Guitarist Peter Leitch‘s Off the Books: A Jazz Life is not your usual jazz autobiography. Every time the narrative threatens to get bogged down in a litany of tour dates or recording sessions, Leitch zings you. This is one hilarious memoir. Leitch’s withering cynicism is matched by a caustically insightful intelligence: he’s a big-picture guy, and his coping mechanism is gallows humor. Here’s one typically acerbic passage: “It was so wonderful to play with superb bassists like ‘Bookie’ [Walter Booker] and Ray Drummond, especially in an era where there were so many bassists whose technical proficiency superseded their intelligence, and whose playing ignored the bass function. Yes, there was a lot of cocaine around in those days.”
There’s an argument that outsiders make the best artists because they have an objectivity that comes from not having a horse in the race. They tell the truth because they have nothing to lose. Leitch grew up in the 1950s as an English speaker in Francophone Montreal, so he was an outsider from day one. From time to time, throughout this disarmingly honest narrative, he wistfully ponders how he might get out of the “guitar ghetto,” as he calls it. Of course, his fellow guitarists and fans of guitar jazz don’t see it as a ghetto at all: to them, Leitch is a cult hero with a body of work on the level of Jim Hall and Joe Pass, two fellow icons whom Leitch frequently resembles. At this point in his career, Leitch is now close to seventy but playing at the peak of his subtle, eclectic, purist power. A recent Sunday night gig at Walker’s in Tribeca, where he’s had a weekly residency for years, saw him moving from plaintive to animated to absolutely rapt, in a conversational duo performance with bassist Dwayne Burno, playing a mix of originals, a lively Strayhorn medley and an absolutely chilling, Lynchian take of Kenny Burrell’s Moonflower.
The book’s title is telling: from his early years as a schoolboy outcast, Leitch sees himself on the fringes of society, yet this isn’t a pity trip. Largely self-taught, he downplays the difficulty in honing his craft as a jazz-addicted teenager, playing along with and transcribing from vinyl albums at 16 RPM instead of 33 in order to figure out the most difficult passages. Touring some of Canada’s vacation backwater with both jazz and R&B bands back in the 60s was a colorful way to make a living, and Leitch has some cruelly funny stories from that era as well. After a brief, frustrating stop in Toronto, Leitch arrived in New York in 1982, which has been his home base ever since.
Perhaps owing somewhat to his Canadianness, Leitch is candidly critical of many aspects of American society. His take on the often unspoken racism that still oozes poison throughout both the the jazz world and the country at large is telling, influenced by the insights of the great pianist John Hicks, with whom Leitch shared a long association. Having been in New York and witnessed the events of the morning of 9/11, he has some particularly savage observations on post-9/11 American paranoia and the Bush-era assaults on human rights. Leitch has nothing but contempt for the music business, quick to acknowledge the many supportive venue owners he’s known while saving some of his most side-splitting commentary for record labels: his take on the widely hyped young would-be major label jazz stars of the early 90s is priceless. Likewise, the critics don’t get off easy: “Musicians should take their own poll of critics and journalists. You could give out awards in various categories such as ‘Most consistent misuse of musical terminology’ and ‘Best regurgitation of a major label press release’ and ‘Best autobiographical essay in the guise of a review,’ etc. The awards themselves could consist of dog shit or broken glass.”
Drugs – especially opiates, but also coke and opioids – make frequent appearances here, along with plenty of booze. Leitch cops to a regular if not incapacitating dope habit in the 70s, which he acknowledges he was lucky to be able to quit. Surprisingly, there’s less about his actual music here than there are anedcotes about Leitch’s long career playing and interacting with luminaries including Oscar Peterson, Pepper Adams and Jaki Byard, although there are frequent and often unselfconsciously profound insights into composition, phrasing, touring and simply being a good bandmate. The result is a complete lack of jazz-insider cliches: no laundry lists of influences, no pseudo-spiritual musings, no self-aggrandizing. If anything, Leitch doesn’t give himself enough credit as either a player or photographer (much of the latter portion of the book deals with his mid-career side gig as an art photographer with a noir streak a mile long). Along the way, we get a fascinating look at the vibrant 1950s and 60s Montreal jazz scene; a thoughtful and ceaselessly amusing tour of New York as gentrification takes its toll; a panoramic view of how the jazz scene here changed, with the waves of recent music school grads edging out much of the old guard, and the sad demise of venues like Bradley’s (which for Leitch, like so many in the jazz community in the 80s and 90s was home away from home) and Sweet Basil.
Leitch also has a new album, California Concert, a live bootleg of sorts recorded at a Fresno festival in 1999 with both Leitch and Hicks at the top of their game alongside bassist David Williams and drummer Billy Higgins throughout an expansive mix of Ellington tunes plus Hicks and Leitch originals.
Oliver Baer has been a steady, august presence in the New York underground poetry and music scenes for some time: the Trouble Dolls recently set a series of his poems to music on their most recent album. Baer’s poetry is also juxtaposed with Alexander Berenbeim’s elegantly intriguing black-and-white photography in the book Baer Soul, recently published by Western Indie and available at the usual online sources as well as select independent bookstores and from the author himself.
While the poems don’t follow a chronological path, there are recurrent themes that follow thematic threads, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes suspensefully: the tension between desire and reason; an alienated individualist at odds with the herd mentality; order versus chaos, freedom versus security. There’s a discernible stylistic arc: the earliest poems are the most overtly personal and expressive, and often follow a rhyme scheme, while the later works have a broader worldview, innumerable layers of meaning, and a frequently withering cynicism. Simply put, this is a deep book.
It takes awhile to get going. An obsession with a Juno archetype runs its course, the “boy with the goblin glass shard in his heart” trudging through a not-funhouse of mythological imagery and ending up…well, where you would expect someone in this position to end up, “reaction” and “traction” finding a rhyme that is as unexpected as it is wryly spot-on. And just when it seems that there’s nowhere else to go but Maudlinville, Baer quotes Shakespeare at his most blithe and tosses off the funniest poem in the book.
About two-thirds of the way through, an uneasy urban milieu (which could easily be the Lower East Side of New York circa 2001) becomes the backdrop against which angst rises and occasionally falls. Young people form family bonds, only to watch in horror as “the trouble dolls move in” and by the next page the city is enveloped in the ugly, smoldering shadow of Ground Zero a day after 9/11. At this point, the images become more lurid, the Bloombergian future less and less appealing:
Lightning cracked skies and thunderous mad laughs fill my nights.
The echoing orders of the mad tyrant ringing through my days.
As we tromp through the city enforcing his Singaporean law,
The sitcom mentalities proclaim the wonders of order…
An elegaic weariness pervades many of the book’s final poems. The sarcasm in a contemplation of how even Satan must have been born with a clean slate is crushing. Mirrors disappear so as not to be shattered. A mythical castle in the clouds crumbles. The downward trajectory eventually reaches a vividly photorealistic, metaphorically-loaded lakeside milieu and then moves further into wintry terrain. The final poem faces a headshot of Baer flashing a gleefully toothy grin against the somber, Mahmoud Darwish-esque text:
The chair is empty now
A cavity silence eating my background noise
Drilling quiet framed by the dark teething on a dying sun’s rays
Tendrils outlining the presence of absence
Berenbeim’s shadowy, noirish photo tableaux follow a considerably more direct path to a more violent ending, Anthony Rocco playing a raffish role against Kindall Almond’s haunted, black-eyeliner blonde femme fatale.
Baer Soul: Poetry by Oliver Baer; Photography by Alexander Berenbeim; Presented by Anthony Rocco Featuring Kindall Almond, ISBN 9-781935-995005
Big Papi – My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits, by David Ortiz and Tony Massarotti
St. Martin’s, 288 pp., hardcover, $24.95, ISBN-13: 978-0312366339
Also available in Spanish as Big Papi – La Historia de Mis Anhelos y Mis Grandes Batazos
The truth in any contemporary book by a sports hero is always in the ellipses, what isn’t said, what’s between the lines. No doubt this was vetted before publication by an army of lawyers, so as not to offend anyone associated with Major League Baseball or, perish the thought, sully the game’s reputation. You assuredly won’t find anything revealing here unless you look for it. Suffice it to say that the days of hilarious tell-alls like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four or Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock’s The Bronx Zoo – or Jim Brosnan’s thoughtful, introspective The Long Season – are long over, gone with the days of affordable box seats, a single best-of-five pennant playoff series, and ninth-inning beer in the bleachers.
This book seems to be based on a hastily conducted series of spring training interviews, most likely translated from Ortiz’ native Spanish (he’s Dominican). For those who’ve somehow managed to avoid the hype, David Ortiz is the most feared slugger in the American League, a large man with a devastating lefthanded swing who last season led the league in home runs, setting the Boston Red Sox single-season record in the process. Three years ago, his extra-inning heroics led the Red Sox to a historic comeback against the Yankees in the playoffs, followed by the Red Sox’ first World Championship in 86 years. Perhaps most notably, the Red Sox got him for free when the power-starved Minnesota Twins, fearing that Ortiz’ considerable girth would increase his already significant penchant for injuries, gave him the pink slip after the 2002 season. All this is contained in the book, along with the following:
- Ortiz calls everybody “bro” or “papi” (hence his nickname, “Big Papi”),
- He grew up poor but not destitute, more fortunate than his friend Pedro Martinez, the great pitcher and Dominican folk hero who he credits with saving his career
- He was very close to his mother, and losing her in an auto accident was understandably traumatic (though he glosses over it)
- Like many other Latin players, he used another name (David Arias) during much of his time in the minor leagues
- Dominicans in the Major Leagues share a loyalty to each other beyond any team affiliation, bonding together because they can’t stand the blandness of American food
- Ortiz likes to cook, and one suspects his popularity with his colleagues stems from his fondness for working the grill (though, sadly, we don’t find out anything else about his gustatory talents or predilections: no recipes, no favorite foods, no guide to the best Dominican takeout joints around the majors).
Other things you learn from this book, although its authors might not want you to:
- Although Ortiz seems to be universally well-liked among his peers, he comes across as a fiercely proud, impetuous character who does things his way and his way only
- In the minors, he won accolades not only for his hitting but also his fielding (which makes sense: contrary to conventional wisdom, he remains a perfectly adequate first baseman).
- He’d much prefer to play in the field than serve as the designated hitter
- He explains away his mysterious hospitalization for a rapid heartbeat during a crucial series against the Yankees as being due to “stress” (come on, this is the guy who almost singlehandedly vaulted the Sox into the World Series with one crucial clutch performance after another, and he’s talking about STRESS???). While Ortiz seems to be the least likely guy in the majors to be doing steroids (he’s too fat – although he insists he isn’t), there may be other plausible reasons, including but not limited to the little things that ballplayers have been using to get a little extra pep since the 1950s.
There’s next to nothing in here about the legendary camaraderie of the Sox’ 2004 World Championship team (and its subsequent demise), nothing about Ortiz’ friendship with teammate and fellow Dominican Manny Ramirez, nothing about his vaunted swing, opposing pitchers or for that matter any juicy tales from the clubhouse, the backyard barbeque, the strip club or wherever Ortiz and his pals hang out.
To offer enough heft to justify its pricetag, the book is puffed out with “appreciations” of Ortiz’ talent as well as a tortuously long mea culpa by Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, explaining how he let the most feared slugger in the American League walk away, getting nothing in return: you end up feeling really sorry for the guy, listening to him go on and on, reliving one of the worst errors in judgment that any big league exec ever made.
Strictly for diehards: one suspects that the Spanish-language version is the more popular of the two editions available.