A trombonist in Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band, memoirist whose The Parisian Jazz Chronicles set a standard for wit and candor in self-examination, and writer for the International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg News, Mike Zwerin died April 2 in Paris, where he’d lived since 1969. Recipient in 2009 of the Jazz Journalists Association’s Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism Award, Mike was an inspiration ever since I read his reports from the jazz scene in the Village Voice in the 1960s, and I’m glad to say I got to know him as a friend.
Zwerin typically brought a light but penetrating touch to portraits, interviews and reviews he penned as a journalist covering mostly American vernacular artists but really whoever he was sent to hear (except what he called “serious music”) from his enviable post in the most sophisticated of European capitals. He was interested in everybody from Astor Piazzolla to Stevie Wonder, never pulled rank or pretense, and had such explicit jazz ways that, as he wrote in the preface to The Parisian Jazz Chronicles (published by Yale University Press in 2005, which I suggested he title “The International Herald Trombone”) —
I have overdubbed the book’s subjects . . . with “improvisations” consisting of interludes, modulations, tangents, introductions, codas, the running of changes, and shock-cuts leading to images of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. . .
Mike [as he used the 3rd person to get a little distance] is a misfit, addicted to margins, a dreamer, something of a jerk, innocent in the ways of the world. Although he traveled widely, learned a lot, and had good luck along the way, he was the type of person who always expected worse-case scenarios=. He could not find meaning in a life without drugs. Our heartwarming story is about Mike’s heroic, uphill, ultimately victorious battle for sobriety and fulfillment.
It’s gratifying Zwerin felt he was “ultimately victorious.” He was very proud of his son Ben, a bassist who picked up his dad’s Lifetime Achievement Award (presented by Mike’s pal Rafi Zabor, author of The Bear Comes Home) at the Jazz Standard last June. I was sorry he couldn’t be there, but his illness made travel problematic.