I recently had a disturbing revelation. I started to write about music in my teens, largely because it seemed inevitable. My mother is very literary, my dad was a music buff, and this was the most direct way to combine their two aspirations into the act of writing about music. God knows everything else I tried—singing, playing an instrument (first guitar, then saxophone), acting, painting, and drawing—was a total disaster. Making music seemed impossible, but writing about it was mysteriously doable. Although I first wrote about film (in particular, animated film, which I would eventually write three books about), when I focused my energies on music, it just felt right to me; everything seemed to fall into place in a way that it never had before.
I was already obsessed with jazz and various other kinds of music (the kind one hears in old movies), and writing about it seemed like a natural progression. My heroes were Gary Giddins (who became a close friend and mentor) and Whitney Balliett, as well as Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Nat Hentoff, and the late Dick Sudhalter. For the past 15 years, my major editor and guru has been Robert Gottlieb, who has deigned to work on three books with me thus far (with more to come, I hope).
But here's what recently dawned on me: I've been doing this for about 30 years, at least eight hours a day, six or seven days a week. It occurred to me that if I had invested all this time, say, learning to play the saxophone, I might have gotten to the point where someone might conceivably want to hear me play. Even though writing about music came naturally to me, I have, in fact, spent more sheer hours doing it than a great pianist spends both practicing and performing, and, in general, mastering his instrument. It dawned on me that, after seven books (the eighth is about to be published), about 1,000 newspaper articles (mostly for the New York Sun and the Wall Street Journal), and 500 or so CD liner notes, I could have directed this sheer labor toward becoming a musician after all.
It was a new friend, a trumpet player named Daniel Ippolito, who cured me of this self-defeating reasoning. Daniel pointed out that unless there were people out there doing what I do, all the great music in the world wouldn't matter—people have to know about it, or it might as well not exist. I feel particularly strongly about this with regard to the new book, in which I'm grateful to be able to tell readers about such overlooked figures as Nellie Lutcher, Joe Mooney, and Johnny Desmond, who aren't widely discussed in other works. (Obviously, the well-known figures are equally worth covering—as celebrated as Frank Sinatra was in his lifetime, nobody could imagine a whole book devoted to exploring his musical artistry until I wrote one.) As Bob Gottlieb puts it, "Something doesn't exist for me unless I can read about it."
Will Friedwald writes about jazz for the Wall Street Journal and is the author of A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon).