JAZZ: The First Century
Edited by John Edward Hasse
Morrow, 246 pages, $40
reviewed by Don Rose
The officially unofficial jazz centenary celebration continues apace with this recent offering assembled by John Hasse, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's American music program and former executive director of its Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Once you get past the drab and unimaginative cover of this oversize, coffee-table book, you'll find a solid, handsomely illustrated, well-written series of eight essays and dozens of sidebars carrying us through the entire history of our music and its century of jubilation—from ragtime to ragtag, Armstrong to Zorn, Mezz to Pres and Bunk to Monk.
Students of jazz history will find little new here—though there are always a few nuggets—but if you don't know the story of all hundred years of the music it's as good a primer as you'll find. When opinions are rendered they're mostly safe and well tested—but it's still a pleasure to sift through the volume, enjoy the lively but serious treatment and nod your head because they got it right. Plus, they covered a lot of ground within the obvious space limits. The book is highly inclusive, with good coverage right up to the current scene, but there's no effort to dwell on the Kenny Gs or other pop-jazz players one way or another. I think the balanced context is a real plus—though certainly many names below giant status are missing, as you would expected in this kind of panorama.
The photos and reproductions of memorabilia liven things up quite a bit. There seems to have been a conscious effort to avoid overly-reproduced shots—though I guess there are only so many photos of Bird available—and, while the faces are mostly familiar, most seem quite fresh. I was particularly taken by a shot of the veteran Benny Carter, seated, holding his horn, eyes shut, listening to a young Joshua Redman during some sort of master class.
Hasse, an expert in early music and Ellington, takes on the music's origins and the swing era. Chicago-based critic Neil Tesser neatly surveys post-bebop "mainstream" jazz, after which another local author, John Litweiler details the free-jazz and avant garde movements—turf he first plowed in his splendid, under-valued book, "The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1959." In between come pieces on the flourishing of jazz in the '20s by Michael Brooks, a producer who assembled the monumental Time-Life "Giants of Jazz" series, and the widely published critic Bob Blumenthal's sharp take on bebop and the birth of modern jazz. Kevin Whitehead, whom you often hear discussing jazz on the PBS show "Fresh Air," surveys world-wide movements from the earliest days to now, then Calvin Wilson, the insightful arts critic of the Kansas City Star neatly sums up all the trends and tendencies of the past 20 years—quite reassuring us of the music's continued vitality in the face of retro activities.
An almost off-hand comment of Blumenthal's did raise some hackles: "...[trumpeter] Fats Navarro, whose melodic gifts and balanced technique were easier for other trumpeters to emulate than those of the more virtuosic Gillespie." Well, I would posit that Navarro was Gillespie's peer as a virtuoso, though he did not have Dizzy's innovative harmonic gifts. What made Navarro so attractive and influential was his original blend of Miles-type lyricism with Gillespie's range and technique. Thus he created a trumpet style that was passed on to Clifford Brown and through him to Lee Morgan, Tom Harrell and even Dave Douglas today—equaling both Davis and Gillespie as an influence. But perhaps I am prejudiced toward my old pal Fats.
Interspersed throughout each chapter are these—for the most part—nifty sidebars by 19 more experts, including Deborah Gillaspie of the University of Chicago's jazz archives, author-scholar-musician David Baker and Gerald Early, professor of modern letters at Washington University. These pieces—never more than a page long and set off by tinted backgrounds—are lots of fun, whether dealing directly with aspects of the music, such as swing standards, big-band sounds and jazz education, or shooting off tangentially to explore jazz in literature, the movies, poetry, film, even religion. (In one of these, the usually reliable Baker somehow gives Stan Kenton co-authorship of Ralph Burns's gorgeous tune, "Early Autumn." Must have been thinking of its elegant Stan Getz solo—but that goof is a rarity that got by the editors.)
There is a list of exemplary discs at the end of each era's chapter plus a compendium with brief descriptions of 100 "essential" discs or sets.
The latter list was the result of a survey of nearly a hundred more writers and critics. (Full disclosure: this writer was one of those surveyed.) It's here that most of the arguments will come—if they come. Nit-picking anybody's list of the ten best, hundred best or thousand best anything is always great sport—but honestly, is "The Best of the Verve Years, 1952-60" really the best of Roy Eldridge? Does Johnny Hartman, even backed by John Coltrane, belong on such a list and Billy Eckstine not? Fortunately, there are several hundred additional discs and many other artists, including Eckstine, to supplement the first 100. (Hasse also manages to tack several Smithsonian collections onto the essentials.)
As long as I'm quibbling, in the "essential" reading list supplementing the history, how could the editor possibly omit Lewis Porter's magnificent musical biography of Coltrane and Carl Woideck's analytical biography of Charlie Parker? Are these important works too technical for the targeted audience?
In a way more important than these questions, I have to ask if there should not have been more detail on the jazz process—the music-making process. In the early pages, there is a bit on the nature of blues chords, and later much on the use of contrafacts or alternative melodies based on song harmonies, and the word "improvisation" is used frequently. There's a nice graphic showing how arrangements work. But it would seem to me that much more might have been done to describe in more detail exactly what is being done musically—what jazz really is—without getting into too much technical analysis. How does one improvise on chords—then modes—then blow free? If the editor wanted to avoid using written musical examples, couldn't one big fat sidebar have been used in conjunction with some of the exemplary discs to illuminate a few basic points about jazz improvisation? Just asking.