Big Burritos

Lowe has a problem with just about everyone who has written about American music without securing his permission; he attacks received wisdom, then restates it as his own thought. Guilty of just about every offense he finds in others, he can be amazingly wrongheaded. "Who thinks of Al Jolson as Jewish?" he argues. Anyone who ever saw The Jazz Singer or The Jolson Story, or heard his Asa Yoelson alter ego radio routines or his Jewish records: Jolson was famous for being Jewish. He grieves over the neglect of the much celebrated James Reese Europe (failing to note the 1994 biography by Reid Badger), but is capable of saluting "a good songwriter's craft" without naming the songwriter (Jimmy Monaco, no less). Anyone who can write that Frank Trumbauer "is perhaps best known for being cited by Lester Young as an influence" needs to get out more, and when he says that Young's "claim" has been "belittled by revisionist and racially motivated historians," he is hunting an unidentified chimera. Similarly, what he considers "the (White liberal) party line on African-American pianist Fats Waller" was out of date 30 years ago. Lowe is obsessed with race--of course he capitalizes white and black as though they were nationalities. He has his insights and can turn a phrase ("Carmichael's talent was for shaping jazz phrases into pop melodies, while Armstrong excelled at shaping pop melodies into jazz phrases"), but the relentless brimstone wears you down.

O'Meally, on the other hand, eloquently expresses his affection for the music, and his scholarship is sound and discerning. He has organized his five discs by category (blues, church, songbook, novelties), but this is more a survey than a history--"Heebie Jeebies" isn't here, for example--and though it includes plenty of classics, the real enchantment stems from the surprises. It astutely includes Don Redman, Wynonie Harris, Aretha Franklin, and others who are usually omitted from such collections, and gives more attention to Armstrong than anyone would have done as recently as 15 years ago. But O'Meally is most impressive when he excerpts the 1962 Ben Webster talking-and-cursing session; a Jelly Roll jape from the Library of Congress (he also includes "Doctor Jazz"); and perfect performances that no one else would have thought to single out, like Mildred Bailey's "Lover, Come Back to Me," Jimmy Rushing's "Some of These Days," Betty Carter's "Frenesi," and more.

I don't think he makes a very convincing argument for Marvin Gaye or Al Green--I like them on their own turf, but they disrupt the discs--and I'm nonplussed by a Little Jimmy Scott cut that is painfully out of tune. Most of his selections, however, are canny and complementary. Sequencing is an issue--I can't listen to volume four without a remote, while volume one is a blues revelation and the scat- and novelty-filled volume five is (excepting George Benson) bliss. Omissions? Not many. Lee Wiley should be here (Lowe includes her masterpiece, "Sugar") and so should the Boswell Sisters. Jack Teagarden should be in the blues section. Many jazz-influenced singers who came up during the band era are absent--Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Herb Jeffries, Rosemary Clooney, and Tony Bennett, among them. And lest anyone detect a subtext here, he is more than generous to white singers--he just likes the wrong ones. But a good anthology has no end--it creates in the listener the desire and ability to formulate one's own.

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