Musician, author and artist Bill Minor combines mediums and genres in his first memoir.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
William “Bill” Minor, longtime local jazz pianist, author, poet and artist, now 77 years old, is looking back onto his life in the form of a memoir, The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir. But like his own multiplicity of talents and endeavors and careers, he sets his 476-page book to accomplish several tasks at the same time. It’s a memoir of his own inner and public life from birth to age 17. It’s a genealogical family survey that reaches back to his “great, great, great, great grandfather.” It’s a window into a semi-fictional work called Extremities that he abandoned in favor of the copiously researched non-fictional Inherited Heart. And it’s a vehicle for small pieces of his poetry and large doses of American history.
At a launch party this Friday (see endblurb for details), Minor will introduce the book in a hybrid format befitting his multidimensional career, an approach he’s employed before for the occasion of releasing a previous book – stories set to music, with Minor on piano, accompanied by Heath Proskin on bass and Jaqui Hope on vocals.
He’s written three books on jazz – including the Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, in which he interviewed his jazz heroes like Max Roach and Dave Brubek – five volumes of poetry, a satirical novel and 150 articles about jazz. But Inherited Heart is a different kind of writing.
“It’s much more personal,” he says. “When I finished the book, I was exhausted. I made all kinds of discoveries about myself, my family, my relationship with my father – which was not that easy – and mother.”
It began life as the fictional work called, inextricably, Extremities. But upon reading the memoir of Russian writer Alexander Herzen, who Minor describes as a “brilliant truth teller,” and packing up the contents of his childhood home after his mother died a couple years ago, he changed course.
He already had a head start on the source material, including his own recollections, stories from his parents, books and letters written by family members, and newspaper articles. He used his journalistic experience to research at repositories like the Special Collections Library of the University of Virginia.
His sister, who reads nearly everything he writes, read early drafts, as did local poets Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts and George Lober. But the story ran more than 680 pages before he asked for editor Christopher Hebert to cut it down by half; still, it swelled upward again to its nearly 500 pages. It was so exhaustive that publishers didn’t know how to market it. So he self published through Pacific Grove’s Park Place Publications.
Though in the introduction Minor seems to promise a litany of “distinguished” and “splendid” ancestors, of ministers and officers, businesspeople and writers, family friendships and proximity to Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, the stories of his “kin” are actually more complex.
“I had trouble with my grandfather,” Minor says. “He joined the Confederate Army at 14, was shot at Appomattox and left for dead, but he survived. I did not like him. He had my father at 57, died when [my father] was 12, and my father had to work for a road crew at 14. I try to be as fair as I can. I let them tell their stories and try not to judge them. There was a Civil War going on in [my] house.”
Though the family pictures published in the book suggest an idyllic childhood surrounded by all-American normalcy, the captions and narrative elaborate. Minor’s mother’s family was strongly with the Union, his father’s deeply Southern. He says while one of his grandfathers had been a medic for the Union Army, the other was loading cannonballs with the Confederates. He had distant relatives who owned slaves. Minor writes about it all with equal regard. His father’s eternal and powerful smile, his bouts of drinking and negativity; Minor’s earnest pursuit of girls and his misery at their rejections. But this is not a saga of agony; it’s more an appreciative, comprehensive look back at his trajectory – starting generations back.
“Having denied any interest in these [relatives] when I was young, my world now is richer and larger,” he says. “We are part of all that’s around us. We can’t say I’ll accept this and not that. I think [that’s] an act of love.”
The “kin” he covers in the book are numerous, their stories branching off in myriad directions. It makes for a twisty read that takes concentration to get through intact; sometimes it reads like the role of family chronicler that Minor’s dad goaded him to accept. And he jumps back and forth in time (“like a time traveler,” he says), giving himself permission to do so from the similar tactic of writer Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. He also allows a malleability in what can be regarded as truth, taken from the philosophy of Marcel Proust.
“I think [those are] neat techniques for memory,” Minor says. “How can we even know what’s true? We see things differently later, we reassess.”
In that sense, the book is an American story in all its ambivalence and surety, nostalgia and regret. And just part one of a series Minor believes can extend across two more books. Like a jazz concerto, Inherited Heart is just the first movement in a suite about one man’s life.
THE INHERITED HEART book launch party takes place 7:30pm Friday, Jan. 11, at The Works Bookstore, 667 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove. $15. 372-2242, www.bminor.org
• The Weekly digs up, dusts off and polishes the Artifacts column, once a staple of the paper compiled by former Weekly writer Sue Fishkoff, as a showcase space for arts news and noteworthy events in all facets of culture in Monterey County, including dance, film, literature, visual art, music, theater, etc. Infotainment, as KRS-One would call it. If you know of any cool, new, overlooked or otherwise interesting stuff happening or about to happen in the arts scene in Monterey County, send me an email with the details. Like some of these people did:
• Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore’s book stock leans toward the metaphysical and holistic side of the reading spectrum, but they contain solid surprises, like Best of Rivals by Adam Lazarus, a candid account of the 49ers dynasty during the Joe Montana/Steve Young era, brilliant graphic novels by Chris Ware and Charles Burns, and James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters. But they also announce bookstore co-owner Cynthia Fernandes’ new radio show on KRXA 540AM, 4-5pm Saturdays, called Simple Life, inspired by stories customers and visitors have told them over the years.
• The Sundance Film Festival firing up next week will be visited by two Monterey County presences. The first is Robert Machoian, a 2007 graduate of CSUMB’s Teledramatic Arts & Technology program (soon to be renamed Cinematic Arts and Technology) who showed his film Charlie and the Rabbit at Sundance in 2010. This year Machoian and TAT collaborator Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck earned one of 65 slots among 8,000 submissions in Sundance’s shorts category for two films shot on iPhones. The other Monterey County presence that will be represented in Park City, Utah, goes by the name Big Sur. Which is also the name of the feature film based on a novel to be world premiered there, starring Patrick Fischler (Californication, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds), shot in Big Sur and focused on the influence of the coastal mountains on the beat poet movement. Fischler plays Lew Welch, a confidante of Jack Kerouac.
• Live from the BASSment, a music jam session that throws down in the Cannery Row Brewing Company every other week, celebrated its first year anniversary last Tuesday. If you didn’t go, don’t fret: More free-flowing and funky jams are on the way.
• Heull Howser died last Sunday. Long live refreshingly earnest public television travelogue commentary. Howser, former host of the Los Angeles KCET/PBS TV show California Gold, explored the Golden State’s lesser traveled but worthy places, interviewing people along the way. His unabashed enthusiasm for all he encountered was childlike and sincere through each episode, like a perpetual neophyte: “Look at those rocks!” Although he retired from the show last November, he visited Monterey and Moss Landing in a couple episodes, and the place never seemed more tantalizing as it did through the generous eyes of Howser. He will be missed.