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At the Intersection of violence and art

Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz
Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz
By Donald L. Maggin

Morrow: 1996

A Life in Jazz: A Musical Biography
A Life in Jazz: A Musical Biography (accompanying album)

This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1996.

The unstated theme of "Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz" is the dichotomy between the heights of Getz's professional accomplishment and the violent chaos of his personal life.

Unstated because biographer Donald L. Maggin avoids the issue and instead presents us two distinct narratives: the personal and the professional, with little explanation of how they interacted with one other. But the contrast between the talented jazz star and the wife-beating drug addict is so severe that the reader cannot help but make the comparisons on his own.

In painting a portrait of Getz the musician, Maggin does a masterful job. He takes us through Getz's early efforts on a beat-up saxophone his father, Al, bought him when he was 13 to his joining jazz great Jack Teagarden's band at 15 through his early gigs with Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton.

Through interviews with his peers, both now and then, Maggin reconstructs Getz's early progress as a musician. We are given a backstage look at Getz's ability to sight-read almost any arrangement and memorize it with only a few rehearsals – an ability that had him playing professionally while truant officers searched for him. We are privy to Getz's tentative first solo efforts, then his full maturing into one of jazz's greatest stars while with the second Woody Herman band, the Four Brothers (with Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Serge Chaloff).

Maggin continues his high level of biography and analysis of Getz's professional life through the jazzman's most popular period, the late '50s and early '60s, when he established himself as a leader and brought Brazilian bossa nova to America with hits like "Girl from Ipanema."

But by the end of the book, Maggin seems tired; the latter part of Getz's career is as shortchanged as the second child in a family photo album. A page count alone shows Maggin's lack of interest in Getz's final years: 1970-91 (when Getz died from cancer) account for only 120 pages; the years 1940-1969 take up almost 250.

Yet, Maggin describes Getz's performances in the 1970s-'90s as among the best of his life, with recordings rivaling Getz's 1961 classic, "Focus." If so, then why does Maggin seldom delve into the technical aspects of what made Getz's playing in his last years so individualistic and artistic, as he did for the earlier stages of Getz's career?

Still, the superficial treatment of Getz's final two decades is as nothing compared to the disturbing manner in which Maggin glosses over Getz's violence. While Maggin spends considerable time and effort explaining Getz's substance abuse and his family and associates' reaction to it, the same is not true of his violent side – which Maggin seems content to excuse as a sidelight of the drugs and alcohol.

Getz beat his second wife, Monica, so viciously that she needed facial reconstruction, he put a gun to her head in front of his daughter, he strangled her to the point of unconsciousness, yet Maggin remains content to simply give us a blow by blow account of the violence. Even the other members of the Getz household and close friends quoted by Maggin comment only on the severity of Monica's injuries or how they reacted at the time; Maggin never tells the reader what anyone close to Getz thought of this violence – despite numerous quotes from Getz's acquaintances and contemporaries on their views of his drug abuse and musical artistry.

Thus, the only analysis of the violent side of Stan Getz we get is from Monica, who consistently excused his abuse by telling their children, "It's not his fault; it's the alcohol."

While, like many abused women, Monica Getz was unable to face the fact that she could have left this abusive, violent man she loved, it's really too bad Getz's biographer is similarly blinded by his emotional investment in this book and his hero worship of Getz.

Does the reality of Getz's violence take some of the luster off his reputation? Sure it does – we all want our heroes to be perfect, or at least admirable. But off-stage, there was little to admire about Getz. He was a womanizer who cheated on both of his wives and most of his long-term lovers, and asked for sexual favors from women musicians he helped professionally. He was a heroin addict and alcoholic who also abused cocaine and barbiturates.

And yet, his art does have value. Just as his musical genius cannot be allowed to excuse his personal behavior, his numerous failings as a person cannot dismiss the value of the body of work he left behind.

When he picked up his tenor saxophone, Stan Getz had few peers. He created musical statements so stunning in their beauty that they will be studied centuries from now. As Maggin points out, Getz was one of the great musicians of this century. His improvisations were singular in their melodicism, the range of emotions he could express through his horn covered nearly all of human experience.

So, if the unstated theme of the book is the dichotomy of Getz's life, then the unanswered question remains how could a man play a definitively heartbreaking version of George Gershwin's "Summertime," conjuring up a cauldron of swirling emotions from love lost to nostalgia to love found again, and then go home at the end of the day and beat his wife into the hospital?

It would have been more interesting for Maggin to take a more pointed approach to contrasting the two sides of Getz's life, to delve into the ways in which Getz's personal failings impacted his music, to explore more fully the types of weakness that could drive someone to the kind of brutality Getz repeatedly engaged in.

Despite its failings, though, "Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz" remains a hell of a story. Maggin's writing style is readable without being breezy, and he smoothly weaves the observations of those who knew Getz into the narrative – a riveting tale all its own, and one that Maggin shows smarts enough to stay out of the way of.