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Music, Race and Junk

“Did 5 years for an apple, ate the motherfucker and didn’t look back.” In his knowing and bitterly funny memoir, the supremely gifted jazz pianist Hampton Hawes bluntly describes the federal prison jolt for heroin possession that derailed his career. Hawes, at 48, who suffered a fatal stroke in 1977, was a Watts preacher‘s son who learned bebop’s unorthodox changes as a teen on Central Avenue, at the elbow of Charlie Parker and other leading lions of the postwar jazz movement. He cut a widely praised series of albums for Lester Koenig‘s L.A. label, Contemporary Records, in the ’50s, but he had already acquired a massive, debilitating habit that led first to Army stockades in Japan and, ultimately, to a Texas drug lockdown.

This tough yet briskly readable work, co-authored by novelist Don Asher (who nimbly captures the keyboardist‘s hipster patois), was originally published in 1974 and has now been restored to print. In it, Hawes candidly retraces his road to ruin, his release from prison after a presidential pardon from John F. Kennedy and his bumpy return to jazz prominence. The book’s wised-up observations about music, race and junk, along with cameos by Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Wardell Gray, place it on a short shelf with other great, lacerating autobiographies by L.A. jazz luminaries, such as Art Pepper‘s Straight Life and Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog.


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