My collection of jazz essays finally published, and I’m excited for you to read it. It’s an ebook called This Is and includes essays about the talent and tragedy of saxophonist Hank Mobley, the untold story of lost pianist Jutta Hipp, the creative influence of drugs and sobriety as seen through the film The Connection, the on-stage murder of trumpeter Lee Morgan, a close listen to Mile’s Davis’ song “So What” across ten years of its evolution, the scores of unreleased music in the Blue Note vault, as well as other stories of joy, genius and struggle. I designed the cover from William Gottlieb’s archival photographs, and Publishing Genius’ Adam Robinson generously did the layout.
Here’s what a few of my favorite writers said about it:
“The richness of the eight essays in Aaron Gilbreath’s This Is is a fitting tribute to the richness of jazz itself. Gilbreath weaves unique insight with a profound understanding of the history of jazz. His crisp prose and diverse range make you want to turn the page and run to the record store in equal measure.” -Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist
“Aaron Gilbreath’s writing about jazz is as friendly and welcoming as any you’ll find.” -Luc Sante, author of Low Life and Kill All Your Darlings
“Aaron Gilbreath writes about Jutta Hipp and Miles Davis and Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean and others long gone with curiosity: he lines up the questionable historical record with what’s knowable and provable, and finds out where the lessons are.” –New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff, author of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound and The Jazz Ear:Conversations over Music
“Aaron Gilbreath is an outstanding jazz writer, with a deep appreciation for the music’s tradition and an engaging prose style.” -Ted Gioia, author of The History of Jazz and Delta Blues
“In these vivid, affectionate essays, Aaron Gilbreath moves in pure and distinct prose among stories and histories, moments and decades, mystery and clarity. His account of Jutta Hipp is one of the finest pieces I’ve read on the forgotten fringes of the music industry. This Is is an essential read for anyone who loves mid-century jazz culture and wonders about the dynamics of expression.” -Joe Bonomo author of Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band and Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found
Stephen Colbert has pulled off the rare feat of being a public figure for the better part of a decade while keeping his true self almost entirely obscured behind a braying façade. Here, with such uncommon intelligence, sensitivity and nuance, Joel Lovell shows us who’s been under there the whole time. The writer is very present in the story, sifting through the meaning of what he finds and tugging us along behind him through reporting and writing that starts out rollicking and then turns surprisingly raw and emotional. But Lovell never gets in his own way or turns self-indulgent; that’s a tough thing to…
With an average of seven to ten stories filled with clothes, electronics, stationery and kitchen gear, the depato (デパート) are living shrines to Japan’s expert craftsmanship and willingness to pay for luxury goods. Large Japanese train stations usually house at least one department store, because train companies cleverly built their own stores to turn commuters into customers. The Odakyu, Seibu, and Keio stores bear the names of their parent rail lines. Outside the stations, well-respected stores such as Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, and Isetan offer housewares and cutting-edge fashion, each with subterranean food halls. America has department stores, but not like this. Some of the world’s finest food is housed under Tokyo’s streets.
In the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business, author Denis Johnson wrote a short piece about growing up in Tokyo. when his father worked for the State Department. Johnson rarely writes about his personal life, so readers will appreciate this insight into the way his childhood shaped his writing:
I’m sure there were many aspects of those early years in Japan that still work themselves out in my writing, but what comes to mind most immediately is the impact I felt from studying the images on Menko cards and on the posters for Japanese films and for Kabuki–the wild, grotesque images of monsters and dramatic figures.
I truly believe that behind the human characters in my work, or within them, is a soul that looks like the Japanese ghosts and monsters that frightened me when I was a child. On days when I stayed late at school on the Washington Heights United States military base, I went home on the local bus that stopped about five blocks from the compound where we lived in Roppongi. I dreaded the experience, because I’d step down from the bus a little after dark, and I’d be forced to walk past a couple phone poles on my way, to which movie posters were affixed. As I approached the posters I’d avert my eyes, but I could never resist–I would turn my gaze on the monsters and let them scare me to the point of trembling.
The funny thing is that when my parents took me to see Kabuki a couple of times, the show wasn’t nearly as scary as the posters were. I felt that, too, when I finally got up the courage to go see one of the movies. I went by myself, and I didn’t expect to survive the experience, I believed I’d be friend to the point of heart failure. But in fact, the images on the screen didn’t flow with gore, and there weren’t a lot of people wandering around headless–nothing so scary as the advertisements….
I wrote a longform story about the Sacramento instrumental band the Tiki Men. They came up in the 1990s, during the West Coast surf music revival, and they recorded two of the best 45s in the genre I’ve ever heard, just pure, powerful, catchy. The guitar tone is epic.
Below are the opening graphs. You can read the rest of the story, and see previously unpublished photos, here at Medium.
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In 1958, when guitarist Link Wray poked pencil holes in his amplifier to record the song “Rumble,” he was only trying to muddy his guitar tone. Link’s impromptu modification ended up creating a distortion-heavy brand of rock and roll that not only paved the way for punk rock, heavy metal, the Who, you name it, but also lifted the lowly rock instrumental, or “instro,” into the popular consciousness, fueling a style that thrives to this day. What Coltrane is to jazz and Howlin’ Wolf is to blues, Link is to rock in general, and so-called surf instrumentals in particular.
Bob Dylan knew this when he called “Rumble” “the greatest instrumental ever.” John Lennon went further and said, “Gene Vincent and Link Wray are the two great unknowns of rock and roll.” The irony? “The only reason I was doing instrumentals,” Link once said, “was because I couldn’t sing.” He’d lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted during the Korean War, which made it hard to catch his breath.
In early 1993, Scott Miller, Micah Kennedy, and Pete Husing, three friends in Sacramento, CA, went to see the Phantom Surfers play Old Ironsides, a small down- town club that was also the center of what little garage scene then existed in California’s capital. Pete, a guitar player, had suggested the show. Even though Scott and Micah were longtime music obsessives whose broad tastes included everything from pop to the Kinks, John Fahey to Blue Cheer, Pete was the sole surf music fan of the group. For Scott, a drummer, the show proved revolutionary.
What sounded like a scream jolted me awake at 5:54 a.m. Less than two feet away, the man in the neighboring capsule had awakened from a nightmare, but the way he followed it with three quick sneezes made me wonder if his cry was actually the first in a series of predawn sneezes. There in my narrow capsule, at the top of two stacked rows of sleepers in a warren of hallways, I rolled on my side, my knees pressed against the tan plastic wall, and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t fall back asleep.
Every sound was magnified in the polite, labored silence of the capsule hotel: a humming fan; a rattling curtain; a strange mechanical whoosh, whoosh. As time passed and the Tokyo sky lightened outside, the sound of rousing sleepers filled the hall. Men cleared their throats. One crinkled a plastic bag. Others coughed and sniffled. When a guest lowered a piece of luggage from his capsule, it hit the carpeted floor with a reverberating thud. This hotel contained 630 capsules spread throughout its many floors in what entomologists might describe as a human hive. In the neighboring cell, a man… Continue Reading