The Da Capo Jazz And Blues Lover's Guide to the U.S.
Third Edition (2001)
Da Capo Press
Ever found yourself in an unfamiliar city without any idea where to find some good jazz or blues? Christiane Bird has found a solution. If you take your Da Capo Guide along, you'll have no trouble rooting out the happening scenes. The express purpose of this book is to make local jazz and blues accessible to visitors and residents alike. That includes an examination of both past and present, with sections on historical sites of interest (some now extinct), live performance venues, radio stations, and particularly well-endowed record stores.
Da Capo released the first edition of this Guide in 1991. The latest (2001) revision features some welcome updates, keeping a finger on the pulse of jazz and blues in America. This book is a valuable resource for information and destinations alike. Something like a Zagat guide to jazz and blues, the Da Capo Guide dissects the whole country into a sampling of the high points in specific cities. One might complain that this guide focuses on only 26 localities and mostly ignores the rest, but jazz and blues have always evolved within close-knit communities, and most of the choices here are right on track. (Look for particularly good coverage, as expected, of Chicago, New Orleans, and New York.)
Each section starts off with a historical introduction, then moves on to a collection of weekly and daily publications likely to yield the most current information about current happenings. This information is particularly valuable, because it allows visitors to immediately access the details about current events and performances. And since different sources always offer different information, it never hurts to have a bit of redundancy. (However, the guide includes only a handful of online publications, which will be a disappointment for those who prefer to get their information electronically.)
After a few words about neighborhood hotspots, each section proceeds to "Landmarks and Legends," a descriptive listing of historical points of interest. These include statues, homes of musical legends, museums, and other places to visit and savor the rich and varied history of the music. Along with some on-target historical evaluations, the guide presents several interesting vignettes. For example, the section on New York describes the events that led to Charlie Parker being banned from the club named after him: Birdland. Some of these sites are active visitors' centers; others are simply relics of times gone by. The description of the legendary Five Spot, where Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane joined forces for their historic 1957 concert series, ends with a tragic note: "No. 2 St. Mark's Place now houses a pizza joint." (Maybe you can stop by for a slice and absorb some of the residual energy from this site's massive influence on jazz history.)
All that is fine and dandy, but jazz and blues are just as much about performance and reinvention as they are about roots and the tradition. There is quite simply no substitute for music created in the moment. After all the heave-ho with history, the Da Capo Guide finally gets down to business. The live performance venues listed here do not pretend to cover every spot in a given city, but they do an excellent job with the majors. (A personal complaint I'd offer is the lack of coverage of "underground scenes" in off-beat venues, which cater to local bands or experimental music. But this guide is targeted toward a mainstream audience, so you'll have to hunt through the newspaper listings if you're looking for something very far off the beaten track.)
The venue listings are the heart and soul of the Da Capo Guide. They tell you where to go for what kind of music, how much it'll cost you, and what food you might expect. When you're ready to go out, you'll have an excellent idea of what to expect. Atmosphere can play a huge role on your listening experience, and the authors pay due attention to this aspect. Boston's two major hotel bars, for example, feature some of the biggest names touring the city; but each has its drawbacks. The Regattabar (number one) is, to understate things, quite intimate; and Scullers (number two) teeters precariously on the brink of pretension. You can take your pickbut bear in mind that the bigger and more innovative names come through the Regattabar, while Scullers focuses on more laid-back and traditional performers. As for blues, the venues listed here tend to be a bit more homey and down-to-earth, reflecting the nature of the music itself. (The House of Blues seems to have infected the country like a plague, but you won't hear any complaints from this listener.)
Festivals (which would seem a major reason to visit a given city in the first place) get short shrift in the Da Capo Guide, though a more comprehensive list toward the end of the book makes up a bit for this shortcoming. It would be nice to see more festivals featured in this book, which really only scratches the surface. Again, you'll have to do your own research to root out the information; but with this guide in hand, at least you'll have some idea of the indoor venues involved.
Toward the end of each listing, the Da Capo Guide offers some suggestions about where to buy (and sell) music. Collectors and casual shoppers, as well as bargain-hunters and obscurity-seekers, will all benefit from visiting these outlets. Wisely, the authors recognize the importance of supporting local business, and they focus on mom-and-pop operations to the detriment of chains. My personal experience in two cities, St. Louis and Boston, confirms each of the choices offered here. However, the Boston section leaves out a couple of choice indie outlets: Twisted Village and (the admittedly brand-new) Other Music. In my four years in Boston, I spent more time (and money) at Twisted Village than all the rest combined.
As a sort of footnote, each listing concludes with a handful of local radio stations. This information appeals more to residents than visitors, but I suppose anyone can change the channel in order to make local driving more groovy.
The Da Capo Guide is a truly rare resource, a virtual bible for lovers of jazz and the blues. As a niche market, this music often dips below the horizon in other publications. But Christiane Bird does an outstanding job making the information here accessible and complete. Invest in this guide and you'll find it will become a mandatory travel companion.