Although he was a fine trombonist (he was part of Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ band while still at college, recorded with Archie Shepp, Michel Petrucciani, Eric Dolphy and many others) and an underrated bandleader (his finest moment possibly the Weill recordings issued under the Orchestra USA rubric on RCA), I knew Mike Zwerin chiefly as a writer, both professionally (I commissioned and edited three books by him while at Quartet Books in the 1980s) and personally (he was an indefatigable e-mailer and our electronic correspondence over the years would make Clarissa Harlowe and her friends look like lazy dilettantes).
I first met him in 1982, when he submitted his autobiography, Close Enough for Jazz, to Quartet, a firm I had joined as a proofreader a year previously, attracted by their jazz list. He was an immensely attractive individual, warm, cynically wise, and (like his and my great hero Lenny Bruce) almost pathologically sensitive to bullshit of all varieties: political, inter-personal, musical. All these qualities infused his writing, most notably his aforementioned autobiography, which came out in 1983, but also his freewheeling, intensely personal book about jazz under the Nazis, La Tristesse de Saint Louis, and his translations of the jazz writings of Boris Vian, Round About Close to Midnight.
On his numerous visits to London, either in connection with these books, or on assignments for the International Herald Tribune, for which he was the Paris-based music correspondent, he often stayed with me, and he was, quite simply, one of the funniest, most acerbic, pungently witty conversationalists I’ve ever encountered, his interests ranging from jazz and its practitioners, through literature and art, to all things political (it was his distaste for Nixon’s America that had led him to emigrate to France, via London, a decision chronicled thus in Close Enough for Jazz: ‘Packing my bags to leave for Europe on 20 January 1969, Nixon’s inauguration day, I knew somehow that I would not soon return to live in a country that could inaugurate such a President.’) In the event, Mike never returned to live in America, settling in Paris, marrying Martine, a Parisian, and having a son, Ben (now an electric bassist), with her.
Articles on all manner of music appeared under his byline over the next couple of decades, all characterised by deep knowledge and love of the subject, but also unflinching in their acknowledgement of the commercial realities that operate in the field. Perhaps the finest example of such work can be found in Mike’s last book, The Parisian Jazz Chronicles (Yale University Press, 2005): ‘Kenny G’ (Chapter 11, pp. 116–20), but his weekly articles on/interviews with everyone from Bob Dylan to Dexter Gordon and Wayne Shorter all provide object lessons in the art of journalism for their concision, wit and sheer readability.
His death at 79 robs me of one of my closest friends, but more importantly, it robs the jazz world of one of its most perceptive and eloquent observers. Mike will indeed be sorely missed by everyone who truly cares about music.
This tribute first appeared on the Vortex’s website, and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.
Photo credit: Luciane Maia