The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz
Edited by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler
Oxford, 718 pages, $49.95
Reviewed by Don Rose
(This review first appeared in the November 7 Chicago Sun-Times.)
After nearly a decade of trial and tribulation—including the sad death of author Leonard Feather in 1994—Oxford Press has brought out the newest in a series of definitive jazz encyclopedias that Feather began producing in 1960. This volume, with more than 3300 biographical-discographical entries, is completely new, though many of the entries are based on those in earlier volumes produced by a now defunct house. (This one was ultimately made possible by a subsidy to the publisher from Tokyo's "Swing Journal.")
Gitler, the noted record producer, editor and author of two books including the noted "Jazz Masters of the 40s," collaborated with Feather on some of the earlier volumes of the encyclopedia. He took on the Herculean task of continuing to assemble this mind-boggling batch of data after his partner's death. He notes many of the difficulties in his introduction, such as an effort to get one player's birthdate right. Different sources gave different birth dates, but when he went directly to the subject he was told such personal information was not given out!
The typical entry succinctly gives basic biographical data on the artist, notes his/her basic influences, key recording dates, bands and musical associates. Once you get past the string of annoying but understandable abbreviations, you'll find a wealth of useful factual and critical information packed into each fat paragraph. The entries average three to six per page, with more space for the giants: Armstrong gets almost two pages, Parker a whole page. I couldn't find anything to argue about in any of the entries I scanned—except for the understandable need to keep things brief.
This is a truly comprehensive, up-to-date collection, with entries for artists such as Chicagoan Willie Pickens and Ira Schulman, who are overlooked in Music Hound's jazz guide and other reference books—yet this one somehow overlooks contemporary masters John Zorn and Dave Douglas. Oddly enough, though he is denied an entry, Zorn is referenced in Tim Berne's entry. The 1940s vocalist David Allyn is here but not in the Hound, while KC singer Karrin Allyson makes the latter but not the encyclopedia.
Well, picky-picky. Every reader is likely to find some favorite omitted. It's still an amazing assemblage that's worth its steep price to the truly loving and curious fan—and especially to scribes like me.