Goin’ Home: The Uncompromising Life and Music of Ken Colyer

Jordan Haddad

We’ve all heard stories about the lifestyles of famous musicians. They can be manic, arrogant (or on the contrary, dangerously introverted), inwardly or outwardly abusive, extreme perfectionists—the list goes on. So one wouldn’t be out of line to say some of the most eccentric artists put forth the best work. Though Ken Colyer may not compare in recklessness to some of the more extreme of influential icons in the history of music, he embodies the type: a rollercoaster of emotions consumed by his own perfectionism and dissatisfactions. But Colyer had an unwavering sense and feeling for music. New Orleans Jazz affected Colyer as deep as humanly possible, and Ray Smith couldn’t be more correct when he says that that was all Colyer ever needed in life and in musicianship.

What attracted me to this book was its thoroughness. If I was to see it on a shelf, it would only take a brief leaf through before understanding just how comprehensive and deep the retelling is. Colyer’s life was erratic. It was Germany one week, Louisiana the next—and there’s so much to tell—but Smith makes sure to cover all that ground by doing something deceivingly special: the book’s format. Most biographies chronologically outline the life of the subject in one voice, standard 3rd person. Smith tells it through direct quotes from the people who knew Colyer best and manages to do it in chronological order. For instance, chapter seven, “New Orleans to London”, begins with Colyer, followed by jazz author Sam Charters:

Colyer: “We are going to try and popularize New Orleans music without distorting it, aborting it, or slapping any gimmicks on it.”

Sam Charters : “I can give you an interesting perspective as to what happened in New Orleans when Colyer came. It was marvelous; I was not there while he was there, but I came down to new Orleans a couple of months afterwards, and the air was still vibrating with the effect of Colyer’s visit…”

This stylistic choice serves Smith well in many ways. To begin, Colyer was a quiet individual, and having other voices to fill in the blanks is tremendously helpful to the reader’s understanding. Most who knew Colyer tend to say the same things. They say he was hard-working, moody, never satisfied (i.e. Delphine Colyer: “…I think he was fighting an uphill battle all the time, really.”) They also comment on his being a man of few words. It was these traits that made Colyer successful and respected despite his inner turmoil, and through others we really begin to understand the range of emotions he must’ve felt. Smith offers a candid window into Colyer’s character and persona through multiple voices, meanwhile allowing the reader to understand jazz, the place where it thrived, and the people it bred. It’s one thing to describe a man in one single voice and perspective, but to hear snippets and anecdotes from all the people who knew him best—people who lived through an era and emerged as experts—that is something special.

But the book’s strengths don’t end there. While it is peppered with myriad voices from countless angles that make the text rich biographically, the reader can only imagine so much (especially those who are new to jazz and its history). Smith picks up the pieces by offering a well-rounded and comprehensive understanding of the era through a collection of photos that bring life to the content. As a result, the reader experiences a story bursting with energy from the very scenes Colyer occupied—endless ensemble photos, artwork, ticket stubs, concert posters, flyers, autographs, letters, photos with musicians, clubs, tour itineraries, gig schedules, and the extensive photo collection of Colyer himself from his earliest days to his latest. Smith did his homework and has a library of memorabilia to show for it, made possible through the Colyer Trust and the dream his family strove to keep alive.