There is little or no mention of it in his obituaries, but Studs Terkel’s first book was about jazz. The oral historian, broadcaster and master interviewer died yesterday in Chicago at ninety-six. Terkel won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling 1985 book The Good War: An Oral History Of World War II. Many of his other oral history books were also best sellers, beginning in 1967 with Division Street: America. He followed with Hard Times, Working and seven other books.
Even as he was acting in plays and doing his daily radio program, Terkel wrote a jazz column in a Chicago paper. He knew jazz in a wide range. His love and knowledge of it are plain in Giants of Jazz, published in 1957 when he was forty-five years old. The current running through the book is common to all of Terkel’s work, the convictions that everything is part of everything else, that we’re all in this together, that everyone’s story is important. Giants of Jazz begins with King Oliver and concludes with the chapter called “John Coltrane, the Search Continues.” Ending with Coltrane, Terkel reflected his awareness of what was brewing in jazz — Coltrane was slightly known when Terkel wrote the book in 1956 — and his vision of the direction in which the music was headed. Thomas Conner, music editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, captured that aspect of the book in a column in October of 2006.
For example, the chapter on Louis Armstrong is sandwiched between the one about King Oliver (who mentored young Louis) and Bessie Smith (who was affected by the sound of Louis’ horn); Smith’s bio mentions the moment Bix Beiderbecke heard her sing, a moment that left him in awe — and which figures into his own chapter, the next one. These links build a chain throughout the book — mashing up with full force when Count Basie and Charlie Parker hit Kansas City, and then when Dizzy Gillespie meets Bird — and they leave the impression that, yes, each individual was a formidable talent but, no, the opportunity for that talent to succeed did not present itself in a vacuum. These musicians were a part of something greater than themselves, and their own personalities amplified the human race as a whole. It’s all part of a continuity.
To read all of Conner’s column, go here.
Terkel spent 45 years broadcasting a daily hour of conversation, music and commentary on Chicago’s WFMT. In 1980, he won a Peabody award for that work. Among the staff of the station, who admired his defiantly casual dress, his dedication and his irascibility, he had a special name: Free Spirit.
The headline on Terkel’s obit in his hometown paper, The Chicago Tribune, is simply, STUDS. To read the obituary, go here. If you have fifteen minutes to spare, get the flavor of Terkel and his opinions by watching this video.