Books on jazz have come a long way from the days when we pored over our copies of Jazzways, New Hot Discography, American Jazz Music and We Called It Music. In the Forties, there was precious little for us in the way of literature. Since then, there has been no end to the stream of analysis, history, picture books, more discographies and biographies -- auto and otherwise -- and, I have to confess, that this one-time bookworm has become rather blasé about new publications.
Occasionally, I find something that really wicks up my enthusiasm, such as Dick Sudhalter's Lost Chords which I place alongside Black Beauty, White Heat and The Street That Never Slept in my list of all-time favorites. Now comes Jim Godbolt's potpourri, challenging to join the list, although on an altogether different plane. While this covers a sizeable chunk of jazz history in England, detailed and dissected as it occurred, it is first and foremost a humorous book -- and it is that special brand of jazz humor that seems to have been born and raised in the U.K. Most of it is self-deprecating, but it really is impossible to define although once encountered, it is easily recognized and understood. It was heard every week on the radio show Jazz Score and is still the basis for Dick Laurie's homespun but erudite and fiercely witty magazine Allegedly Hot News International. Perhaps it reached its peak in the pages of Jazz At Ronnie Scott's (JARS to its readers) which Jim Godbolt edited for more than a quarter of a century.
Jazz Farrago is a selection of what the editor considers to be the best items to have appeared in JARS and, after scanning through my several volumes of the magazine and reading this book, I think he has made a pretty choice selection. While Ronnie Scott's Club, situated first in Gerrard Street and then in Frith Street, London, was mainly, though not exclusively, a venue for modern jazz, Jim Godbolt, who had served as agent, manager, publicist and general factotum for George Webb's Dixielanders, made sure that the pages under his direction allowed full access to all forms of jazz.
The book is a glossy hard-backed, black and white A4-size job, printed on quality imitation art paper which allows excellent reproduction of the multitude of cartoons and caricatures that proliferate, a good many of them from the pen of the observant Trog, aka clarinetist Wally Fawkes. Other penline contributors include Pennington, Nemethy, Richard Cole and Monty Sunshine. The drawings alone are to be treasured. But there are also brilliant verbal contributions, notably from the author, from Digby Fairweather, George Melly, Alan Plater, Tony Crombie, Kenneth Clarke (then Chancellor of the Exchequer), Tony Barrow, Ron Rubin and Flash Winston, while the subjects covered include Flash Winston, Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims, the Gershwin brothers, Vic Lewis, Bruce Turner, Tubby Hayes, Duke Ellington, Ruby Braff and Jazz at the Phil with a few selections from the occasional side-splitting feature "Gigs From Hell." There are also poems, jokes and selections from the column by Slawkenbergius which was the thinly-disguised pen-name adopted by Godbolt. Clearly, this is an open-at-any-page-and-read volume.
"Ronnie's," as the club was known, is certainly the most famous jazz club in the U.K. and one of the best known throughout the world. Founder-owners Ronnie Scott and Pete King kept it at the top by presenting stars such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Ben Webster, Ruby Braff, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman, Harry James, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter.
The book recalls the impact of the two leaders in setting the tone of the club and also draws upon the assortment of memorable characters associated with it, to impart a real feeling of "the old place" and "the new place" as the two venues were known. Almost without knowing it, the editor cuts out a big slice of jazz history in selecting articles written as events took place. There is much more to this volume than a bunch of belly-laughs. While it is unmistakeably English in many ways, it is far from parochial and can be enjoyed anywhere across the globe.
Publisher Hampstead Press is, in effect, the business name of Godbolt and Marta Rusin, a charming and enthusiastic young lady who assisted in the preparation of the volume and probably did most of the publishing spadework. She has spent the last three years in the employ of a publishing house but previously worked for five years as a waitress at Ronnie's and met many of the characters found in the pages of this volume. Born in Poland, she is talented and ambitious as this, her first venture into self-publishing, proves. Economy was not a consideration when the book's format was specified.
Jim Godbolt was feeling his age (and then some!) when I called him to request details of how the volume could be obtained. He referred me to Marta. He was in bed, awaiting a visit from his doctor with a stay in hospital the likely outcome. George Melly famously described him as "thin and tense, his head, with its pointed features crouching between his shoulders as though emerging from its burrow into a dangerous world, his eyes as cold and watchful as those of a pike in the reeds." He got that right. To me, Jim Godbolt always appears aggressively defensive as though the world is against him. With this in mind, I tentatively asked how old he was.
"Well, Clarrie," he said. "I'm 85 now - but I don't feel a day over 100."
I hope he makes it to that significant milestone. This is his sixth book -- two volumes of jazz history, two autobiographies and a coffee-table picture book preceded it -- and he has plans for a seventh. That one could cap the lot but until then, this is a volume to be enjoyed and treasured, and a permanent reminder that Jim Godbolt has been one of the great characters on the British scene for more than 60 years.
It can be obtained by mail from Hampstead Press, or by e-mail at Hampsteadpress@blueyonder.co.uk or check the website www.ronniesjazzfarrago.co.uk and the usual Amazon and eBay outlets.