My favourite books about jazz are those in which jazz musicians tell their own stories. A great example is Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men who Made It by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff. To whet your appetite, and to remind you that women also made jazz, here is an extract from the book, in which pianist Mary Lou Williams tells of Coleman Hawkins’s encounter with some local tenor players at a jam session in Kansas City:
‘Fletcher Henderson came to town with Hawkins on tenor, and after the dance the band cruised around until they fell into the Cherry Blossom where Count Basie worked.
The date must have been early 1934, because Prohibition had been lifted and whiskey was freely on sale. The Cherry Blossom was a new night club, richly decorated in Japanese style, even to the beautiful little brown-skinned waitresses.
The word went round that Hawkins was in the Cherry Blossom and within about half an hour there were Lester Young, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Herman Walder, and one or two unknown tenors piling in the club to blow.
Bean didn’t know the Kaycee tenor men were so terrific, and he couldn’t get himself together though he played all morning. I happened to be nodding that night, and around four a.m. I awoke to hear someone pecking on my screen.
I opened the window on Ben Webster. He was saying, “Get up, pussycat, we’re jammin’ and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins has got his shirt off and is still blowing. You got to come down.”
Sure enough, when we got there, Hawkins was in his singlet taking turns with the Kaycee men. It seems he had run into something he didn’t expect.
Lester’s style was light, and, as I said, it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow; then you couldn’t handle him on a cutting session.
That was how Hawkins got hung up. The Henderson band was playing in St. Louis that evening, and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben and Herschel and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St. Louis. I heard he’d just bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make the job on time. Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men.’
(Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Here Me Talking’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It (New York: Rinehart, 1955), pp. 292-93.