SUCH SWEET THUNDER: Benny Green on Jazz, edited by Dominic Green (Scribner).
“Now is the winter of our discotheque” is a typical double-edged pun from the pen of Benny Green, veteran British jazz critic and broadcaster. It is clever, humorous but also bittersweet and has just a hint of musical snobbery. The quip is more true now than when he first said it, commenting on how susceptible jazz is to the vagaries of fashion. For 40 years Green wrote for publications as diverse as Punch and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but he is probably best known here for his liner notes (Kind of Blue; the Ella Fitzgerald ‘Songbooks’) and the hundreds of witty, erudite programmes he wrote and presented for the BBC, re-broadcast here on National.
Green – not to be confused with his American pianist namesake, or the trombonist Bennie Gree – was also a musician, playing sax in dance bands, pit bands and jazz combos. His intimate knowledge of the mechanics of music combined with his repository of anecdotes, his wit and flair, makes his writing a joy to read, so evocative that one can easily recollect the music under discussion. He had a vast general knowledge but educated himself while reading on the road (a Cockney, a schoolteacher told him he was “fit only to be a barrow boy”).
Elvis Costello was a big fan of his radio programmes; in his generous foreward he refers to them as “masterclasses” that lead him straight to the record store. Although Green could be a master of the swashbuckling putdown (he saw Dave Brubeck as especially ham-fisted) Costello describes his style as “compassionate estimation more than combative criticism”. Such Sweet Thunder is Green’s collected works, including his essays on the American songwriters he idolised (Carmichael, Arlen, Berlin, Gershwin), artist profiles (he is especially good on Sinatra), record and concert reviews, plus his complete entry on “Jazz” for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Green was a civilised, erudite critic, entertaining and enlightening in a genre dominated by the earnest or esoteric; his chatty, informed style makes Such Sweet Thunder an informal course in classic jazz.