Although Willie and Dwike is most easily classified as a biography of two American jazz musicians, it is a book that explores a wide range of mid-twentieth century experiences. This is not a traditional biography, in which one would expect to find such things as a thorough treatment of the details of a person’s life, the motivations of his actions, and the correlation between his life and the historical moment. Rather, Zinsser’s book is a selective account of certain experiences of Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell developed within an effective but unusual narrative form. Zinsser chooses the experiences in such a way that the biography becomes a history of a set of circumstances that existed in the United States at a particular time. Certain characteristics of American society in the several decades preceding the civil-rights revolution determined much about the events that would intertwine the lives of these two outstanding jazz musicians. Zinsser also considers the relationship of jazz to a broad range of musical types, discusses the stages of its development as an authentic American music, and clarifies its importance to the social history of the United States in the twentieth century.
William Zinsser is the author of eleven books of nonfiction. In the world of writing and publishing, he has engaged in activities as diverse as writing for the New York Herald Tribune, Life, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, teaching writing at Yale University, and serving as executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Included among his other books are On Writing Well (1976) and Writing with a Word Processor (1983). The first of these is widely used as a text in writing courses; the second is an informative, delightfully humorous treatment of the complexities of confronting the technology that has revolutionized the transference of well-wrought language to paper.
It is evident that Zinsser knows how to follow his own advice, for his profile of Ruff and Mitchell is flawless in its style and in its form. Zinsser’s work is reminiscent of the best journalistic writing of magazines such as The New Yorker, in which selections of the book first appeared. At no point in Willie and Dwike does the reader hesitate over a phrase, nor does he have any doubt that this writer has complete mastery of his language and of his material.
The form of the book contributes significantly to its effectiveness as an evocation of a specific period of the recent American past. Much of the material consists of directly quoted testimonies from the two musicians, as would be found in an interview or book of “conversations with.” The other part of the interview, that of the interlocutor, is missing here, replaced by Zinsser’s observations on the significance of what his subjects say and by historical and biographical information that places their words in the context of their experience. The author’s observations form the narrative itself, the story of the lives of Ruff and Mitchell, lives which gradually came together through a very complicated series of events. Over the years, their partnership developed into one of the most significant forces in the revival of interest in jazz in the 1980’s and the preservation of that music as an art form.
The titles of the chapters of Willie and Dwike indicate the curious range of this biography and the breadth of the experience and influence of its subjects. “Shanghai,” “Dunedin,” “Muscle Shoals,” “Columbus,” “Davenport,” “New York,” and “Venice” suggest two salient characteristics of the history that Zinsser tells. It is both cosmopolitan and rural. The international experiences of China, New York, and Italy are balanced by the confrontation with the middle-American, provincial life of Florida, Alabama, Ohio, and Iowa. This is a story not only of jazz and jazz musicians but also of the influence of art on the lives of people in places as diverse as the People’s Republic of China and the Quad Cities of Davenport, Bettendorf, Moline, and Rock Island. As he considers the unlikely blend of the cultural influence of institutions as outrageously contradictory as the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the John Deere farm-implement factory, Zinsser creates a chronicle that is delightfully humorous and entertaining. The juxtaposition of the facts of the story and the clarity of Zinsser’s observations produces a sense of wonder at the marvelous,...
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