Books by Francis Davis

Released: March 1, 1996

The latest collection of essays by Davis (Outcats, 1990; The History of the Blues, 1995; etc.) finds this gifted jazz critic singing some blues of his own. The problem is not, Davis says in his introduction, the usual one, that jazz is a marginalized art form that doesn't get any respect. In fact, he observes, the music is enjoying its greatest popularity since the big-band era. But ``keeping up has ceased to be fun,'' he writes pointedly. The music has fallen into the hands of musical neoconservatives like Wynton Marsalis who, despite their obvious gifts, have a narrow vision of jazz history. As this collection amply testifies, Davis is still drawn to the ``outcats,'' the marginal figures within jazz itself. These essays represent his continued search for ``audible individuality'' as embodied by sounds as dissimilar as the corruscating free jazz of saxophonist Charles Gayle and the melody-driven romanticism of trumpeter Ruby Braff. At the same time, Davis's profiles are exemplary in their reproduction of diverse voices ranging from Braff's witty crankiness to Anthony Braxton's knowing eccentricity, from the mischievous giddiness of Don Byron, a black clarinetist of surpassing skill who moves easily between jazz and Jewish klezmer, to the warm motherliness of Rosemary Clooney. At the heart of the book, though, is a single theme that unites all of these disparate figures: Despite the success of a handful of younger artists, it is as difficult to be a jazz musician today as it has ever been. If anything, the essays that take Davis outside the world of jazz- -pieces on rap, Michael Jackson, and a couple of highly intelligent ruminations on the Broadway musical—serve primarily to underscore that sad truth. Davis remains one of our most engaging music critics, thoughtful and erudite, funny and self-aware. Highly recommended. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 9, 1995

A quirky inquiry into the nature of the blues. Although written to accompany a three-part series on PBS, this book is more substantive than most TV tie-ins. Davis (Outcats, 1990, etc.), music critic for the Atlantic, divides his investigation into three sections: the ``prehistory'' of the blues; a more or less chronological portrait of leading blues figures; and a discussion of the blues revival and the reasons why an African- American folk art appeals so strongly to a white, urban audience. His approach is highly personal. He begins the book by recounting his trip to Clarksdale, Miss., a mecca for blues lovers in the heart of the Delta country. An outsider to the culture of the blues, Davis invites the reader to share his puzzlement at the deep faith of rural performers (``There are people who grow up actually reading the Bible...who accept what I read as lunatic ravings as both prophecy and literal history''). But he also tries to provoke the reader with outrageous comments, as when he describes Mick Jagger as ``the most famous of contemporary minstrels [who] sings and struts as though trying to get in touch with his Inner Negro.'' The heart of the book is a series of thumbnail sketches of key performers that capture the essence of what makes each performer great. His description of Big Joe Williams is particularly apt: ``He looked like the whale that swallowed Jonah, and sounded like Jonah bellowing to get out.'' Sadly, the accompanying selection of photos is uninspired, relying heavily on oft-published shots. The final section, on the blues revival, is perhaps the most interesting. In it, Davis underscores many of the ironies that occurred when white revivalists ``rediscovered'' the blues performers of the 1920s and '30s, many of whom had to be retaught their own songs because they had long since quit playing. This deserves wide reading among fans of blues and traditional musical forms. (100 b&w photos) Read full book review >