Books by Stuart Nicholson

Released: May 13, 1999

In the centenary year of his birth, a life of jazz legend Duke Ellington, in an oral history'style narrative composed of a series of short quotations from Ellington and those who knew him. Ellington casts a large shadow over American popular music and engenders strong opinions. In a search for authenticity, Nicholson, a British jazz journalist (Jazz: A History, 1998), has chosen to assemble the words of the composer, his colleagues, culled from pre-existing sources (Ellington himself has been dead for 25 years), which makes for an oddly disconnected text. The book covers every important aspect of Ellington's career, and many of the comments from fellow musicians shed interesting light on the way he was perceived, but it is disjointed and extremely difficult to read. Reproductions of period posters, record labels, and advertisements provide a lively visual accompaniment, but—like the uninterrupted series of quotes that make up the text—they could use some context. Read full book review >
JAZZ-ROCK by Stuart Nicholson
Released: May 1, 1998

An exhaustive look at how some jazz musicians adjusted to the advent of rock ‘n' roll. Nicholson (Billie Holliday, 1995, etc.) begins his study with the emergence of the US in the 1950s and '60s as a world center of musical innovation, particularly in the uniquely American forms of jazz and rock ‘n' roll. While the jazz influence on acts such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat, and Tears is perhaps obvious, artists such as Cream and Jimi Hendrix, normally thought of as pure rock or as being predominantly blues-influenced, are shown by Nicholson to also have been very much influenced by jazz. But if jazz made an impression on rock, the opposite also occurred. For instance, it was his friendship with Hendrix that led jazz giant Miles Davis out of traditional jazz and into jazz-rock "fusion." Davis was soon opening for the Grateful Dead and working with rock promoter Bill Graham. The development of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea's career are also thoroughly traced here. The 1980s return of Miles Davis to the scene and the juggernaut of bassist extraordinaire Jaco Pastorius are also plumbed for their vast influence. Exploring rock acts persistently influenced by jazz, Nicholson offers a strong analysis of Frank Zappa, probably the most important artist in the genre, and others. The future of jazz-rock fusion is located in the work of such pioneers as Ornette Coleman and in the development of such groups as Digable Planets. If there is one flaw in Nicholson's study, it is his tendency to hew to a stiff, repetitive format: covering staff changes in a band's lineup, discussing a record's release (including the promotional materials from the record companies), and then going into a close analysis of the music itself. Still, his impeccable music scholarship makes up for this tendency toward structural formula. (50 illustrations, not seen) Read full book review >
BILLIE HOLIDAY by Stuart Nicholson
Released: Sept. 29, 1995

Less-than-satisfying biography of a well-beloved jazz singer, despite some interesting musical analysis. Nicholson (Ella Fitzgerald, 1994) has uncovered birth certificates, court documents, and newspaper advertisements to correct long-standing mix-ups in Holiday's life story. His sober approach is some relief after the overheated prose of many Holiday bios (most notably, Donald Clarke's 1994 tome), but surprisingly, Nicholson drops the ball so often that those who do not already know Holiday's life story will be lost. Holiday was born out of wedlock, neglected by her mother, and raped by a neighborhood boy at the age of 11. By her late teens, she was in New York City, where she quickly established herself as a singing star, ``discovered'' by the famous jazz producer John Hammond, who arranged for her first recording sessions. An engagement at New York's hip Cafe Society club in the late '30s established her among a broader audience; there she performed ``Strange Fruit,'' a song that bravely addressed racial hatred. By the '40s, Holiday was recording in a more pop-oriented vein, often accompanied by lush strings. Her career began to unravel with her deepening dependency on abusive men and her addiction to heroin. By the early '50s, her voice was becoming unreliable, and her health began to fail; she died in 1959. Nicholson deals only peripherally with the personal life of Holiday, often only briefly mentioning key figures. As in his book on Fitzgerald, he tends to focus on long lists of performance and recording dates, losing sight of the figure behind the facts. His discussion of the musical side of Holiday's achievement is the book's most valuable contribution, offering interesting insights into how pop singers mold their image before an adoring public. This Lady is still waiting for her Day in the biographical sun. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >
ELLA FITZGERALD by Stuart Nicholson
Released: May 1, 1994

The First Lady of Song is more than deserving of a full-length biography, and English musician-critic Nicholson (Jazz: The Modern Resurgence, not reviewed) is erudite and intelligent. But this book is too often a pedestrian catalogue of dates, places, and band personnel. Perhaps the problem is, as one of his sources says, ``There's no scandal about Ella.... And that doesn't make for exciting journalism.'' As is the case for many key figures in jazz, Ella Fitzgerald's public persona is a mÇlange of fact and fancy, legend and reality. This book, which corrects and updates a slightly earlier European edition, blows away some of the mist. Among other minor revelations Nicholson provides is the news that Ella was born out of wedlock in 1917, a year earlier than previously thought; that she had a disastrous first marriage in the mid-1930s to a smooth-talking ex-con that was annulled, and that she had affairs with several younger men during the '60s. Much more compelling is the rags-to-riches story of a young black girl, orphaned in her early teens, who rose to become one of the great artists of jazz, who has garnered countless awards, international fame, and adulation. The best passages are those that analyze Fitzgerald's unique singing style. He brings a musician's insight to these sections and even the die-hard Fitzgerald fan will learn something new from them. The book also includes an exhaustive discography by jazz historian Phil Schaap, which makes it a valuable addition to the jazz bookshelf. When he isn't writing about the music itself, Nicholson's prose lies limply on the page. But his musical analyses enliven his language, and his treatment of his subject's human and musical strengths and weaknesses is well balanced. Read full book review >