- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

If you don’t know who Ty Murray is, join the ranks of those of us whose interest in sports is perhaps not as wide-ranging as we like to think. I cannot recall ever seeing Mr. Murray’s name until I read King of the Cowboys (Atria Books, $24, 272 pages), an easy-reading, colorful and exciting memoir of his life as a champion rodeo performer, written by Mr. Murray with Steve Eubanks.

Mr. Murray is a legend in his field (he retired in 2002 , at age 32), the only rodeo performer ever to win seven all-around titles for his accomplishments in roughstock events. i.e., bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding. It is not an exaggeration to say he is to rodeos what Tiger Woods is to golf.

In the first chapter Mr. Murray takes us directly into the realities of what might be the most dangerous sport in the world. We follow him as he descends into a chute holding a 2,200- pound bull that has nothing on its tiny mind but throwing a rider off its back and then stomping or goring him to death.

Mr. Murray describes in detail how he prepares to ride the bull (very, very carefully) and then gives us a second-by-second replay of the eight seconds (the time required to hang on) he spends on the bucking weaving, heaving angry animal. “Once you’re on a bucking animal,” writes Mr. Murray, “only a few things can happen and not many of them are good.”

The rest of the book describes his precocious childhood (apparently he had rodeo skills in his genes), his quick rise to fame and the many good times he had, in and out of the arena, on his steady progression to the top. Early in his career he decided rodeo stars were underpaid and were not attracting new spectators. Through his personal charisma, uncanny skills, and ceaseless hard work, he brought rodeo action to TV and the attention of wider audiences.

One of the most interesting parts of the book concernsMr. Murray’s attempt to regain his strength and stamina after a series of falls which damaged his knees and shoulders. Under the guidance of a tough, almost sadistic, karate master who put Mr. Murray through a fiendish regimen of no-pain, no-gain exercises, the rodeo star emerged stronger than ever, ready to win his seventh major championship. If some Hollywood producer doesn’t make this book into a movie, I’ll be surprised and disappointed.

• • •

Music is an art, but the professional presentation of music is a business. While audiences wallow in Wagner,glory in Gershwin, or delight in Duke Ellington, somewhere there is a harried producer who has raised money, arranged schedules, drawn up contracts, and hired artists with egos often larger than their talents.

Nowhere is this job more difficult than in the hectic, improvisatory world of jazz, where money, talent, temperament, art, and egos mix and mingle, and where reputations can be made or damaged in one gig, depending on the time and manner in which the artist is presented.

As well as anyone in the world, George Wein knows the problems and the rewards of the music business. He is the founder of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which are only the two best known of his many presentations over the years. He plays jazz piano, although not on a highlevel, and he has been a friend or enemy (often both simultaneously) of just about every major figure of jazz for over 50 years. Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (Da Capo Press, $27.50, 544 pages, illus.) is a big, sprawling, detailed epic of jazz, jam-packed with anecdotes about the artistic and economic aspects of American music.

Mr. Wein (with Nate Chinen) tells us how a middle-class Jewish kid from Newton, Mass., fell in love with jazz at an early age and then spent the rest of his life giving musicians the chance to play. The author’s stories ofhis association with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus — notoriously difficult people — are told with a mixture of pride, dismay, exasperation and gratitude for the chance to have known and helped such gifted, troubled, artists.

In 1959, Mr. Wein married a black woman, so he had two major problems: learning to maneuver in a wider society in which such marriages were frowned upon, and earning the trust of black musicians in the jazz world, some of whom saw him as simply another white exploiter, “The Man.”

Mr. Wein’s book is, in my view, indispensable for anyone interested in jazz or American music in general. Readers who want to know about the vendettas, heartaches, headaches, insanity, insecurities and unique joys of the music business should also read the book. Many readers, however, may find Mr. Wein tells them much more than they want to know. There are too many lists, some of them very long, of musicians who played at his festivals.

Readers not familiar with jazz will be confused by the book’s organization in which we are told about events and persons out of chronological context. But I enjoyed the book, not only for what it tells us about Mr. Wein, but about how American music and the country itself has changed in 50 years.

• • •

Alan Cutler’s The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius who Discovered a New History of the Earth by Alan Cutler (Dutton, $23.95, 228 pages, illus.) is an exemplary book of its kind: brief, informative, well researched, and free of the jargon that so often mars books about science. The author, a Ph.D. geologist who is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, tells the story (unknown to me) of Nicholas Steno (1638-1686),who is recognized as the father of geology.

Steno, a Dane, first became well known throughout Europe as an anatomist whose sure hand, coolly observant eye and cautious theorizing reflected the “new philosophy” of scientific investigation. At the court of the Medicis in Florence he turned his formidable intellect to a question that had puzzled mankind for millennia: Why are seashells found on mountaintops?

Most observers were content to believe that the biblical flood had deposited the shells, although there were some who asserted that the shells in the high mountains had been placed by “astral emanations, spontaneous generation, and … the mysterious force of magnetism.” Steno decided to use his eyes and his brain instead of relying on authority or speculation so he went to the mountains and looked.

The result of his investigations was his discovery of the idea of geological stratification, and his development of the principles of superposition, original horizontality, and lateral continuity. If you are science-challenged, as I am, do not be put off by these terms. Mr. Cutler explains the principles clearly and with authority. Steno, a convert to Catholicism, later became a priest and then a bishop. His death was attributed to the mortifications of the flesh to which he had subjected his body in the pursuit of holiness. In 1988, Pope John Paul II announced Steno’s beatification.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.

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