The Blackbird & The Scarecrow. A New Book on Florence Mills
Judy and I went to an excellent book launch at Gleebooks in Sydney on Friday, 4 February. The Irish-born Australian writer Bill Egan has just published in the prestigious Scarecrow Press one of the best researched books on a jazz-related topic that I've been privileged to see in recent times. Called Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen, it was a 10-year labour of love for Bill and his very supportive family. I am hoping to get some copies for sale through my Jazzdag's Bookshelf
I'd hitherto only read bits about Mills and her art - her beauty and intelligence, her extraordinary stage presence, her generosity, her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance movement of the early '30s, the great respect she commanded among the classic jazz performers of the day, her commitment to her people, and the terrific reception she got during a year in the UK, not long before her death.
She never recorded as her voice could not be captured by the primitive pre-electric recording machines of the day. And she died quite young. In his talk, Bill said that most people who knew her likened her voice to that of Eva Taylor (Clarence Williams' wife), playing as evidence Taylor's classic 1924 recording of I'm A Little Blackbird Looking For A Bluebird with Williams, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Irvis, Louis Armstrong and Buddy Christian. As Egan noted, this was Florence's song; it was also a song about race, a fact often overlooked by some modern interpreters.
Egan is an unrelenting Ellington devotee, one of about 30 of us associated with Dave Stevens' Australian Duke Ellington Appreciation Group. At the launch, Bill's first and very appropriate musical example was Black Beauty, a lovely piece of early Ellingtonia written as a tribute to Florence Mills.
You know, It's not only the fine Australian players that keep me in touch with jazz in today. It's also the diligence, patient attention to detail, and research skills of writers like Bill Egan - and Bill Haesler, John Clarke, John Buchanan, Jack Mitchell, Mike Sutcliffe, Bruce Johnson, John Whiteoak, Kay Dreyfus and Dan Hardie, to name just a few. Sadly, I think that writers who care about jazz and have done the hard yards, often working in an intellectual vacuum, are in the minority on today's jazz scene, especially as they don't attempt to specialise in hype, gossip, political skulduggery or the dumbing down of our wonderful language.
Peter J. F. Newton
Peter Newton is a freelance editor/writer who edits the Sydney Jazz Club's Quarterly Rag and runs a successful jazz and blues book business. Owing to ill health he recently signed off on his 17-year stint as a jazz presenter on community radio and stood down as secretary of the NSW Jazz Archive after 8 years in the job.