Reading “Mr. B: The Music & Life of Billy Eckstine” by Cary Ginell

Laying on my side I watched the clock ticking down, the end of yesterday. Initially I had managed to go to sleep but not in any meaningful way, ten-fifteen minute shifts at best. Not being able to fly through dreams, my continued waking presence made the air grow heavier. My pulse raced. The jangled ozone nerves reminding me; sitting on that porch in Athens during the storm, the sky was a series of violent paintings. Each using the same palette of silvered blues and behind closed eyelid stone fruit purples.

It was a temporary show without curator, the crowd roaring both its approval and displeasure in equal measure so that the whole house shook. At first the novelty of it interested me but soon the siege of the sky with its non-stop booming began to put me on edge. The storm had to be close by as everything went at a quick tempo which my pulse too became caught up in.

To try to regain an inner calm I told myself that all the noise and violence was no different than looking at the ocean or her lips as she moved in for a kiss. It did not work, as all I had managed to do was remind myself of other dangers out there; some always more present than others.

I grabbed one of the books from my “to read” pile to make constructive use of my non-sleep time until coffee at dawn. I will read several books on a subject that interests me as I find it gives a fuller picture. Then to cleanse the palate I will go to something completely different. So sorry Dombrovsky, you must wait a while longer.

The negative aspects of our modern digital age are that we make stars of people who do not actually do anything except broadcast their bad behavior via twenty four hour nonstop streams on social media. This and the fact that so much information is accepted off of websites whose only criteria is that they look professional are the bane of anyone with a modicum of intelligence or soul. Inaccuracies abound from people perpetuating what they read off of a site without further fact checking let alone checking the site’s accuracies. There is however a good side to all of this. With all this bad behavior ever present in the zeitgeist biographies/autobiographies on artists, politicians, historical and public figures can be written without excising aspects of the subject’s life or action without the risk of the readers feeling scandalized. This allows for a more fully realized portrait of the person and their time to emerge.

Duke Ellington’s (1899-1974) legacy is remembered in more than name only as many of his songs remain active standards. Count Basie (1904-1984), if not performed as much by later generations, is still historically remembered. A lot of their direct peers are forgotten or negated to names, dates and the better known recording sessions listed but no longer heard nor explored. The facts are parroted much in the way of someone learning a foreign language by memorizing phrases. Billy Eckstine’s (1914-1993) career now shares much the same fate. The hits he had are listed but more often than not he has been reduced down to a footnote for his role in being an early employer of the chief architects of Bop, his bandstand along with Minton’s Playhouse (NYC) serving as the burgeoning art form’s incubator.

Cary Ginell’s new biography is a good and breezy read. By his own admission in the introduction he makes it clear that this book is not a definitive study of Mr. B’s life. It does fill a surprising void and one can hope will help garner more interest once again in a great now neglected singer’s work.

The book was done with the blessing of the family, some of Mr. B’s children: Ed, Guy and his daughters C.C and Gina providing their reminiscence. The foreword was written by son Ed who himself has had a long career in the industry.

One of the book’s main strengths is that it presents an even handed account of the artist. There is no puffing up his achievements but neither is there any kind of taking down via overly emphasizing his acknowledged short comings. The book comes to us bereft of any agenda outside of telling us of his life. In tracing the family tree from before he was born Cary avoids the near biblical “begat who begat….” Which can sort of suck the life out of a biography as the need for some type of a flow chart materializes.

We are told of Mr. B’s early years, working with Earl “Fatha” Hines. The parade of names is kept short although scant information is given on the key players, making the names meaningless to those who are not already familiar with their pedigree. On the other hand to have provided the other player’s histories too very likely would have proved a distracting digression from the flow of the narrative.

Of course I had known that not every hot jazz musician successfully made the transition into the big band era and that aside from some of the more prominent big bands, once modern jazz rose to the fore, many of them disbanded or ended up on the nostalgia circuit in Europe which did not discern between the musical generations in the same inhibitive way as America. It was interesting to read though of the strata of singers within the genre and how one would supplant the other in a long line of succession until all were rendered irrelevant as a soundtrack to youth by the encroaching (early) rock and roll phenomena. A similar thing would happen a generation later to (modern) jazz players in the mid to late sixties.

Mr.B is shown in social context of his place in the country where racism was still prevalent and also as a singer of very genre specific music. There are times in the book where the writing feels style wise like raw reportage. However given the choice between that and the type of biography where the author feels the need to fill the pages with their own purple prose, over gilding the lily and inserting their own persona, I much prefer the reportage. The description of his voice over the years immediately allows one to envision what made him so appealing. However, little of his inner workings are ever delved into. The silence though, in lieu of suppositions towards his mental makeup is a safer way to go.

We are shown how he had a true understanding and affection for Bop and it was not just happenstance who sat in his bandstand during its brief bop incarnation. Hopefully this will help raise him out of his footnote position in regards to his place at the nascence of modern jazz.

Another strength of the book is when dealing with recording sessions or shows, calling bad material for what it is. Even the greats recorded some clunkers some more than others.The story itself is rather fascinating and in many ways bitter sweet. It is not a story of squandered talent but of stifled and missed opportunities. Frequently over the course of his career he would make seemingly safe or bad choices in regards to material; old familiar songs and novelty tunes or schmaltz. Ostensibly he cited the need to provide for his family. Of their importance in his life there is no doubt but there is a subtle subtext too that he was shocked, then sort of worn out from the racism habitually encountered throughout the country. He, especially in later years had some misfire albums where he tried to be au courant- commercial but the same can definitely be said of the singers that initially sprang from the same scene and whose records are still well known (i.e Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, Ella Fitzgerald et al).

He was personal friends with Martin Luther King, attending some marches with him but it was his refusal to kowtow to allowing himself as an African American to play specific innocuous or buffoonish roles that made him dangerous to those who wanted to maintain a sort of status quo. His deportment and sense of dignity would inspire other artist in their quest to be viewed as equals off stage but directly or indirectly through how he handled his choice of projects, at the expense of his

This book is well worth seeking out being neither too technical nor mere fluff. The artistic accomplishments or Mr. B are lauded but discussed too are the misfires and faults. What more could any artist want in the portrayal of their life?

Finally dawn came. The morning was cold so I let my coffee brew longer as to make it extra hot. Or maybe the morning, as I sat at table in my bathrobe merely felt that way on account of the coffee’s heat. Either way, the dichotomy of the two allowed both to momentarily be underlined in my mind. I open my notebook. Once again the ink will flow and while it does I am where I should be, at table; holy  sunrise officiated by the song of a bird now preserved between the pages of a journal.

Maxwell Chandler (Midtown)

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