Gene Lees, author of the highly acclaimed Singers and the Song, offers, in Meet Me at Jim and Andy's, another tightly integrated collection of essays about post-War American music. This time he focuses on major jazz instrumentalists and bandleaders.
Jim and Andy's, on 48th Street just west of Sixth Avenue, was one of four New York musicians' haunts in the 1960s--the others being Joe Harbor's Spotlight, Charlie's, and Junior's. "For almost every musician I knew," Lees writes, "[it was] a home-away-from-home, restaurant, watering hole, telephone answering service, informal savings (and loan) bank, and storage place for musical instruments."
In a vivid series of portraits, we meet its clientele, an unforgettable gallery of individualists who happen to have been major artists--among them Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Art Farmer, Billy Taylor, Gerry Mulligan, and Paul Desmond. We share their laughter and meet their friends, such as the late actress Judy Holliday, their wives, even their children (as in the tragic story of Frank Rosolino). We learn about their loves, loyalties, infidelities, and struggles with fame and, sometimes alcohol and drug addiction. The magnificent pianist Bill Evans, describing to Lees his heroin addiction, says, "It's like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake in pain like death, and then you go out and score, and that is transfiguration. Each day becomes all of life in microcosm."
Himself a noted songwriter, Lees writes about these musicians with vividness and intimacy. Far from being the inarticulate jazz musicians of legend, they turn out to be eloquent indeed, and the inventors of a colorful slang that has passed into the American language.
And of course there was the music. A perceptive critic with enormous respect for the music he writes about, Lees notes the importance and special appeal of each artist's work, as in this comment about Artie Shaw's clarinet: "A fish, it has been said, is unaware of water, and Shaw's music so permeated the very air that it was only too easy to overlook just how good a player and how inventive and significant an improviser he was."
Lees' excellent Singers and the Song (1987) extolled the tradition of American song-writing; now he has gathered together another collection of his occasional writings, this time on jazz and its proponents and practictioners. Jim and Andy's was a postwar bar on Manhattan's West 48th Street that was one of the major haunts of jazz musicians. "For almost every musician I knew, it was a home-away-from-home, restaurant, watering-hole, telephone answering service, informal savings (and loan) bank, and storage place for musical instruments." Many of Jim and Andy's clientele - musicians such as Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, and Paul Desmond - are limned here in loving strokes. But this isn't just puffy nostalgia. There are important insights that peer through the reminiscences. In one article, Lees debunks the myth, propagated by such writers as Nat Hentoff, that "poor, uneducated black folks invented [jazz] out of inspiration and thin air" and that a "WASP establishment has ever since kept [them] on the outside looking in. . ." Lees disputes this, pointing to over 30,000 jazz bands in the US, to Dave Baker's position as head of jazz studies at Indiana University, to Mary Lou Williams' appointment as artist-in-residence at Duke University, to the large number of honorary doctorates held by jazz musicians. Lees also debunks as elitist the idea that jazz was created by uneducated people. He describes many of the jazz performers as "superior musicians who mastered the craft the only way it can be done, by education, formal or otherwise, and hard work." Or, as Harry "Sweets" Edison put it: "Jazz is no folk music. It's too hard to play." Jim and Andy's has long since given way to the glass-and-steel monoliths of Sixth Avenue. But Lees ensures that the great tradition of which he writes will not be so easily forgotten. (Kirkus Reviews)