Before striding into the future, John Dibb enjoyed considerable exposure to his sceptered isle's fascinating past. He was born in England's North Country, in 1948, in a model West Yorkshire village established a century earlier by an enlightened industrialist determined to provide comfortable housing and communal amenities for his employees and their families; called Saltaire, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At age 11, young Dibb won a place at the nearby Bingley Grammar School, which dates back half a millennium, to the era of Henry VIII. He later studied at the University of Bradford, one of two English colleges then offering a course in materials science.
The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield 431 pages. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Hardcover, $30.
Robert Greenfield's engaging biography shows that Ahmet Ertegun was destined to dominate. The son of a Turkish ambassador, Ertegun (19232006) left his native country at age two, and lived for a decade in Switzerland, France, and England, where he had a nanny who had previously cared for the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. His first American home was an architectural gem of a mansion on Washington's Embassy Row. House guests included Cary Grant and his second wife, the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
In December 1941, just after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S.'s declaration of war, the state of Indiana unwittingly endorsed a very different conflict by approving the incorporation of a talent agency headed by Denver Ferguson, an Indianapolis-based African-American entrepreneur. The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll documents the second of these campaigns, launched by the musical forces Ferguson dispatched to venues throughout the American South where blacks could entertain black audiences. In successive waves, talented musicians hit those stages running. Their performances were often incendiary, and a large chunk of this book chronicles the artistic warfare they waged between the advent of rhythm and blues and the emergence of what became known as rock'n'roll.
Mark Levinson, born December 11, 1946, celebrates an important anniversary in 2002. Exactly 30 years ago he jogged onto the playing field of high-end audio, so early in the game that fans, then few and far between, could count the players on their fingers.
The high-fidelity industry seems a logical home for a jazz musician like Levinson, who once envisioned a career playing flugelhorn and double bass, but his voyage into audio was a detour that could be said to have begun at age 22, when he took a job working on a film about Joan Baez. "It was a joy to find people willing to pay me to do something," quips the trim, youthful 55-year-old, who is quick to recall his "nonexistent income as a musician."
Madrigal's chief executive officer is known for working well into the night, but that's been a goal of his since boyhood. For many years he dreamed of becoming a professional guitarist, and even dropped out of Yale to satisfy a ravenous musical appetite. "Enough of trying to be a Renaissance man," Phil Muzio recalls thinking at the time. His aim was to be out there on the bandstand making music.
Imagine a speaker firm with an introductory product that pushes the outside of the performance envelope while tearing the pricing envelope to shreds. A reviewer in an audio journal that tilts toward the high end deems this speaker "appallingly expensive," notes he would have bought the test sample if he'd had the money, and confesses that being without it makes him feel "rather as though a member of the family has passed away." Now envision a speaker company at the peak of the industry sales curve, one so successful that a mainstream hi-fi magazine ranks it No.1 in market share for two separate years. Very different companies, right?
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
By Tad Hershorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 470pp. Hardcover, $34.95.
One night in 1942, Billie Holiday was singing at a Los Angeles nightclub. Between sets, she crossed the street to have a drink with Norman Granz. She was in tears because some black friends who had come to hear her had been turned away.
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009): 475pp. Hardcover, $30; paperback, $16.95.
If you plan to read just one book about Louis Armstrong, whose virtuosic cornet solos pushed jazz past rudimentary ensemble playing and launched his phenomenal career as an instrumentalist and singer, make it Pops. Teachout built it on brickwork laid by authors who preceded him, so you'll benefit from their research, as well as from narrative on 650 previously private reels of tape that Armstrong recorded and archived. Moreover, Teachout is a musician and music critic who offers opinions on his subject's discography.
Few people seem to realize that Armstrong (19011971) called himself LOU-iss. "All White Folks call me Louie," he once noted, and in some instances that may have been patronizing. In others, it was surely an instinctive response to the man's infectious warmth and informality.
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
By Robin D.G. Kelley (New York: Free Press, 2009): 588 pages; hardcover, $30; paperback, $18.
Bebop was new and controversial when, in September 1947, writer-photographer Bill Gottlieb profiled an obscure jazz pianist for Down Beat magazine. The story, which appeared just before Thelonious Sphere Monk (19171982) turned 30, called him an "elusive" figure "few have ever seen."
Then Lorraine Lion, the wife of Blue Note Records' Alfred Lion, began to tout Monk's first releases on the label. Her hyperbolic prose portrayed him as a man "surrounded by an aura of mystery . . . a strange person whose pianistics continue to baffle all who hear him." Ms. Lion anointed Monk the "High Priest of Bebop."