A New History of Jazz
By Alyn Shipton
Continuum, 954 pages, $35
reviewed by Don Rose
A promotional flyer for Alyn Shipton’s massive, one-volume, somewhat revisionist history of the music calls it “The antidote to Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz...’” A neat summing up, but it doesn’t come close to expressing the accomplishment or the true value of this major contribution to the literature. And it had to come from overseas!
Shipton is the Brit who gave us the impressive “Groovin’ High,” a couple of years ago, the groundbreaking, thoroughly researched biography of Dizzy Gillespie. He’s a musician as well as a jazz presenter on the BBC and critic for the Times of London.
As in the earlier book, he displays throughout this volume a keen technical understanding of music, an historian’s scrupulousness of research and a generally readable style. (Though he unabashedly quotes here and there from his own Gillespie book, he also acknowledges the criticism that he probably sold Charlie Parker a bit short in the volume.) The narrative is relatively nontechnical with no use of musical examples—but references are made to the tracks on an accompanying set of discs (available separately).
He covers all the territory, from pre-jazz roots in the mid-19th century right up to the most recent musings of Greg Osby and Dave Douglas. His persistence and willingness to question even the most sacred texts on the music are one hallmark of the work; his openness and catholicity of taste is another. No school is slighted, though obviously he gives more space and analysis to those he considers more central to the music’s development and ultimate beauty. An antidote to Burns, indeed.
Apart from the presentation of several historical/musicological revisions, what sets Shipton’s history apart from even the best of others is his extensive, wide-ranging, first-hand journalism. He interviewed scores of musicians and observers, constantly digging for fact and insight, and went right to certain locales for information. One of the best examples is his impressive section on the origins and contributions of Chicago’s AACM, highlighting a section devoted to the politicization of the music in the ‘60s.
For this section alone he talked to musicians such as Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson, Malachi Favors, Von Freeman and Anthony Braxton, local critics Howard Mandel and John Litweiler and producer Chuck Nessa as well as the author Gary Giddins.
He quotes them extensively, along with written texts, uses his own big ears and comes up with a piece that makes it all sound as if he were present at the inception. This quality of seeming to be a participating observer during several key historic periods, including the swing and big-band era, gives the book an ingratiating immediacy unfelt in most such tomes—though he totally eschews any tinge of super-hipness or inside-dopesterism.
Just as he questioned the conventional wisdom that Dizzy Gillespie was most strongly influenced by Roy Eldridge and came up with strong evidence that Louis Armstrong, indeed, was his primal source, Shipton also debunks the oversimplification that jazz was born in New Orleans and traveled directly to Chicago. In fact, he questions the notion that New Orleans was the sole birthplace of the music itself:
“In addition to the documentation of rural music, both in the form of notation and travelogue, several oral histories, recounted by the generation born between 1880 and 1915, make it evident that many of the elements which went to make up jazz were also present in many urban areas of the United States, and that a significant number of musicians, both black and white, adopted what they believed to be ‘jazz,’ with little or no first-hand exposure to New Orleans musicians.”
He goes on to expand the theme through the use of as many original documents as can be found.
His other major revisionist element has to do with the true birth and evolution of bebop; he makes the process appropriately more evolutionary than revolutionary, without dismissing the truly revolutionary aspects. In this centerpiece of the book, Shipton does much to demolish the legend that it all happened at Minton’s after-hours sessions and that the then incipient bopsters in effect created new chord progressions and harmonies (to say nothing of supersonic tempi) just to shut out the lesser players and the squares.
Indeed, Shipton finds the true gestating places of bebop were the touring big bands, whose younger and looser players could hang together, experiment and share new musical notions that sometimes managed to find their way into the bands’ books and even recording sessions. None of these discussions, of course, in any way denigrate the spectacular emergence and impact of Parker and Gillespie—or indeed the import of uptown sessions at Minton’s and Monroe’s.
I was also very well impressed by Shipton’s organization of the material: it is not a year-by-year or school-by-school chronology, nor is it in any way the classic hero-by-hero story. Certainly the heroes are there—many, such as Oliver, Morton, Armstrong, Parker, Gillespie, Davis, Coleman, Mingus and Coltrane getting their approprite sectors and space.
But he thinks and set things down in more atypical clusters, such as “small groups in transition” and “big band bebop” as well as sections devoted to the dissemination of the music through piano rolls, broadcasting, film and recordings—working in the stories of important jazz labels. He also includes a generous assessment of the role and importance of Norman Granz and his often controversial Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.
He has two big chapters on jazz singers (before and after 1950), then devotes two sections to the international scene, an early one on the initial widespread impact of jazz on European music and a later one on jazz as world music.
He has the luxury of space, so he is able to devote several paragraphs, for example, to a brief analysis of the Ganelin Trio, whereas Ted Gioia’s recent one-volume jazz history (about half the size of Shipton’s) could merely acknowledge Ganelin as one name in a list. His discussion of the European avant garde in general is welcome, and again he takes the space to tell a bit about figures such as British tenorman John Surman and the Polish trumpet player Tomaz Stanko.
Shipton is also able to set the music, where appropriate, in its socio-political context, though these contexts are carefully balanced. Too, he deals throughout with racial issues, both within the musical world as well as the larger society as it affected the musicians and the music. He does not, however, get heavily into a lot of black vs. white musicology.
There is little if any revisionism in Shipton’s overall musical evaluations of the major artists and ensembles; the reputations of the giants of course remain intact. He does, however, give some overlooked bands and artists—such as John Kirby—a bit more of a boost than recent tomes have done. Most of the arguments he has are with a few of his fellow critics and historians, rather than with the musicians themselves.
In short, this is one hell of a book and certainly the most outstanding single-volume history of jazz around. (Which reminds me that we’re still waiting for Gunther Schuller’s third and final ((?)) volume in his remarkable, musically detailed history.) The $35 price tag is steep, and it’s a bulky volume for prolonged reading, but well worth the price and trouble.