Nat Hentoff – 3 Stars
American Music Is
[Da Capo Press]
The by-now venerable music critic Nat Hentoff has always written perceptively and sympathetically about jazz. He does so again with American Music Is, a compilation of newspaper and magazine columns that have recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal and JazzTimes. Hentoff is strongest when reminiscing about his relationships with the numerous legendary jazz musicians he’s known, authoritative but less personally warm when writing about bluegrass and country music. Several of these columns become repetitive, and he makes the same comments about Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong in various essays throughout the book. But Hentoff does nothing to tarnish his already stellar reputation as one of our finest music critics.
Nadine Cohodas – 3 Stars
Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington
Nadine Cohodas’ Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington is an exhaustive (and exhausting) biography of the Chicago blues/soul/pop diva. Washington was supremely talented, troubled and deeply insecure—sadly ahead of her time in her obsession to control her weight through the diet pills that led to her untimely death. Cohodas deftly weaves the strands of Washington’s professional and personal life, but, occasionally, the meticulously researched lists of recording dates and concert appearances grows tedious and overwhelming. A more personal, less clinical presentation of the artist would have helped. But Queen is an important contribution to restoring the rightful place of a neglected musical giant.
Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan – 2.5 Stars
Nina Simone: Break Down and Let It All Out
Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan, authors of Nina Simone: Break Down and Let It All Out, founded the Nina Simone fan club in Britain. Unfortunately, their biography reads like the breathless missives they probably sent out to club members. Simone was a singular composer and a strikingly eclectic interpreter who was at home in genres as diverse as soul, jazz, Broadway show tunes, folk protest and spirituals. That in itself is noteworthy. But true to their fan-club roots, Hampton and Nathan treat each new album release as if it were an event of epic proportions; the book lacks a balanced, incisive commentary on Simone herself, and a sense of perspective on the music’s importance. In America, Nina Simone had precisely one Top-40 hit during a 40-year career, and she’s largely unknown. Sadly, after Break Down and Let It All Out, she still will be.