Jazz Legends As Seen Through the Eyes of the Biographer: James Gavin

By Estefanía Romero

His life is based on writing about what our music idols do, but this time he had to answer questions about his own life and wonderful work. James Gavin is one of the most interesting characters I’ve met in my life—not only because he has the deepest knowledge about the personalities he writes about, but because he has an impressive intelligence and a very profound, passionate heart dedicated to researching, understanding and transmitting beautiful stories.

Here then is the interview I did with James Gavin, called “a killer biographer” in the Hollywood Reporter. Gavin is the author of four acclaimed books“Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret”, “Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee”, “Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker” and “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne”and dozens of New York Times features; he is also a worldwide public speaker, a Grammy nominee, and a recipient of two ASCAP Deems Taylor-Virgil Thomson Awards for excellence in music journalism.


-I watched your participation in the documentary of Anita O’Day. That made me feel so many things because there were so many dimensions in your speech. I remember that you said about Anita: “She has often said ‘it’s just my daily work’… but if she’s now in her eighties and still longing to sing, then we know it means a lot more to her than that.” That was amazing to me.

I saw Anita perform from 1985 until around 2003, when she gave her last performances in New York. The last five to ten years or so were not the Anita we remember most fondly; she was, of course, far past her prime, but she still had a tremendous magic about her and a historical aura that were exciting to see. You knew you were watching a legend.

To grow old in jazz is considered an asset. If you’re an older rock star, you’ll probably have a loyal audience, but critics and ageist rock fans will make fun of you. Jazz, however, is a music ripened by experience. The older you grow, the more you live, the more you perfect your art, the deeper the results and the more respect you will probably gain. I love that about jazz.

James Gavin and Sheila Jordan. Foto by: Marcelo Maia.

-I noticed that you actually take the psychological perspective of the character that you are analyzing. Right?

Very much so! That’s one of the most important parts of the story for me. I write my books because I’m fascinated not only by the music but by the lives that made that music possible. The psychology of these artists, the choices they made, had everything to do with the way they sang or played. I am drawn to tales of struggle, which is what jazz was originally borne of. I am bored by most of today’s jazz, the kind that comes out of conservatories, universities. I call it museum jazz, or corporate jazz. The kind of jazz I like is largely a thing of the past, I fear. It was borne of difficult life circumstances that found their way quite powerfully into the music. From there, it was nurtured by life on the road, in which musicians played under conditions that tested them in fierce ways. All this lent a great urgency to their playing. I don’t wish pain and struggle on anyone, but, well … I do wish them on artists! [laughs] Speaking personally, if I didn’t know about those things, my work wouldn’t be worth much.

-I have this perspective: Many jazz musicians have told me that it’s so difficult to be an artist, but then I tell them: OK … but our idols, just look at their lives…

It’s not that I think their pain hurt worse than anyone else’s, but through their artistry they found ways to put it to good use, to touch the hearts of others.

James Gavin.

-How did you start your career? Why did you decide to write? Tell me about you, please.

I was born in New York City, where I was put up for adoption as an infant. My adoptive parents lived in a town where my mother still lives, Yonkers. That’s where I grew up. Yonkers is directly north of Manhattan, so as a teenager I could easily go to the city by subway and bus. This became very important in my earlier life.

My mother had done a fantastic thing for me: She taught me how to read when I was four. There was not a lot of music in our house, but there were a few records, including an old 45 r.p.m. single of an enormous American hit from 1950, “The Tennessee Waltz,” by a singer from Oklahoma, Patti Page. She was an enormous pop star in the 1950s. This song is very sad; it’s a country song about rejection, about a woman who goes to a country dance with her sweetheart, who drops her for another girl. This story touched my very young heart. I related to it somehow, maybe because I knew I’d been given up by my birth parents. Anyway, Patti Page began my love affair with singers, with the human voice. Meanwhile I was reading books and growing very curious about the world outside Yonkers.

All of these things started coming together in my mind, and as I grew older I began writing little things. By the time I was in high school I had a real passion for writing. Then I entered college, and by this time I knew that I wanted to be a writer. But how? What would I write about? I was studying writing with a professor there; we would meet once a week for a coaching session. One day I told him I was fascinated by the old night clubs that used to be everywhere in New York, places where young, unknown artists got their starts. I said that no one had ever written a book about those places, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if somebody did it. And he said the magic words: Why don’t you? That was my epiphany. And I immediately started writing that book. I had no resumé, I had no agent, I had no publisher, but I had a great deal of desire. I began writing that book when I was 20 and it came out when I was 27.

When I was 28, I wrote my first article for the New York Times. It was, in fact, my first published article for anyplace besides school newspapers. Around that time I began writing CD liner notes. I’ve done hundreds. By 1994 I so wanted to write another book. It occurred to me that no one had done a definitive biography of Chet Baker. I got a deal to write that book. I followed that with Lena Horne, and then I did Peggy Lee, and now I’m doing George Michael. Obviously I like these grand, epic stories about artists who experienced a lot of suffering and conflict and poured it into great musical art.

André Previn and James Gavin.

-That’s amazing, and in your way you have found so many interesting people to interview, like the ex-wives of Chet Baker. What happens behind all this research work? What do you see? What do you feel?


I love doing research more than anything else. I love interviewing people. I love going to the library. I love being a detective. I love solving the riddles of people’s lives.


When I was growing up, my safe space was the library, and it was there that I looked for magazines and books about music. I read biographies of musicians. When you undertake to write one of these books, you must know everything you can possibly know. I want to see everything I possibly can. Before the internet it was much harder to gather information, but I was extremely determined, and I still am. Recently I was in London to research George Michael, and I spent many days at the British Library. I took home eight hundred articles. But interviews are equally important. I average three hundred per book. I ask thousands of questions. It’s like holding a diamond up to the light. You want to turn it every possible way and see every side that you can, to get the most complete sense possible of who this human being was. These are very complicated stories that I’m trying to tell. Artists are very contradictory. Their lives do not make a lot of sense. I have to try and find the sense in them, and to understand that their stories mean in the bigger picture.


There is no one perspective. The one I come up with is my own. I don’t write books in which I simply lay out the facts; I have a point of view. I see things through my own eyes.

Helen Merrill, James Gavin and Michel Legrand

-You said in an interview that you were not into editing the truth, and I loved that because you talked about the need to empathize with your subjects.

If you want to tell one of these stories and you don’t have empathy, you shouldn’t be telling the story. Empathy is finding something within yourself that enables you to feel what somebody else has felt. It’s important to try and understand rather than judge. I believe that I choose all of my subjects because of what they might teach me about myself. Obviously I choose artists I’m drawn to, that have touched me. If something touches you, if a song touches you, if a painting touches you, that should tell you that you and the artist have felt something similar in your lives.

Pain is something that I can relate to, believe me. Almost all the articles and certainly all the biographies I’ve written are about people who knew pain intimately but who turned it into beauty. When you hear them sing or play and you’re touched, you get the sense that somebody out there understands how you’re feeling. When I grew up, the voices on old recordings were like my friends. June Christy, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, so many, oh my God, so many. I still feel that way.

Mark Murphy and James Gavin.

-You mentioned subjectivity. Many people say that a writer or a journalist shouldn’t be subjective, but I think that it is impossible not to be, right? You always have your own perspective. But, since I am a Mexican researcher—I am working on a project about jazz criticism, among others—I don’t always get a lot of information about the role of creating yourself as a jazz critic. So, what would you say that works for you as a jazz journalist? What makes a good jazz journalist? From your perspective.


Number one is the ability to write. Many of the people who call themselves jazz journalists and critics love jazz, but don’t write well. This offends me. It’s like calling yourself a skier when you don’t know how to ski. You have to have the tools, you have to have the skills. It’s not just about loving something, it’s about doing your homework. So I take the craft of writing very, very seriously, and I’ll be learning how to write for the rest of my life.


Number two is knowing your history. It’s the same as being a history professor; you can’t get up in front of your class and start talking about history if you haven’t put in years at the library, thinking about history and the bigger picture of what it all means.


I am not a musician; I cannot write, read, or sing music. I wouldn’t dare to write a book about John Coltrane, for example. You can love John Coltrane without knowing anything about music but if you want to write about John Coltrane, the music is so technically complex that I feel you have to have a solid technical grasp of what he was doing. But I write mostly about singers, and singers are the artists I most relate to, because singers use language to tell stories.


What else should a jazz journalist have? Passion, certainly, along with the realization that all of this is entertainment. Even if you were writing about a piano concerto, an opera, a ballet, it’s all entertainment. Nobody buys a ticket to a show of any kind as if it were a lecture or a class; people go to performances in order to have a good time. Arts writing should be fun, not just scholarly.


-You are always choosing these interesting subjects. You write about film, fashion, classical music… It’s very hard not to get involved. You mentioned this connection you specifically have with the songs. Jazz songs have a very interesting literature. I wrote an article years ago about the lyrics of “Cry Me a River,” which are so deep and beautiful.

I know the guy who wrote “Cry Me a River.” His name is Arthur Hamilton and he took Julie London to the high-school prom. Arthur is now in his nineties and, I believe, still lives in Beverly Hills. Back when Arthur was starting out, before rock and roll changed everything, the craft of popular songwriting was very specific in the sense that most songs followed traditional forms and rather strict rules. Even mediocre songs were written according to these rules. For example, you almost never heard half-rhymes in those days. Usually the rhythms of songs were based on the rhythms of conversation, and there is a word for that in English: prosody. Prosody means that the way notes and words are matched follows the cadences of conversation; the phrase never goes up when it should go down. Songwriters wanted their work to sound as conversational as possible.

Then rock and roll came along and changed all those rules; the form became much more relaxed. I could say the craft suffered, and it did, as technical perfectionism began to slip into the past. Popular songwriting became more about rhythm, energy, excitement, discarding the old forms, breaking from the past. A whole new tradition of songwriting began, the greatest of which could never have come from the forefathers’ imaginations.

But I think my ultimate respect, in terms of technique, goes to the classic popular composers and lyricists: Noel Coward, genius! Cole Porter, genius! Ira Gershwin, genius! These guys knew in ways that almost nobody does today. They had their messages to convey, but they did it through meticulous craftsmanship that I think holds great beauty.

James Gavin and Kay Starr.

Thank you very much James, you are as inspiring as the wonderful characters you’ve written about.