THE OXFORD COMPANION TO JAZZ
Edited by Bill Kirchner
852 pages, Oxford. $49.95
reviewed by Don Rose
There's something for everyone in this fat volume of jazz writing, from sophisticates like you and me to the newcomer just getting interested in the music. It's the latest in Oxford's notable "companion" series on history and the arts and a welcome addition it is.
Grammy-winning composer and teacher Bill Kirchner has assembled 60 essays by 59 writers, including some of the biggest names in jazz criticism—half of them, like Kirchner, musicians themselves. (The esteemed Dan Morgenstern gets to do a pair: one on Louis Armstrong, the other on recorded jazz; Jeffery Sultanof co-authors a meritorious piece on preswing composers/arrangers and solos on repertory groups.) One annoyance: there are no notes on contributors—not even a single line, though Kirchner's introduction delineates a few of the writers.
This interestingly assembled volume goes well beyond the typical era-by-era jazz history and avoids the other cliche of hero-by-hero biographies, though both ingredients are here. Many—perhaps even a majority—of the essays are perforce glosses holding few surprises, while a few more, which I will deal with later, are intriguing contributions to the literature. All, however, are solid and factual despite the occasional fluff or typo. (Copyediting just ain't what it used to was.)
There are the expected pieces on ragtime and early jazz, several on swing, bebop (Scott DeVeaux compresses his wonderful full-length book on the subject into a cohesive little article), West Coast (Ted Gioia does the same), hard bop, fusion and two more on avant garde and post-1968 jazz. The Chicago Tribune's former jazz writer Larry Kart—here formalized as Lawrence—does the '50s and '60s progressives rather well, though I wish he had been given more space. If there's an imbalance in the book, it's short in the avant arena.
Richard Sudhalter, never one to hold back on racial issues, debunks some myths about hot vs. sweet in the "jazz age." He notes that record companies denied Fletcher Henderson the opportunity to record waltzes because he was pigeonholed as black and hot; meanwhile the band that broke the attendance records at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom was Guy Lombardo.
Of course the heroes are paid tribute. In addition to Morgenstern on Louis, there's an especially nice one on Bix by Digby Fairweather, a more routine Ellington by Mark Tucker, gems on Hawk and Prez by Kenny Berger and Loren Schoenberg respectively, a surprisingly pedestrian life of Miles by Bob Belden and standout articles on Bird by James Patrick and Coltrane by Lewis Porter. (Porter's full-length book on Trane is, in my estimation, one of the finest musical biographies I've read—on a par with Peter Gay on Mozart.)
In an odd but logical little pairing, Brian Priestley offers insights into the life and works of both Monk and Mingus, while Bruce Boyd Raeburn more traditionally teams up Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.
Vocalists—too often short-changed in histories—are given their due here with Joel Siegel's thoughtful piece on jazz singing from blues to bebop, then Will Friedwald (author of a fine book on jazz vocalists) picks up on later singers. There's an expected hymn to Bessie by Chris Albertson, while the holy trinity of Billie, Ella and Sara get serial treatment in a piece by one of only two women contributors, Patricia Willard. Gene Lees, the editor-songwriter, does his usual homage to the American song.
I was well impressed with the attention given to composing and arranging. In addition to the afore-mentioned preswing article, Max Harrison takes on the swing era in an historical and critical tour de force—one of the most valuable efforts in the book, as you might expect from Harrison. This is followed by another strong job by Terry Teachout on "third stream" jazz-classical crossovers and matchups, highlighting the best efforts in this seemingly forgotten idiom. Dough Ramsey then follows up with another good job of work on post-World War II big bands, reminding us all of the great work being done in an age when such music was otherwise declining into obscurity.
The volume's more novel sequence of articles is an instrument-by-instrument survey of jazz through the years. Each is almost a brief history of jazz in itself. There's Gunther Schuller on the trombone, Don Heckman with the thankless task of running down all the saxophones for the past century and still acquitting himself well, Randy Sandke on the trumpet, Bill Crow especially helpful on the bass, Chicagoan Neil Tesser on vibes and electric guitar, Michael Ullman on the clarinet, Burt Korall on drumming and Christopher Washburne on that catch-all, "miscellaneous instruments." Whew! Obviously this section has a natural overlap with other parts of the book, particularly with John McDonough's good survey of major soloists of the '30s and '40s.
The piano gets special treatment historically—though again with overlap. Thomas L. Riis deals with early pianists, Henry Martin pianists of the '20s and '30s, Dick Katz hits the '40s and '50s, Bob Blumenthal the '60s and '70s. Each of these are as comprehensive as space allows, with good if unsurprising judgment calls. But hey!—what happened to the past two decades? No Johnsons, Tatums or Powells have emerged, but pianism continues to move onward and upward. The trumpet article, for example, carries us up to Dave Douglas and Tesser's vibes rundown references Stefon Harris. Perhaps a look at the younger pianists of the '80s and '90s would be too daring because history has reached no consensus?
There is no real consensus on the true origins of jazz, either, and in many way the most conflicting chapters in the book are its first two: Samuel A. Floyd Jr. gives a thoroughgoing musicological-anthropological analysis of the African roots of jazz, then Boston musicologist William Youngren builds a convincing case for the European influence dominating.They are not set up as absolute antagonists, but there are significant differences of emphasis and there's no effort to adjudicate between them.
Floyd is thorough-going in making his case for jazz stemming largely from African rhythms as well as the case for tribal musical patterns, such as call-and-response, as well as tonal variations, notably note-bending and blue notes. Youngren bases his case on the dominance of European harmonies and song patterns, pointing out that these are what made jazz so immediately accepted in America and elsewhere. He also cites the acknowledged influence of opera singers on Armstrong and Bechet. He does not respond to Floyd (neither were given each other's articles before publication), but directly takes issue with a statement by Schuller in another book that sweepingly suggests that all elements of jazz—including melodies, harmonies and structures—are African in origin.
Jazz, of course, all acknowledge, is a hybrid that could only have been created in America. The differences between Floyd and Youngren are fairly narrow—perhaps questions of degree. It strikes me that Floyd's (and others') case for African rhythms and ancillary patterns are hard to refute—as is Youngren's case for European tonalities and other aspects of the song. It's a rich debate and it's good to have it here, though I wish that each could comment on the other's ideas and narrow the argument further.
There are, by the way, surveys in the book on jazz in Europe and other places such as Japan, Brazil, Canada and Australia—including a rich one by Howard Mandel on Africa and a look at Latin jazz by Gene Santoro. This is the original world music, man!
The book winds up with pieces relating the music to dance, to film and TV and its appearances and influence in American literature. There are also articles on jazz clubs, jazz criticism and jazz education. Finally, an article that might have been put first and keynoted the whole book, one by David Dempsey on jazz improvisation and concepts of virtuosity. It's one of the very best short pieces I've read describing and analyzing the essential nature of jazz improvisation and how it really happens, from chordal, song-based music to the free idiom. A fitting conclusion—or beginning.