Oscar Alemán: La guitarra embrujada
Planeta; Buenos Aires, 2015
Paperback; 312 pp.
The life of Oscar Alemán (1909-1980) is one of those narratives which tend to end up ditched on the kerbs of history. But how do you fit in the jazz canon a black Argentinian guitar player, who got to be hugely popular in pre-WWII France without ever setting foot in the US?
Never completely forgotten thanks to fans capable of seeing beyond the comparisons with Django Reinhardt (they met in Paris and kept a good relationship), and to online efforts by people like Hans Koert (Netherlands) and Jan Evensmo (Norway), this biography by fellow Argentinian Sergio A. Pujol will shed some more light on this life and music.
Oscar (pronounced /osKAR/) Alemán was born in the Chaco, Argentina, to a destitute family, whom he lost contact with at a very early age. His journey from that to being Josephine Baker's star accompanist, coveted by Duke Ellington—who tried to "borrow" him from Baker—, is in itself a fascinating story, from an era when transport was what it was, the Atlantic was crossed by ship, and music travelled in fragile records.
With such ingredients for myths and legends—Alemán also knew Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Carter—, Pujol avoids temptations and, in terms of genre, skips any hint of fable to stick to chronicle. A veteran author of about a dozen music books, his point of view is impervious to both speculation and sentimentality. Alemán's life is gripping enough in itself and, with more footnotes than pages, as well as access to Alemán's family, his documentation work is a tight mesh whose tiny holes are filled by Pujol's own knowledge, applied with typical sobriety.
Pujol avoids the all too common jazz biography as discography with a few anecdotes sprinkled here and there. Although Alemán's main recordings are dealt with in detail, most of the text is devoted to his actual life, within and without music. Devoid of any grand gestures—here particularly unnecessary—Pujol tells a tale rich in adventures, some particularly poignant today, like the convulsions in pre-WWII Europe and the nazis entering Paris (with Alemán and his wife's fleeing the city never to return).
For the jazz aficionado, the book may also help erase some of the rigid boxes this music has been fitted in. Pujol has left all prejudice aside and, again, based on factual information, he reveals the more materialistic aspects of the "popular" musician's life, with jazz as just another genre among others available to the professional musician, or the paramount importance of the mis-en-scene (Alemán was particularly flamboyant) and professionality to earn a living. On a more personal level, Pujol avoids lurid gossip but brings on some delicious anecdotes about the musician's daily life, be it the tensions among colleagues, the relationship with the instrument, or even the practice of football—soccer—in his spare time in Paris.
Despite some typos—such is the current state of the publishing world—and the rare unnecessary guess—Alemán could not have listened to Charlie Christian in early '39—, this is an indispensable book for anyone interested in jazz guitar and, especially, in the life a of a strikingly unique musician from the 20th century. If writing a biography entails the responsibility to engrave a new canon, both readers and Alemán's legacy are lucky that the chisel has fallen in Pujol's hands.