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The Ghosts of Harlem (Sessions with Jazz Legends)

Russ Musto By

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The Ghosts of Harlem (Sessions with Jazz Legends)
Hank O'Neal
Paperback; 496 pages
ISBN: 0826516270
Vanderbilt University Press
2009

Hank O'Neal is a jazz renaissance man—an author, photographer, concert promoter, label owner and record producer. Best known for his role as the owner/operator of Chiaroscuro Records, O'Neal's appreciation of the "older pioneers of traditional jazz" has long been recognized. His considerable abilities as a photographer, while not as well known in jazz circles, demonstrate a similar empathy towards these artists. In The Ghosts of Harlem he combines his myriad talents to produce a volume that shows and tells the tale of a bygone age in a series of conversational interviews and large format photographic portraits with more than 40 musicians—some famous, many forgotten—who began their careers during the Swing Era and spent at least some time plying their trade in Harlem.

Over 20 years in the making, the book was inspired by a 1985 visit uptown to Harlem with John Hammond to hear Al Cobb's C & J Orchestra's then regular Monday night gig at Small's Paradise (at that time one of the only jazz shows still happening in the neighborhood) that left O'Neal with the nagging question of "how the vibrant musical scene that permeated pre-World War II Harlem could vanish in less than two decades." Deciding to explore the issue as the subject of a book that would help preserve the memories of important participants of those early days of jazz, he devised a series of questions that would hopefully illuminate the subject, beginning with "When did you first work in Harlem?" and ending with "Do you think that the music will ever come back?"

The interviews with artists from Andy Kirk, Erskine Hawkins, Benny Carter and Cab Calloway to Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Wess, Clark Terry and Billy Taylor shed much light on venues like the Apollo Theater and Savoy Ballroom and the roads from other cities that brought players to the musical mecca that was Harlem. Photos by O'Neal and those culled from the historic Frank Driggs Collection, along with reproductions of many 78 labels, bring the stories to life. The accompanying CD of selected tracks of the interviewees from the Chiaroscuro catalogue makes for companionable listening.

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