Author and radio personality Stanley Péan is a jazz scholar who takes us seamlessly and knowledgeably through the history of the music, stopping at a number of high points along the way. He gets behind the scenes with anecdotes that tell much about the misunderstandings that have surrounded the music. How could French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre have mixed up Afro-Canadian songwriter Shelton Brooks with the Jewish-American belter Sophie Tucker? What is the real story behind the searing classic “Strange Fruit” made immortal by Billie Holiday, who at first balked at performing it? Who knew that an Ohio housewife named Sadie Vimmerstedt was behind the revenge song “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart?” And since this is jazz, there is no shortage of sad ends: Bix Beiderbecke, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, to name a few.
Jazz is liberation music, from Fats Waller to Duke Ellington to John Coltrane who walked side by side with Martin Luther King with his piece “Alabama.” Péan shows how musicians like Miles Davis worked with the emerging voices of hip-hop to widen jazz’s audience. The intricate crisscross between Black musical forms, from Marvin Gaye to the Last Poets is explored, as well as how the movies, Hollywood and European cinema alike, tried to use jazz, often whitening it in the process (with the exception of Spike Lee).