Feb 3, 2012

After the Death of a Friend and Collaborator, 'Penguin Jazz Guide' Author Brian Morton Soldiers On

Brian Morton is the kind of polymath you don't often see anymore. A writer by trade and a Renaissance man in spirit, he's equally adept at analyzing British political culture in The Nation or writing about contemporary literature for the Times of London. He's also been a college professor, hosted a variety of radio shows for the BBC and, if that weren't enough, translated several books from the Norwegian.

But Morton, 57, is perhaps best known as the co-author of the "Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings," the book that, over two decades and 10 editions, has attempted to review every jazz recording available in the United States and Europe. That last part of the sentence bears repeating - "attempted to review every jazz recording available in the U.S.and Europe." To call the Penguin Guide encyclopedic is akin to calling Mount Everest tall. At some point, adjectives just aren't adequate.

For instance, my well-thumbed-through copy, the fifth edition, includes upwards of 10,000 entries, and runs to 1,618 pages, not including an index of several hundred more. It weighs, according to my bathroom scale, four-and-a half pounds. If jazz can be said to have a Bible (and a Talmud and a Koran all rolled into one) the Penguin Guide is it.

And it's not just the scope of the thing that's impressive. From the AALY Trio to Zubop, the book is authoritative yet accessible on not just the recordings but the musicians themselves and their place in what is the true American art form.

And therein lies a paradox, because Morton, oddly enough, doesn't hail from jazz's epicenter, New York, nor from its birthplace, New Orleans, nor any of the other American cities (Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia) most commonly thought of as breeding grounds for the music's foremost practitioners. No, Morton is Scottish, and while he has played a little saxophone in his time he lives not on 52nd Street but in a former monastery in the western wilds of his homeland.

Of course, assembling the Penguin Guide would be a gargantuan task for anyone, and for years Morton's co-author was British music writer and ex-record company exec Richard Cook. It was an intense collaboration, one that, not surprisingly, involved a fair share of bickering over musicians and genres. Still, "It was tremendous fun, and complaining about the workload was part of the fun," Morton recalled in an e-mail interview.

But how did the two accomplish such a task?

Morton admits that the first edition "was a slog, but as anyone who has done any long-distance running - and here was a first point of personal difference: I ran to keep sane, while Richard regarded violent exercise as undignified - will know that knowing what it feels like to run a marathon is part of the battle. After the first edition, and before we embarked on the second, we knew what we had to do, in terms of number of words per day, per week, per month. After the take-off point we were metaphorically checking our watches ever mile or so, dropping behind the pace, keeping up, risking burnout by pushing it too far."

As the book grew in popularity and one edition morphed into the next, "we rarely had time to read each other's work before the proofing stage, which always sparked semi-serious squabbles - 'You gave that rubbish four stars?!' - and sometimes required tweaking of the rather arbitrary ratings we gave to individual records. That, of course, was never an exact science or level playing field, in the sense that a three-star Louis Armstrong record is not considered to be of the same value as a three-star Ingrid Jensen record, and shouldn't be... If Richard disliked an artist and I professed an admiration, then I logically covered that entry. Sometimes simple availability of records meant that one of us wrote part of an entry, though we quickly gave up the early practice of 'I'll do the early Miles, Brian, and you cover the rotten electric stuff,' 'Thanks, man'."

Morton notes that "one fascinating aspect of the collaboration is that no one ever reliably identified who wrote what, despite confident assertion from friends and colleagues that it was 'obvious' I had done Basie or Richard had done Chet Baker."

Sadly, Cook died of liver cancer in 2007, at age 50. Morton, who has written movingly of Cook's death, was faced with the loss of his collaborator and friend. As he put it: "The worst single thing about his passing was hearing new records slap onto the mat and know that he would never hear them."

Recalling Cook now, Morton says that "everyone who met Richard even through the pages of the book or a magazine knew that his opinions were sharp, pithy, and always located in a deep knowledge of the music. I sometimes found him unduly categorical, and sometimes unwilling to consider other contexts for the music - cultural, political, whatever - but that discussion was part of an important dynamic. We complemented one another. I infuriated him with some of my enthusiasms. Some of his baffled me. But he also responded with generosity, with absolutely no eye for the merely fashionable and without prejudice."

Morton was left to soldier on and complete the Penguin Guide's ninth edition. More recently, the book has evolved into "The Penguin Jazz Guide: The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums," in which Morton, as the title implies, selects the most worthy jazz recordings and shows how they convey the history of the music. The encyclopedic scope of the project is gone, for now. But Morton is adamant that "it was, is and remains a collaboration."

Will the Penguin Guide continue? "It may need at this stage to involve another writer, which I regard with some relief, some regret and a little understandable anxiety," Morton said.

In years past, he adds, "when each edition was finished, we shared a bottle of malt, sometimes in person, sometimes on the end of a phone line. Moods ranged from end-of-war fatigue to euphoria to the slightly gloomy but also the cheering thought that we'd be doing it all over again in two years . . ."

These days, Morton does some farming on his patch of Scottish soil, where he lives with his wife and children. He writes, of course, but mostly about books, science and religion. "Don't play much saxophone any more," he told me. "Cut down trees and dig out stumps instead. Watch the plants grow, or die. Walk miles and miles. Listen to whatever comes through the door."

-Tony Rogers

Morton's first column for Jazz CD Reviews can be found here.

Photo of Brian Morton courtesy Sarah MacDonald

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