Handsome Jazz: a Book Review

May 20, 2010

Here is a book review I wrote this week:

Looking Good: a History of Handsome Jazz

by Zack Pinola

University of East Dakota Press
362 pages, $29.95

Handsome Jazz is such an important genre that it’s hard to believe that “Looking Good: a History of Handsome Jazz” is the first book on the subject. Author Zack Pinola is not a musicologist per se, nor even a musician, but he does own many hundreds of records and clearly cares deeply about this subject.

Pinola traces the roots of Handsome Jazz to singers like Frank Sinatra and Billy Eckstine, but says Handsome Jazz really came to fruition with Chet Baker, “the Armstrong of the idiom.” “Without Chet, who didn’t just sing but played bad-boy horn too,” he writes, ”Handsome Jazz might never have gained the credibility it enjoys today, might never have become, for example, part of the Playboy Lifestyle.”

These first chapters also cover the scarring early days of racism in the Handsome Jazz world. Pinola points out, for instance, that Baker won the Esquire Handsome Jazz Poll eight years in a row, shutting out African-Americans like Nat King Cole who were equally or even more handsome.

Also recounted are the struggles by women to be treated as part of Handsome Jazz fraternity. It’s hard to believe, but Pinola quotes a Downbeat article in 1955 that refers to Anita O’Day and Peggy Lee as “hot babes.” The infuriated O’Day wrote the magazine a letter which has been reprinted in Women’s Jazz Studies textbooks ever since. “We are not ‘hot babes’……we are serious Handsome Jazz artists,” wrote O’Day, “and the next guy who refers to me incorrectly will get knocked on his keister.”

The second half of the book deals with the massive phenomenon of Smooth Jazz. Chapter six, “No Smooth Jazz Without Handsome Jazz” covers the stylistic elements – hairdos, accesorizing, wardrobe – that link the two worlds with a rigor that reminds one of Gunther Schuller discussing early Ellington. Michael Buble and David Sanborn are parsed for their ratio of smoothness to handsomeness; the pre-and-post-sexing-up careers of Diana Krall and Mindy Abair are compared. Pinola ends the chapter by demolishing the theory that Handsome Jazz is somehow related to Utah Jazz.

There’s no discography, unfortunately, but lots of photos (over 1,200) and an appendix with Great Moments in Handsome Jazz History. Among the most important here I noted the establishment of the Handsome Jazz category in the Grammies in l996 and the First Inclusion of a Makeup Person in a Handsome Jazz Artist’s Liner Notes (Jane Monheit, 2002).

“This book is not for every jazz lover,” writes Pinola in the intro. “It’s for those of us who need to take a break from listening to jazz and just look at it for a while.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

—Tom McDermott


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2 Responses to Handsome Jazz: a Book Review

  1. They say wit makes any man handsome!
    Your track on the Treme II CD sent me (the first of many new fans) looking for you

    • Tom says:

      my apologies for not responding sooner. This website thing still has me vexed. Glad you liked the Treme track! Write again if you like.
      Tom McDermott

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