The Pequod Review:
Four Lives in the Bebop Business follows the lives of musicians Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Jackie McLean and Herbie Nichols. Spellman lets his subjects tell their stories in their own voices, mostly through long unbroken quotes directly from the musicians themselves. What emerges are deep insights into their personal histories, the 1950s and 1960s American jazz scene, and the day-to-day conflicts with club owners, record companies and audiences. The book is also full of economics, and how performers balance artistic desires with the need to make a living. There is a reason the word “business” is in the title.
Spellman’s selection of these four individuals was crucial. He was a jazz critic for the years before writing his book and picked musicians who, despite their very different backgrounds and styles, were all making especially innovative jazz music. Spellman said later:
I picked them largely because I thought they were important, and because I thought they needed a defense. The conditions under which very serious jazz musicians had to work were anomalous. Cecil Taylor played in jazz clubs in Brooklyn where there was an expectation of one kind of music, and he was trying to play Cecil Taylor. Ornette, trying to do avant-garde music, struggled to make music without any musical training whatsoever. I thought these were important things to put out there. That kind of story about how people became the musicians that they are was not told enough.
Over time, all four musicians would become enormously influential figures in modern jazz. Recommended.