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Book review: “The Jazz Alphabet” by Neil Shapiro

There are many pleasures in Neil Shapiro’s newly published The Jazz Alphabet — and you don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy them.

This book by Neil — a friend — draws readers, whatever their musical allegiance, into the jazz world in vibrant and savory ways.  From the images he crafted and the words he put on display, I could almost taste the tang and sugar of this great music.

“Brought it”

As the title suggests, Neil builds his book, available for $35 at, around the 26 letters of the alphabet, offering a two-page spread for a single music-maker for each letter.

Thus, “R” is for Django Reinhardt (illustrated invitingly with smoke curling from the cigarette in his lips beneath a pencil-thin moustache as he plays his guitar), and “G” is for Dexter Gordon (a straight-head presence on the page, either just getting ready to play or just finishing).

On the lefthand page of each spread are a few sentences from Neil, such as his comment on Billie Holiday:

The tremulous vulnerability in Billie Holiday’s voice is unique.  Even while she balances on the edge of seeming despair, there’s a sly promise of pleasure in there.  How does she do that?

Or this one for Joe Zawinul:

On Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, Joe Zawinul composed the title cut.  His ethereal keyboard playing is utterly haunting.  I later learned that he was picked to participate the night before the recording session, and was asked to “bring music.”

He brought it, all right.

I hear in Neil’s words his visceral enjoyment of, awe for and respect for these artists.

“Know what he’s doing”

On the righthand page of each spread is an image of the musician and a quotation from or about the person, such as Duke Ellington’s description of Billy Stayhorn:

“Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mind.”

Or Ellington’s words accompanying his own image:

“By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”

Or Billie Holiday’s words:

“This voice of mine’s a mess, a cat got to know what he’s doing when he plays with me.”

Anyone who’s listened knows the mix of strength and fragility in Holiday’s voice — and its powerful, emotional import. 

The heart of the book

The heart of The Jazz Alphabet is in Neil’s images of these 26 jazz stalwarts.

I’m struck, in particular, by his depiction of Holiday — her bare shoulders and upper chest conveying a muscular openness, almost unprotectedness — contrasting with the way Neil has drawn her hands — out of proportion, large, nervous and weighty at the same time.

Or his evocative John Coltrane, especially the eyes.

And, yet again, Ellington, caught in mid-word, worn and lively, alive and tired:

Beautiful and spooky

A final note:  Neil does something — some magic beyond my ken — with the lettering he employs on the righthand pages that makes the words leap up into my face.

Some of it has to do with the mix of colors, some with a mix of fonts.  I don’t understand it, but I do know it is beautiful and spooky, sort of like jazz.

Patrick T. Reardon


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