Miami Book Fair: David Hajdu

Take a look at the biographical blurb and accompanying author photo on the back cover of David Hajdu's latest book, Heroes and Villains, and you'll discover that not only is Hadju a professor, but he looks like one. Smiling wryly behind frameless spectacles, the 54-year-old prof (and music critic for the New Republic) folds his arms across the front of his grey, long-sleeve, button-down sportshirt while his short, neat coif blows in the wind. 

Yes, Hajdu looks like an unassuming, mild-mannered academic. That, however, is not how he writes. Truth is, the professor is a very tough audience, a master of the cutting sarcastic remark, and a man of unyielding standards. (He really rips apart both Starbucks and late-life Joni Mitchell.) Although, for the most part, the writing in Heroes and Villains -- like that of Hajdu's previous books Lush Life, Positively 4th Street, and The Ten-Cent Plague -- is generous with its criticism.

Whether covering jazz, '60s folk, comic books, Beyoncé, or Elmer Fudd, the prof never pulls a punch, but he also demonstrates a deep love and near-encyclopedic understanding of his material. Perhaps the most lovely (and least known) subject though in Hajdu's book is Billy Eckstine, a black jazz singer who equaled Frank Sinatra's star power in the late 1940s before being undone and forgotten by a racist entertainment industry. 

Now, this Saturday, rather than reading from Heroes and Villains, the professor will be playing music alongside his wife, Karen Oberlin -- a Bistro- and MAC-winning jazz vocalist -- in honor of Eckstine and a few other favorites. 

New Times: What exactly do you have planned for your appearance at the Book Fair? 

Karen Oberlin: David will be accompanying me on guitar for a number of songs, all related to articles in his book. We've always had a few tunes we could work up for an event. We played a few songs for the Positively 4th Street tour. 

So this is something you've done before? 

David Hajdu: We did just one smaller, less ambitious try-out of the program, in a bookstore in Pennsylvania, early this month, just to see how it might go -- and we had fun, so we decided to put together something bigger for the Book Fair. Karen sings prominently all the time. She's done four sold-out shows (with her septet) at the Iridium, the New York jazz club, this year, as well as three times as many other shows (with her trio) in a great New York club called the Metropolitan Room. She's the big-time music professional in our little act. I'm like the other guy in Wham! 

I've been told you'll be performing "My One and Only Love," "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "Blackbird," and "A Case of You." Any additions? 

Hajdu: I know we're going to add "Mountain Greenery" by Rodgers and Hart. And we've worked up "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson. Reason: I've written about Jackson recently, even though that piece is not in Heroes and Villains

Oberlin: We might bring in another one or two, but they will remain a mystery until then! You'll just have to come and see. 

David, when did you first discover Billy Eckstine? 

Hajdu: I saw Eckstine perform several times in his last years -- including once at the Blue Note, with Elvis Costello and his mother in the audience! And I interviewed him once, not long before he died, for my book, Lush Life, which was a biography of Billy Strayhorn, who was a friend of Eckstine's when they were kids. I'm intensely devoted to African-American jazz musicians from Pittsburgh named Billy. Seriously though, I think Billy Eckstine was immeasurably important for breaking racial barriers in American pop culture, and his story is simply one of the most tragic stories in pop music history. 

A number of your essay subjects (Eckstine, Bobby Darin, Anita O'Day, Elvis, etc.) are, in one way or another, tragic figures. Are pop stars doomed to tragedy by money, pressure, and the industry? 

Hajdu: I don't think many of the figures in the book are tragic, at least not one-dimensionally so. Anita O'Day, for instance, utterly defied the cliche of the tragic drug addict. She was a triumphant drug addict, and the main point I tried to make in the chapter on her is heroin is one of the reaons for the euphoria in her music. Bobby Darin? He knew he was doomed to an early death by heart disease, and his response was to make a joke of death in his music. He laughed at tragedy and made it comedy. 

Over what period of time were the other essays contained in Heroes and Villains written?

Hajdu: They cover a period of about ten years, though most of them were written in the last several years, and a few -- such as the piece on open-source remixing and on Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Lucinda Williams -- are very recent. The pieces in the book represent only a fraction of the writing I've done over the past ten years. For instance, I've done well over a dozen major pieces for the New York Times, but I didn't include any of them in the book. I included only things that I think have relevance today, things that have something to say about the culture around us today. 

The book covers pop, jazz, movies, comic strips, cartoons, and more. How important is it that critics maintain diverse interests? 

Hajdu: I don't know about anybody else, but I find it impossible to think in terms of strict categories anymore. Music and the visual arts and literature are all mashed up, and the old categories of "high" and "low" mean very little today. 

Karen and David, any upcoming projects to report? 

Oberlin: I have a current show at the Metropolitan Room in NYC, called, "Birds Do It: Songs of the Natural World." Basically, it's an ecclectic mix of songs inspired by the mother of all muses, nature. 

Hajdu: I'm working on a big book, a biography of Martin Scorsese. I expect it to take me at least six or seven years. So I don't expect to be back at the Miami Book Fair for a while, and I'm pretty cranky about that. 

David Hajdu and Karen Oberlin perform at the Miami Book Fair on Saturday, November 14 at 12:30 p.m. in Miami Dade College's Prometeo Theatre (Building 1, 1st Floor, Room 1101).

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S. Pajot