Hajdu (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; The Ten Cent-Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, 2008) returns with a graceful collection of essays, most previously published, on a variety of topics—jazz mostly, but also Elmer Fudd, Elvis and others.
The author writes with enormous confidence and competence in these pieces, most of which appeared in the New Republic, where he is a music critic. His encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history and musicians never reduces the prose to pedantry, and he is generally compassionate—though occasionally his criticisms are sharp. In Ken Burns’s documentary on jazz, for example, Hajdu detects “subtle hints of racism and anti-Semitism,” and he feels the music of Philip Glass can be “frigid.” Hajdu is harsh when he needs to be—he declares that there are “four thousand holes” in a recent biography of John Lennon—and is often wry and amusing (see his quotation of Monica Lewinsky’s note to President Clinton thanking him for Leaves of Grass). On the whole, the author is an able instructor whose vast knowledge inspires rather than intimidates. He moves easily from essays on celebrities everyone knows (Paul McCartney, Wynton Marsalis) to those known principally to the cognoscenti (Harry Partch, John Zorn). Hajdu includes a lovely essay on the brief life of pianist Michel Petrucciani, whose enormous talent was complemented by his capacious sexual appetite and shortened by bone disease. Among those earning the author’s high praise are Susannah McCorkle, Billy Eckstein, Ray Charles and Mos Def. Those stung include Sting, Bobby Darin and Starbucks (whose CDs Hajdu equates with “state-sponsored music”). Occasionally he even chides himself, noting, for example, that as a young man he did not adequately appreciate the cartoons of Jules Feiffer. Hajdu’s lengthy piece on Marsalis is a revelation.
A gift for readers who enjoy erudition seasoned with élan.