Book Review: ‘Jazz: A Love Letter,’ by Frank McGowan

Written by on May 1, 2020

reviewed by Marty Friedman

With a long and detailed memory across his eighty-plus years, Frank McGowan, from Natick Massachusetts, recalls his formative moments as a lover of jazz. The recently self-published “tome” as he calls it – with a bit of irony and perhaps some self-deprecation – recounts meetings with jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, and Oscar Peterson.

McGowan, an amateur trumpet player himself, lavishes much praise on his trumpet heroes. Although Louis Armstrong is first among equals in the chapter entitled “Trumpeters,” it is in two earlier chapters that McGowan reveals two who elicit the greatest awe: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. When seeing a performance of Bird in 1953 at Boston’s Hi-Hat jazz club, McGowan was pressed by his companion to ask the great alto saxophonist for his autograph:

I couldn’t imagine doing any such thing: what would this titan among titans think if he were approached by a timorous, callow youth who would dare impose upon him?

Parker’s is one of several autographs obtained by the author during his long love affair with jazz. Throughout the text, when there is a legible autograph to be viewed, McGowan inserts the image for all to see. These are truly part of his virtual jazz shrine.

Very much autobiographical, the book describes key moments in McGowan’s life as the context for his growing love of and appreciation for jazz. Woven throughout are stories from high school, the military, and his time at Digital Equipment Corporation, where he became a fixture in the trumpet section of the DEC Big Band. It was in the “DBB” where McGowan met talented amateur players such as Elliott “Cat” Hendrickson (trumpet) and Steve Ruzich (trombone).

Jazz lovers in the Boston area may be familiar with many of the clubs, lounges, and dance halls where great jazz was to be found: Lennie’s in Peabody, Connelly’s Stardust Room, Storyville, Mahogany Hall, the Jazz Workshop, Moseley’s On The Charles. An outing to one of these venues proves to be an adventure, whether it has to do with asking a revered idol for an autograph, or trying to get a date to understand what she was listening to.

Jazz: A Love Letter is an entertaining and quick read. It is available on Amazon in paperback or as a Kindle book that can be read on a phone or computer with the free Kindle app.


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