Twelve Lives in Jazz

by Duncan Schiedt

Reviewed by Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.

Delta Publishing, 1996. $24.900

Even though Duncan Schiedt has written one excellent book (The Jazz State of Indiana [1977]) and co-written another (Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Story of Fats Waller [1966]), he is best known for his photography, which has graced the pages of jazz periodicals for half a century.

Twelve Lives in Jazz is the distinguished culmination of a distinguished career. It combines Schiedt’s writing and photographic skills with artistry. The book is full of pictures--over 250. About a third are from Schiedt’s collection. The others he chose (with the sharp eye of a photgrapher) to reveal nuances of character and situation. In truth, the first three times I picked up this book, I couldn’t read it because I kept being drawn to photographs, some of which I had seen before, but a great many I had not, making the pages fresh and exciting.

Once you get past the pictures, the text is equally impressive. For the record, the twelve figures discussed are Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Feltcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker. The chapters, which contain both biographical details and critical assessment, are primarily designed to introduce new audiences to these legendary musical figures. But jazz veterans will also like the book. Schiedt writes like the elder statesman he is. He has thought about and listened to these people for decades. He concisely articulates what makes them great as indivdual artists, what makes them important in the larger tapestry of jazz, and how their lives and music are linked together. That is a rare skill. We live in an age of ever more detailed biographies. And that’s good. But we also need people who can distill the essence of an artist or a musical period into an accurate, accessible chapter. Schiedt does the job as well as anyone ever has.

The book is being distributed by Worlds Records. If you don’t get their widely disemminated catalog, you may write to them at Box 1922, Novato, CA 94948 or call 1-800-742-6663. My dealings with World’s Records have been overwhelmingly positive. Their service is amazingly fast and accurate.