Miles Kington: Chronicle of an American Jewish jazz trombonist in Paris

Mike Zwerin's book is about an outsider - who has met everybody from Orson Welles to Bob Dylan - who talks and writes tough, yet isn't
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The Independent Online

Today I want to talk about a book written by a jazz trombonist. No, listen! You won't regret it. Because Mike Zwerin is a much more interesting guy than that suggests.

An American, he started playing jazz trombone right at the top with Miles Davis in 1949, yet has been playing on the outskirts ever since. He only ever wanted to play music, but found himself inheriting and trying to run a US steel company in his twenties (he sold it).

He was sent to Paris by the Village Voice to be their European editor and has stayed there ever since, writing on music for the Herald Tribune. He married a French woman and has had half-French, half-American children. He interviews American musicians when they come through. He sees them play at European festivals, and sometimes gets to play with them - he once toured Soviet Russia as part of an Earl Hines band.

Add to that the fact that he is Jewish, and that his name begins with Z, which puts him right at the end of any conceivable list, and you can see that Mike is somewhat of an outsider (he often refers to himself as "Mike", in the third person). He is in exile from his home country, living in the country Americans least understand. ("Mike was on permanent loan to Paris, like a painting," he says.)

He is probably the best living writer on jazz. And less than a year ago he wrote a book summing up his life, which was hardly reviewed, noticed or talked about - and which I think is one of the most stunning I have read in years. Perhaps it is the title which causes people to pass on by. It is The Parisian Jazz Chronicles. If people are not specially interested in jazz, why should they bother? If you can take Paris or leave it, what's the point? But the book is not really about jazz or Paris. It's about the life experiences of an outsider - who is immensely interested in everything and everyone, and has met everyone from Orson Welles to Bob Dylan - who talks and writes tough, yet isn't really.

Every chapter is like a helter-skelter ride. You climb on your mat and get started, thinking the chapter is going to be about something Miles Davis once said, and... whoops! It's really about being sent to interview Dexter Gordon, Oscar-nominated star of Round Midnight, who has just arrived in France for a concert tour and been arrested by French police for a drug offence committed 20 years ago, but... whoops! It's not really about that either; it's about whether a freelance journalist should do what an editor wants or tell him to piss off, and that reminds him of another thing about the French...

What he is doing, of course, is improvising, like a jazz musician. Not making things up, but looking back over a life full of music and drugs and interesting people, and Europe, and the way everything comes back to Miles Davis, and then trying to make sense of it all by weaving it together into an extended solo, which grabs the reader and makes you want to hear more.

Zwerin once wrote a brilliant book about jazz and Hitler called Swing Under the Nazis, in which he interwove jazz history with his own search for elderly jazz-loving Nazis, and in this book, too, the personal tends to dissolve into what he is reporting. His experiences with drugs tend to overlap with his stories about Chet Baker's dependence on them. But I was particularly startled by the moment when Mike's French wife leaves him.

He writes: "'You're not as hip as you used to be,' she said. 'Married people should be three - me and you, plus the two of us together. We're not even one anymore.' He had told her that in the first place. Leaving him, she threw it back in his face. It was a pretty good line.

"And so Marie-France became the third woman with whom he would not have minded growing old to leave him..."

Still hurting from the moment, he rushes off on duty to interview jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and finds himself pouring out his marital woes to them and getting lengthy personal advice from saxophonist Shorter. It's a weird moment, brilliantly written. The book is full of them. Give it a try.