Nisenson, Eric 1946-2003

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NISENSON, Eric 1946-2003

PERSONAL: Born February 12, 1946, in New York, NY; died of kidney failure, August 15, 2003, in Malden, MA; son of Jules Nisenson (an inventor). Education: Attended New York University (English).

CAREER: Writer. Employed as a college textbook editor until 1980.

AWARDS, HONORS: Frankfurt eBook Award, 2001, for The Making of "Kind of Blue": Miles Davis and His Masterpiece; Guggenheim fellowship, 2002.


'Round about Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis, Dial Press (New York, NY), 1982.

Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.

Blue: The Murder of Jazz, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.

The Making of "Kind of Blue": Miles Davis and HisMasterpiece, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000.

SIDELIGHTS: Eric Nisenson's love of jazz developed in his early teens, largely stemming from his discovery of Miles Davis's classic album Kind of Blue. Eventually, Nisenson would merge his interests in music and the written word to create a series of jazz histories. These include biographies of Miles Davis, with whom Nisenson forged a close friendship in the 1970s; John Coltrane, one of the author's teenage heroes; and legendary tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.

In the early 1970s, as he was beginning his career as a textbook editor in New York, Nisenson made an influential friend in jazz bassist Walter Booker. Booker offered a much-appreciated introduction to Miles Davis, and the resulting friendship between the author and trumpeter lasted for several years. Eventually, Davis decided that Nisenson should become his official biographer, but the project was hampered by Davis's drug habit and health problems. Nisenson finally published 'Round about Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis in 1982, though the two no longer kept in regular contact by that time. After its release, 'Round about Midnight brought in mixed reviews, drawing criticism for being what Paul Stuewe of Quill & Quire referred to as "too close to its subject for its own good" and high praise for "Nisenson's concise and intuitive reaction to the major events and phases of Davis's career and personal life," according to a Choice contributor.

Nisenson's next work, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, does not function as a straight biography so much as an analysis of Coltrane and his music. Said one Washington Post contributor, Nisenson "tries to show what is so special about Coltrane's music, despite the sheets of sound and seemingly unmelodious playing some find off-putting." According to David Royko of the New York Times Book Review, Ascension's most noteworthy feature is the final chapter, in which the author "draws clear lines of the Coltrane influence across the map of modern music, bringing to life Coltrane's inner world by viewing the music of today through the prism of his accomplishments."

Nisenson's 1997 book, Blue: The Murder of Jazz, is a highly critical argument against jazz traditionalists Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch. The volume was referred to as "reactionary" by a Publisher's Weekly contributor and is probably Nisenson's most controversial project. In the work, he attacks Jazz neo-conservatives for championing standard styles instead of forging new musical paths. Commented reviewer Karl Nehring of Sensible Sound, "Nisenson carefully lays out his case by taking a close look at the music and musicians themselves, rather than at the managers and politics involved in the business of jazz."

In 2000 Nisenson released what would be his final full-length works. The Making of "Kind of Blue": Miles Davis and His Masterpiece details the key musicians of late 1950s' New York and the two-day recording session that resulted in Davis's Kind of Blue—one of the most celebrated jazz albums of all time. Critics offered praise for the book. Ted Leventhal of Booklist noted, "Nisenson's book is an unusual work, combining memoir, biography, history, and musicology in one relatively short volume." Jim Gerard, writing in the Washington Post, added that the book "sets out the reasons for the record's incantatory power and enduring influence by placing it within its sociopolitical context."

Nisenson's final book was Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation, a biography written with the collaboration of Rollins. As Nisenson was working on the book, Rollins was nearing the age of seventy and still producing the kind of inventive solos that the author so openly favored. In the book, Nisenson examines Rollins's career from his early years as Miles Davis's sideman in the 1950s to his stint as a bandleader and acclaimed soloist in the 1960s and beyond. Some reviewers criticized the volume for omitting some of the less-positive aspects of Rollins's life. For instance, Ray Olson of Booklist noted that the book "does not include candid personal details, even about Rollins's early drug addiction." But Olson added that Open Sky "does include the kind of commentary that makes you itch to hear Sonny Rollins play."

At the time of his death in 2003, Nisenson had two separate works in progress: a new biography, this time covering famed jazz pianist Dave Brubeck; and a book exploring the Brazilian tropicalia music movement of the late 1960s, which garnered the author a 2002 Guggenheim research fellowship.



Booklist, February 15, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation, p. 1069; November 15, 2000, Ted Leventhal, review of The Making of "Kind of Blue": Miles Davis and His Masterpiece, p. 600.

Boston Globe, November 3, 2002, Michael Prager, "Guggenheim Helps Malden Writer Tackle Subject," p. N8.

Choice, March, 1983, review of 'Round about Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis.

New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1994, David Royko, review of Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, October 20, 1997, review of Blue:The Murder of Jazz, p. 65; February 28, 2000, review of Open Sky, p. 76.

Quill & Quire, February, 1983, Paul Stuewe, review of 'Round about Midnight, p. 41.

Sensible Sound, May 1998, Karl Nehring, review of Blue, p. 83.

Washington Post, January 9, 1994, review of Ascension, p. 13; March 28, 2001, Jim Gerard, review of Blue, p. C9.


Jerry Jazz Musician Web site, (February 19, 2004), "Interview with Eric Nisenson."



Jazz House Web site, (February 19, 2004), James Hale, "Miles, Trane, Rollins Biographer."*