here we take a closer look and see that the jazz culture was, and is, a powerful spirit of our humanity.

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