Jazz Institute of Chicago

JAZZ FOR DUMMIES: A Reference for the Rest of Us

A Reference for the Rest of Us
By Dirk Sutro
IDG Worldwide, 358 pages (paper), $24.99
Reviewed by Don Rose

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the remarkably successful and widely imitated "... for Dummies" series—which began with computers and quickly got to sex—would eventually get around to jazz. A good thing it is, because I'm for anything that helps promote understanding of the music—as long as it doesn't prostitute in the guise of simplifying.

This dummy will give the book a modest B-minus as an honest and generally knowledgable, if somewhat flawed effort. Dirk Sutro, a former jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times, clearly knows the music and its players and writes about them simply and effectively for the most part—though the book is salted with needlessly breezy, pseudo-hip, disc-jockey-like language and a few hopelessly archaic phrases (does anyone now or did anyone ever refer to clarinetists as "men of licorice"?).

We go from a somewhat unsatisfying chapter on what is jazz through the standard historical periods (New Orleans, swing, bebop, etc., etc.), then to interesting sections devoted to specific instruments— including organ and flute, with all the saxophones lumped together. (The latter sections are introduced with a helpful, though sometimes less than accurate, description of the instruments in question.)

The sections on each instrument are organized historically and categorically by artist with a quick biographical note and mention of a few important discs.

Then there are useful sections on further reading, jazz on film and video, websites, jazz venues in major cities, major jazz labels, how to start a collection and even how to pick out a sound system. Once you've got a sound system, there is even a CD attached, with 10 cuts that range from Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong through Art Tatum to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. It's an odd selection of tunes, but I suppose it was based on what was available at a low price.

Like all the books in the series, it's graphics-intensive; every page has short paragraphs broken up by big headlines—the equivalent of sound-bites. These bites are further highlighted by a series of "icons" identifying the author's favorites; essential discs, signature sounds and so forth. Cartoons, photos, black lines, checkmarks and tint blocks further atomize the text. Dummies, I guess, are allergic to unrelieved blocks of type.

The overwhelming majority of of Sutro's opinions, evaluations and recommendations are acceptable, standard stuff—his conventional wisdom places most of the masters in their appropriate positions and in a very few sentences says why they are important—though he gives Oscar Peterson twice the space of Tatum and seriously short-changes Bud Powell.

Discussing secondary figures he gets a bit more eccentric: he includes tenorman Buddy Collette but there's no mention of Al Cohn; Paul Bley is there but not Carla; Chucho Valdes is there but no Danilo Perez; Elvin and Hank Jones are there but no Thad, either as an instrumentalist, composer or bandleader.

The book is sloppily edited, with names misspelled in headlines, wrong dates and typos. There is contradictory information from section to section and even in the same paragraph. For example, in one passage he correctly gives Fats Navarro's dates as 1923-1950, then says the great trumpeter died at age 34; 86 pages later he gives Navarro's dates as 1923-1958, then correctly says he died at 26 (would that he had had those extra eight years!).

It's also riddled with ditzy little historical errors and omissions. Sutro makes the Texan Jack Teagarden and the Oklahoman PeeWee Russell both members of Chicago's Austin High School Gang. In naming the great players in Fletcher Henderson's band he forgets no less a figure than Coleman Hawkins. He misattributes authorship of the tune "Hot House" to Dizzy Gillespie instead of Tadd Dameron—and elsewhere turns Dameron into a trumpet player instead of a pianist.

Though he includes recordings issued within the past year and mentions many current, younger musicians, he still misses important contemporaries such as Dave Douglas and Matthew Shipp and barely notes the name of John Zorn; his discussions of current music, however, give no hint that the omissions are based on opposition to the modern. He is definitely open minded.

One can, of course, argue endlessly with his choices of exemplary recordings—that's the sport of picking on "the 100 best" lists. But how in the world, to cite only one instance, can Sutro rank "The Okeh Ellington" collection among the dozen all-time great recordings, while Ellington's "The Blanton-Webster Band" gets no mention anywhere?

More serious than all this nit-picking is an essential musical failure: Early on, when describing what jazz and improvisation are all about, he devotes a few paragraphs to an extremely simplified definition of modes and scales—telling the reader to put his/her hands on a piano. But he says nothing at all about chords—no description of what a chord is or the way songs are based on chords.

Therefore, there is no discussion of substitute chords or substitute melodies based on the same chord structure. In short, no explanation of what most jazz musicians use to base their improvisations. A discussion of bebop and the later moves to modal and then free jazz is thus devoid of harmonic context. Any basic discussion of jazz without this information is seriously deficient—and I don't think it's too complex for a dummy, especially if you bring up the issue of scales or modes in the first place.

On the other hand, Sutro can make some graceful comments and exhibit insights not seen in many finer histories, as when he notes the links between Bix Beiderbecke and later music: "[H]is dreamy, melodic compositions for piano were forerunners of impressionistic jazz made by Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and other 1950s cool jazz players."

So, since you're no dummy about jazz, the question is, can you recommend it to a friend who is? With all its flaws, I probably would—especially to a younger person who needs the crutch of the graphics and the sound-bite approach to education. Which is a lot of people these days.


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