Jazz Institute of Chicago

The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz

By Loren Schoenberg
Perigee, August 2002, 285 pages, paper, $13.95
reviewed by Don Rose

National Public Radio, the only regular jazz venue available to much of the country, has come up with a neat little introductory manual of the music—a companion to its similarly titled opus on the classical idiom. Written in a friendly, accessible but still sophisticated style by the saxophonist and conductor, Loren Schoenberg, it’s one of those things you might want to give your jazz-challenged friends as an ear-opening gift.

Most intros to jazz come in the form of narrative histories, serial biographies or discographical recommendations. This one gives us a little bit of each—and I emphasize “little bit”—organized engagingly into short sections that include a couple of decent efforts to define jazz from the ground up. It further provides brief bibliographies of books and websites where there is more to be learned.

It also adds the distinctive element of a section on key individual performances—specific songs from albums or sessions, such as Sonny Rollins’ “Without a Song” or Eric Dolphy’s “Bee Vamp.” Unfortunately, the specific discs or collections in which those fine performances appear are not identified—the novice is left to do his or her own devices to locate them.

Schoenberg, known when he emerged on the blowing scene as a Lestorian revivalist, is clearly an acolyte of the Wynton Marsalis-Stanley Crouch-Albert Murray school of blues-is-jazz-based linear tradition (he has conducted the Lincoln Center repertory band and Marsalis provides a foreword to this volume). But though there is much praise for Wynton throughout the book, as well as tributes to Murray and Crouch, he strives emphatically to provide equal information on and fair appraisal of modernists, free-blowers, and others outside the hallowed confines and limitations of their canon.

In short, he is fully aware of the short-comings of the Ken Burns film that was so cramped by their school of thought, and provides us with a broad-based, up-to-date critical history limited only by the short space provided for such a guidebook.

His first five pages are an effort to define jazz in a general way, then he modulates into a brief, accurate, period-by-period history with a few sidebars. He breaks no new ground here, as might be expected, but it is a reasonable retelling for the novice, again frustrating mainly because of its brevity—a continuing problem throughout, because so many stories and so many names are omitted in the history as they are in the biographies.

The historical narrative section is embellished by yet another passage where he gives us a quick essay on each of the various schools of jazz, while apologizing in advance for having to utilize categories such as bebop, swing, New Orleans, etc. He would prefer, along with Max Roach and others, to speak only of individuals—Monk’s music, Bird’s music, Ayler’s music and so forth.

This section is notable for making Kansas City Swing a separate entity unto itself and for specifying the limitations of “Dixieland” as contrasted with Chicago Jazz; also for dismissing late fusion and smooth jazz. He is fair—though clearly a bit uncomfortable—when it comes to free jazz. He indicates, for example, that many free players who became prominent “were unequipped to deal with the conventions of the past.” Hello, Wynton!

The following chapter, one of the most valuable, is devoted to the nature and role of improvisation and the role of written jazz. This section clearly should have come earlier—right up there with the effort to define jazz, because it is so integral to the definition and is at the heart of the mysteries of the music. It’s the kind of information missing from too many histories and introductions.

His 70+ biographies—generally the expected figures with an occasional surprise—are deftly done, most taking about a page each. I especially enjoyed several passages including this description of Billie Holiday:

...Holiday was not an actress when she sang, but the effect she gave was more a statement on the act of singing and an attitude than it was a reflection of the actual sentiment of the words.

Schoenberg is at his best, however, in annotating his selection of important CDs and in detailing the qualities of a given performance, citing the intricacies of the musicians playing off of one another or the special character of a given solo. It’s the quality that earned him a Grammy several years ago and something he also did remarkably well in his liner notes to the Savoy set of Charlie Parker’s live performances.
Here, for example, is his observation of the Earl Hines track titled “Fifty-Seven Varieties”:

There are passages here, which, if isolated, would be as hard to parse as a corner of a pointillistic painting, but their function becomes clear when heard as part of the total piece. Hines manages to carry on two separate planes of improvisation. The lead passes from one hand to the other with no preparation, and there are even moments when one of them has to wait for the other to finish an idea before continuing. The narrative comes perilously close to incoherence at times, but in Hines' conception this becomes an expressive device.

He continually sends his reader back to the music itself, to create understanding through listening, and that thrust is what makes this a first-rate guide despite the fact that you may not find any except a passing reference to some very important figures. Further, his listing of the 50 top jazz CDs is like none other, though he defends his choices very well.

I found only a few minor errors, as when Ran Blake becomes “Ron” and the habanera rhythm in “St. Louis Blues” becomes a tango, but I found nothing to poison the mind of the theoretical novice for whom the book is intended. Indeed, there’s a world of musical enrichment packed into a small package here.

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