Otis Ferguson was a great writer on American Jazz
who is now mostly forgotten. His essays were published in a magazine called The New Republic in the 1930s. He never published a book, although he was working on one when he died at the age of 36. He had signed up on two tours with the merchant marine. While at anchor in the Gulf of Salerno
, Ferguson's ship was struck by a radio-guided bomb
and burned down right to the water line on September 14, 1943.
He was born on August 14, 1907, in Worcester, Massachusetts. He spent his childhood on a string of unsuccessful farms in Massachusetts. When he was 15, he went out to make his own way and joined the Navy at 17.
In 1932, while attending Clark University on a scholarship, he entered an essay contest sponsored by The New Republic, and won. He got a job through there through the graces of editor Malcom Cowley and began reviewing books, first on a freelance basis, and then, after 1934, as an assistant editor.
Two years later, he filed a truly wonderful piece about dancing through the night in the Savoy Ballroom called "Breakfast Dance, In Harlem." This was the beginning of his brief but brilliant career of writing about Jazz. In that essay he called jazz "a music deaf men could hear."
He had a voice that could talk about Jazz. And he could talk about the people, times, and places of Jazz that let you know what it was.
He said about pianist Teddy Wilson that when he plays the piano he "goes beyond the human beyonds." (I love Earl Hines but Wilson always brings out that much more for me, so I like this line.) About the new and, for its time, startlingly integrated Benny Goodman Quartet he wrote, "Stand for it?--the people stand up from their tables just to hear it better." He wrote about Gershwin and Armstrong. He tried to describe the origins of Jazz. The jazz of Jazz.
I first read his brief, punchy essays a few weeks ago in a new book called "The Otis Ferguson Reader", edited by Robert Wilson and Ferguson's widow, Dorothy Chamberlain. The New Republic web site has some of the essays up.
Here's a brief excerpt (brief enough for review so no copyright infringement here, good e2 editors) from "The Spirit of Jazz" on Benny Goodman:
"And then even with the final blast of the out-chorus still echoing in the hall, everything is suddenly natural and work-a-day. The men put up their instruments, stretch, look about them, file off at random; Benny stands leafing through his music to give out numbers for the next set, recognizing as many people as is expedient, later going off to sit at a table somewhere: How's everything, that's fine. Himself, he's on the wagon tonight; he drinks with glum heroism at a glass of plain water. "A scotch here and a soda there and where the hell are you in the morning? You know? " So now he feels better in the morning. He has a heavy voice coming from well down under his ribs and pleasant with the forthright lively concision of popular speech. Someone comes up, moving with vast importance, and desires that Benny should intervene with the Selmer people. They make clarinets and it seems they've got some conspiracy of imprecise mouthpieces as against the gentleman in question: if she plays good high, then she don't play good low; likewise vice versa. Benny says come around after, he'll see; then presently out of the side of his mouth: Never was one of the things that would play right by itself, you have to nurse it. You know a clarinet? What's he think I can do about a damn clarinet, drive me crazy. Benny Goodman looks sadly at the scotch on the table and drinks his water.
It made me listen all over again to music I've listened to over and over again and helped me hear new sounds.