Monthly Archives: August 2014

Review: All Told: My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs

Book cover

All Told: My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs

I don’t remember when I first became aware of LeRoy Neiman’s art but I do remember when I became a true fan. It was when I bought Frank Sinatra’s album “Duets” and saw the cover Nieman did for it. A few weeks after Neiman’s death I learned about his autobiography / memoir “All Told: My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs”. Reading it was a joy filled trip through the twentieth century with one of its outstanding individualists.

Neiman’s mother raised him and his older brother in St. Paul, Minnesota. The family was poor even during the Roaring Twenties. When the Depression came it forced the boys to take temporary refuge at their grandparents farm so the family would at least not sink into deeper poverty. Neiman took to the street life early, exploring the city while playing hooky from school. Exploring the state capitol building in Minneapolis he first became intrigued with art. How it was possible to paint the glass in the eyeglasses of the former governors puzzled him.

After serving in World War Two as a cook, where he was often AWOL, and spending a year with the occupation forces as a painter he realized that the GI Bill was his ticket to a better life. Returning to Minneapolis he earned his high school diploma and went to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was the beginning of a long association between Nieman and the school. He started teaching fashion illustration for the school before he graduated and, as I learned on a visit to Chicago, Nieman provided the school with its first student center which opened shortly before his death.

Working as a fashion illustrator in Chicago, he met two important people on the same day. Janet Byrne, who he would marry and spend the rest of his life with, and Hugh Hefner, who he would work with until 2008 when Nieman cut back his schedule. I don’t want to recap the story of Nieman’s life here, you will enjoy it more in his own words and pictures. According to Neiman he always wanted to paint like Jackson Pollock but “faces kept coming through the paint”. Throughout the book Neiman drops the names of artists and works that he admired. Some of those names, like Pollock and George Bellows, I was already familiar with but his descriptions of their works ignited a curiosity about many others that I will be looking for whenever I visit a museum. The book is filled with Neiman’s art and photographs from his life and the printing is the quality you would expect from the namesake of Columbia University’s LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies.

LeRoy Neiman's Pete Rose

LeRoy Neiman’s Pete Rose

The second half of the book is more memoir than autobiography, by that I mean that the arrangement is more topical than chronological. Neiman’s life was too full of five star events and encounters with all types of celebrities to condense into a book in any other way. His friendships with Ali, Sinatra, and Miss Lillian, President Carter’s mother, provide some of the best stories in the book. Thanks to Neiman’s writing style, he has a friendly, conversational voice that is easy to read, no part of the book that is less than entertaining.


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Review: Vince Guraldi at the Piano

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

I jumped at the chance to review Derrick Bang’s biography, “Vince Guaraldi at the Piano”, having been a fan of Guaraldi since I first heard his song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”. Listening to Guaraldi’s music made me think that I would have liked him had I ever met him, after reading Bang’s well researched biography I’m sure I would have.

Bang concentrates on Guaraldi’s professional life but manages to include relevant aspects of his personal life. For instance two of Guaraldi’s uncles are professional musicians, he grew up exposed to the realities of the job,
the need to always be practicing, the work hours, and the uncertain paychecks. Bang follows Guaraldi’s career from playing at school dances and parties for his classmates to summers moving back and forth from lesbian bars and strip clubs, to first occasional work as a sideman with Cal Tjader, to becoming a regular with Tjader’s group until finally stepping out with his own group.

Guaraldi’s third album, titled for the 1959 movie “Black Orpheus” focused on Guaraldi’s interpretations of Latin music. Since those cuts were not enough to fill an album Guaraldi used several of his other compositions to fill out the album. Fantasy Records, the company Guaraldi was under contract with, issued a 45 single to promote the album. One of Guaraldi’s other compositions, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” became the B side of the record. Over the next few years that recording climbed the charts, first the 45, then the albums, one Stereo and one Monaural, made it into their respective “Best of the Week” charts and Guaraldi’s life became hectic.

He became so busy that Bang had to devote separate chapters to events unfolding at the same time. First the rise of Guaraldi’s Grammy winning recording of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”. Second, as a direct result of someone hearing that record, he was asked to compose a Jazz Mass for the opening of San Francisco’s long awaited Grace Cathedral, a controversial effort to bring, as some said, saloon music, into the church. Third, again because of CYFttW,, a struggling local production company asked him to score a documentary they were doing on a local writer.

“Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, a jazz instrumental, climbed the pop charts in a year when Elvis and the Memphis Sound was battling it out with the Beatles and the British Invasion. Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass changed church music forever. It was the third project that became Guaraldi’s overshadowing success. I do mean overshadowing. In fact when I saw that Bang’s other works were on Charles Schulz I feared that the Peanuts gang would crowd Guaraldi out of his own biography.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Bang shows us the life of a hard working piano man, a determined professional who overcame his inability to read music. We get a look at what is was like to struggle as a Union musician in the days when a week was a long engagement and as a recording artist when the record companies ruled like feudal lords. He paints a vivid picture of the San Francisco jazz scene and what a small world professional jazz is. Of the few jazz musicians I know most of them turned up at one time or another sharing a stage with Guaraldi. Of the names that I never expected to show up, Jerry Garcia was the most surprising.

This is a wonderfully entertaining story that somehow gets even more engrossing after Guaraldi’s death in 1976 at age 47. The only negative I can say about this book is that exploring its discography of Guaraldi’s recordings is going to be expensive.

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Review: Shadows in the Vineyard

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Shadows in the Vineyard

“Shadows in the vineyard : the true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine” is an interesting mix of history, biography, and true crime. In spite of the subtitle’s hype true crime takes a backseat here. There is just not enough mystery in the story to fill a book. Maximillian Potter took an intriguing mixture of genres and produced an enjoyable and informative book.

With looks at how religious orders established winemaking in France, the establishment of fine California wines, and how, after World War II French wine became rooted on American vines*, and the biography of the head of Burgundy’s most prestigious winery Potter has managed to fill out the tale of poisoned vines to a book length tale. And, somehow he managed to keep it all interesting. I do have to say that at some points I found the book a little disjointed, for instance I spent way too much time wondering what Madame de Pompadour had to do with the narrative. In time I learned but, for me, the delay was distracting as was some of the bouncing back and forth between current events and generations of family history.

Still I enjoyed the book. My limited knowledge of the wine world was not a hindrance. My wife is a big fan of wine and thanks to her I have picked up a little information. She encouraged me to watch the movie “Somm”, a 2012 documentary, that gave me background to understand how impressive a feat it was for someone to simply show up at the test site, talk his way in, and receive a perfect score. Still other events mentioned in the book are the basis for, “Bottle Shock” an enjoyable comedy / drama from 2008.  Potter’s book is fun, informative, and, overall, an easy read. I finally have something wine related to show my wife.

I received this book from special offer from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program offering books by the publisher Hachette in an attempt to get information about their books out to the public in spite of Amazon blacklisting Hachette works over pricing issues. In order to further that goal if you think this review is worth it, spread it around.

* Yes, literally rooted on American vines, this is one topic covered that I would like to learn more about.


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Review: 46 Pages

book cover

46 Pages

I first read Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, the “46 Pages” referred to in the title of Scott Liell’s book, a few years ago and I could not understand why every student in the United States is not required to read it. Is the book considered as dangerous to today’s government as it was to King George’s in 1776? Liell examines the history of the US Revolution’s most influential pamphlet and its author. At only about three times the length of its topic the book is not a heavy, detailed, scholarly work. Instead it is an informative and entertaining introduction to one of the world’s most liberal writers and his best known work.

Liell starts with Paine’s early life in England, how he gained experience as a writer, how he came to know Ben Franklin, and how he came to the Colonies. Liell presents Paine as a regular guy, avoiding the trap that to many biographers fall into, to paint their subjects as all around supermen. When first published Paine’s “Common Sense” and its logic gripped the country, people then saw Paine as something of a superman, he donated his profits to the cause, answered every challenge to his ideas, and joined the Continental Army as an enlisted man when his growing fame could have won him an appointment as an officer.

The real hero of the book is the pamphlet, “Common Sense”. Before reading it George Washington resisted the British Parliament’s unjust laws but was a loyal subject of the King. After reading Paine’s pamphlet Washington’s devotion was to independence. In an age of handset type and hand powered presses, when news spread on horseback, “Common Sense” swept across the 13 colonies changing loyal British subjects who disagreed with Parliament into revolutionaries declaring their independence.

After the United States won independence Paine was recognized as one of the principal catalysts for American independence. In France he wrote more about “The Rights of Man” and the wealthy colonials who now held power, who had once celebrated “Common Sense”, shunned his liberalism. Liell’s book ends with Payne’s death and looks at the way the country he helped found rejected his mortal remains as completely as it did his liberal politics.

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