JAZZ Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux Norton (2009); New York & London US$39.95
This is a book that claims to cover the history of jazz from “go” to “whoa” – or at least to 2008! Both authors’ names should be familiar to the readers of this journal; if not, then this is probably as good a place as any to start to familiarize oneself with them. The book has a simple, stark title with no sub-title – it is what it is. And there has been a need for such a tome for quite some time, now… see paragraph 3 below!
To begin, I must own up to a degree of “insider” knowledge (and possible bias) here, being that Gary Giddins is a long-time friend. Also, when I was in Philadelphia going to folklore school at Penn, Giddins was brought down from NYC by John F. Szwed (another friend, and mentor) to take over his “Folklore of Jazz” course while John was department head. (I was the teaching assistant for both of them at different times in different school years there.) I make mention of this because Gary’s approach to teaching the course is paralleled by much of the mode of organization of this book, as well as in the presentation and choice of examples therein. While co-authored, I detect Gary’s hand in much of the organizational detail, and it feels familiar to me as a result of my past experiences.
Since Marshall Stearns’ THE STORY OF JAZZ, there has been a paucity of good “overview” books on the field; books that made you want to dash to the collection to hear what the author was writing about, to argue over details! There have been a few duds/damp squibs (Gioia, Collier) and one challenging one (Allen Lowe) published since Stearns, but most “jazz” books have been more in the encyclopedia vein (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), including record reviews, singular biography, or specific genre or instrument histories. It’s a major task to undertake from our 21st Century vantage-point, attempting the history of the music over the past hundred years or so, because it’s a topic so big and varied/variegated at this point in time, and one also close in many ways. Such a book is guaranteed to not satisfy everyone, no matter what stances taken – how in the world could it! But Giddins has a great track record with his award-winning critical writings over the decades, and DeVeaux’s book on bebop is a fine example of good, clear contextual and historical writing. They both have the goods!
The authors tackle the big issues from the start, beginning with the following:
So what kind of music is jazz? In 1987, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring it a “valuable national American treasure,” but the full text sums up the confusion sown by the music’s contradictory qualities. Jazz is an “art form”, brought to the American people through well-funded university courses and arts programs; but it is also a “people’s music” that bubbled upward from the aspirations of ordinary folk. It is “an indigenous American music”, but also international, having been “adopted by musicians around the world.” Although jazz is a “unifying force” that erases ethnic gulfs, it is nevertheless a music that comes to us “through the African American experience.
Three different categories situate jazz within our society… The first is jazz as an art form. At the same time, jazz is a popular music…. Finally, jazz is also a folk music. Jazz is an African American music. (p. 44)
We usually construe “African American” as an indication of race, a genetic fact to be dutifully reported on census forms. But African American also tells us about ethnicity, which helps to explain how culture makes us who we are. The difference is crucial. Race can’t be changed. But because it is learned behavior, ethnicity can…. To learn another’s culture can be more difficult, but talented and determined people can do it through diligent effort. In the past hundred years, since the advent of recording technology, the primary way diverse peoples have shared their culture is through music. Through jazz, the whole country, the whole world, becomes more African American. (p. 45)
This sums up where the authors are generally coming from, a broad-brush viewpoint which will have many of the salient and essential details (but not all) pointed out over their ongoing history of the music THUS FAR! Towards the end of the book, they sum things up by writing:
The two narratives that have dominated our chronicling of jazz thus far are suitable and necessary for a music busy being born. The first presented jazz as an art-for-art’s-sake tradition whose masters move the music along with radical leaps of creativity, and the second viewed jazz as a fusion tradition in which jazz evolves in response to contemporary pop culture… [A] third way of interpreting jazz history, a historicist narrative, which begins with the precept that jazz creativity is inextricably bound to its past. (p. 574)
This is a serious book about some serious music (“As serious as your life”, to borrow from my friend Val Wilmer) that has had worldwide ramifications and reverberations since it “began”… and even before that!
So, having knowledge of how Gary goes about teaching about jazz, I can say that he and DeVeaux use the same sort of approach here. To begin with, there is some real basic information in the first chapter for beginners on the different instruments and song forms utilized in jazz, plus how to count meter in the first chapter.
One way to gain a deeper understanding is to learn some of the fundamental rules and techniques of music. Obviously, at a basic level you can simply listen to a performance and be amused, shaken, moved – you don’t need anyone to tell you that you like it, or why… Yet only by pressing deeper into the music, to the point where you listen like a musician, can you penetrate jazz’s most rewarding mysteries… Jazz is… most rewarding to a listener conversant with its rules. (p.2)
The authors’ chosen musical examples* are generally not on staff (occasional bits of staff are included in a few spots), but laid out on a literal time-line commentary of the piece in question, usually chorus-by-chorus, with salient points indicated by the number of minutes:seconds into each one. This original approach works well, especially during the first two chapters: “Musical Orientation: Elements and Instruments” and “Jazz Form and Improvisation.” The third chapter, “The Roots of Jazz” is possibly too simplistic and could be a book in its own right, but it does include John Philip Sousa and Wilber Sweatman examples! Then into New Orleans in Chapter 4 and a continuing straightforward linear approach** continues from there until the avant-garde is reached in the sixties (Chapter 15). The authors see jazz beginning as an urban folk music, becoming a national popular music, and then devolving into an international art music.*** In the 50s/60s are the beginnings of multiple parallel offshoots or equal levels of notoriety to their ears, making linearity difficult-to-impossible to maintain: cool, hard bop, then modality, among others. All the usual (mainly male) suspects are given their due herein – even Paul Whiteman! And it’s not all musicians, as both John Hammond, and Norman Granz get their stories of their involvements as producers and spruikers et al incorporated here.
After that point in time, the linear approach falls apart completely as the music centrifuges from a singular center of improvisational possibilities into many approaches of using that approach. Truth be told, that’s how it was/is for jazz’s whole time on this earth! Two chapters ensue on various forms of “fusion” (R’n’B, singers, Latin jazz [including bossa nova]; jazz-rock, funk and beyond), which are then followed by one on the “neo-classical” tendencies of recent times (yup, Wynton’s there) and a final chapter on today’s (2008/9) jazz. At the end of the book are: a selected list of musicians (by instrument); a glossary;**** comments on record collecting with a list of 101 “keeper” CDs that are a great place to start – all were available at the time of publication. Next up are brief reviews of jazz on/in film (again, those available at publication); end-notes; credits, and a good index. There is a full-page photo at the start of each chapter, mostly culled from Herman Leonard – also a section of glossy prints about halfway through from a variety of sources. No slacking there!
So the $64,000 question is: does their approach WORK? The answer is, basically, “yes” – remember that not everyone will be pleased and that many of one’s personal favorites will probably be omitted (although a number get passing mention)! There is constant cross-ruffing with other parallel historical and artistic activities that took place in the world and the US while jazz was happening in the last century, informational contextual asides if you will. (If one also gets the four CDs of their examples [available from the publisher for around US$65], then it’s a one-stop history of “our” music.) The writing is clear and concise, put down with knowledge and humor. The authors also make links between various eras: e.g. rent parties of the 20s/30s and the NYC loft scene of the 60s: New Orleans polyphony and avant-garde group playing (something that my friend Roswell Rudd has mentioned many times to me). As an artist friend of mine in OZ has said, “Giddins can write, & has a sensibility untainted by nostalgia.” I couldn’t have put it better. Is it perfect? Of course not – that level of production is impossible to reach! Does it do what it set out to do? Emphatically, YES. Giddins and DeVeaux have told the century+, story of the music all of us IAJRC members love, and done so in a very readable fashion that makes one want to go to the recordings again and again. It doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?!
A second read-through doesn’t alter my thinking that this is an excellent and important book. Possibly aimed also at the academic marketplace (there is a textbook edition costing more – it may come with the four CDs – in the vicinity of $70) which is a larger potential audience than jus’ us mavens. There are points that I might disagree with; that should be a given! A few inevitable typos (minimal, considering the 704 page length) crop up, but I can go along with much that has been written here. Personally, I’m still not convinced that jazz was “born” in New Orleans, any more than blues was “born” in the Mississippi Delta! They waffle a bit on that singularity near the end and open it up a bit:
In jazz, the primary (my emphasis) breeding ground was the black South, especially New Orleans, where a mixture of musical and cultural influences combined to create a free-wheeling, largely improvised, blues-based music that suited every special gathering, entertaining the living and commemorating the dead. (p. 605)
I can live with that!
There is the given and unavoidable built-in bias to any publication like this book, and that is that the fragmentary historical data comes to us mainly from RECORDINGS and a collection of variably accurate MEMORIES of the participants. Records are not necessarily a “real” and accurate representation of what actually transpired where the live music was performed and consumed (usually by being danced to). The three-minute 78rpm disc that predominates for the first half of jazz’s “lifetime” is an artifact of the recording technologies and marketing branches of the industry at that point in time. It’s much more complex than that common time package. With interview materials, the memories are by nature necessarily faulty and biased. SO, what we’ve got is information sources always filtered in some way or another, but that’s really all we’ve got and we have to work with them as best we can. While folks like us tend to regard recordings as capturing a performance, the be-all-to-end-all, in reality they are manufactured performances that do not do more than (at best) sample what could happen in real time at a given point in time with a particular bunch of musicians. At worst, to be total studio creations that are near impossible to re-create in “real” life or time, given temporal and economic restrictions of the technologies to hand. Get my point? Remember, jazz is never played the same way once!!
It’s tricky, but these guys have done a fine job with the materials at hand covering the more than a century of this wonderful improvisation-based music that is the very reason that there is an IAJRC! Kudos are in order for their efforts, a successful partnership on a VERY difficult task at this point in time… and everyone’s going to have opinions! JAZZ is a book that rewards repeated delving into, not to mention listening, so what are you waiting for?! Too late for Xmas… so when’s your birthday?! Find SOME excuse, any excuse, and please yourself.
* There are 78(!) musical examples (do you believe in numerology?!): Louis has the most, if one counts him appearing with others (seven), while Duke, and Miles have four each, Bird has three, Morton, Hawkins, Trane, Basie, Monk, and Jason Moran (the final choice for “today”) have two. The rest are single examples, and cover the gamut from a Ghanaian field recording to Albert Ayler; ODJB to Weather Report; Sweatman to David Murray! Billie, Bessie, Sassy, and Sinatra are the only singers qua singers; Mongo Santamaria is there, as are Jimmy Smith, and Django (w. Benny Carter). I had a professor who said that there was no such thing as A good example, meaning multiples are necessary for best results; these guys have done well to cover a hell of a lot of ground in a meaningful way. Other examples are mentioned in the text as well… go to the shelves!
** There is much academic folderol today regarding the advisability of the linear approach to history; I won’t go onto that here, but suffice it to say, it ain’t all about dead White guys! The linear approach is one I can live with, although it’s as artificial as any other. I’m a cyclical kind of guy, myself! And there are always people who don’t fit the chosen pigeon-holes, what with jazz being a feisty mongrel of a musical approach to begin with!
*** This is a slightly over-simplified summation, for there is some leeway for the mavericks and the unique ones. The “compleat” story is much “messier” than that. Even a branching tree image doesn’t really work – maybe more like kudzu?!?!
**** The glossary is thirteen pages in length – it’s OK, but a bit rough, as if it were a tacked on academic afterthought. It assumes a certain degree of a priori knowledge of common musical jargon, so is best consulted after reading the text! All will be revealed – well, nearly all – and the contextual usages of the terminology will help. It’s nice to have, but not really necessary. Probably requested by the publisher!
Peter B. Lowry
Published – IAJRC Journal Vol 43, No 2: June 2010, pp 91 – 92. Reprinted correctly: Vol 43, No 3; Sep 2010, pp. 80 – 82.