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It Could Only Happen Here

By Robert O’Connor


[Studs Terkel would have been 100 years old this May 16th. In honor of that occasion, I’m going to take a look at each of his books. All of his books, with the exception of Chicago and The Great Divide are now published by The New Press.]

In the mid-1950s, Studs Terkel was just starting his show on WFMT. The radio station was a classical music station and he began by interviewing musicians. His first interview was with the jazz saxophonist Bud Freeman. He was also writing occasional jazz reviews in the Sun-Times, and various other places. He was asked by one of his editors to write a book for young people about jazz, and it resulted in his first book, Giants of Jazz .

The book is probably Studs’ most conventional work stylistically. And unlike his other books, there are some people in it that he never interviewed. King Oliver, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Charlie Parker and Bix Biederbeck had all passed away by the time the book came out in 1957. Others who were still alive weren’t interviewed for one reason or another. For their stories, Studs went through the archives of Down Beat and the writings of some of the best jazz writers of the time, and assembled their stories from those accounts.

And the results, especially for children, are compelling. The focus of each of the profiles are twofold: first an anecdote summing up why the person is a giant of jazz, and how they came to start their careers. Stories are told about their time as children or young people who found something in jazz that captured them and never let go.

The best pieces in the book are the ones that came from people Studs managed to interview: Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie. Billie’s is a real tear-jerker as it describes her early life and how she started.

Most of the people in the book idolize each other. Count Basie idolized Fats Waller, while Louis Armstrong idolized King Oliver. It’s inspiring to know that giants like that had giants of their own to look up to and emulate.

Studs ends the book with an essay summing up his intentions with the book, as well as explaining why jazz is so special, and how America’s the only place it could’ve started. The essay is expanded in later reprints.

While there are no interviews in the book, it had a lasting effect on Studs’ work. He always tried to achieve the same spontaneity in his interviews that jazz musicians had. Sometimes it wouldn’t work, but when it did, it was powerful in an understated way.

In 1975, Studs updated the book, which had been out of print for several years. Some of the profiles were expanded, as some of the people had died in the intervening 18 years: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday. The discography at the end is also updated with groundbreaking releases like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. In 2002, the pictures of the artists were taken out and replaced by illustrations by Robert Galster.

Chances are jazz fans will know the stories of the musicians profiled in the book, and know why they’re great. For kids, it’s a decent introduction to jazz and doesn’t dumb things down or talk down to them.

When Studs was finishing the book, He was still known mostly as Louis Terkel. He had been called “Studs” off and on because of his love of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy. The publisher heard his nickname “Studs” and told him “what a great name for a jazz writer,” and that’s how the name stuck.

[Next: A microcosm of America in Division Street.]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 18th, 2012.