Visions of Jazz:
The First Century
By Gary Giddins
Oxford, 690 pages, $35
The Playboy Guide to Jazz
By Neil Tesser
Plume, 288 pages (paper), $13.95
The Chronicle of Jazz
By Mervyn Cooke
Abbeville, 256 pages, $45
Reviewed by Don Rose
The origins of jazz are as murky and Talmudically debated as the origin of the universe. The big-bang theory, posited by the late Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, the Creole composer, pianist and raconteur, is that he invented jazz in 1902. Unfortunately, he is now the sole proponent of that notion, discredited not the least by new information that he was only 12 at the time.
Scholars certainly agree that New Orleans was its birthplace, but are now more likely to point to the late 1890s. Then, ragtime music fused with African rhythms and the evolving African-American folk form called the blues to create a new, syncopated, improvised music, soon to be heard around the world—thanks to the 20th Century technologies of radio and sound recording.
No one can pinpoint the precise birth year because, like the music, no one wrote it down and, of course, didn't record it. The first known recording of the new music would not come until 1917, when a white group called the Original Dixieland Jazz (nee "Jass") Band hit the studios, beating out the founding black masters of the art.
This past year has been a sort of centenary celebration in the book world. It saw publication of the first comprehensive history of the music in decades, major works on the swing and bebop eras, a book-length rant proclaiming the death of jazz, plus important biographies of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Bud Powell. Now two leading jazz critics, Gary Giddins and Neil Tesser, have come out with comprehensive volumes taking different approaches to the story—while Mervyn Cooke, an English musicologist, gives us an entertaining, lavishly illustrated, year-by-year log of jazz history and trivia.
Giddins, who writes a brilliant weekly column for the Village Voice, has published three earlier collections of columns as well as full-length studies of Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong—producing accompanying videos for the latter two. A serious musicologist, he founded the American Jazz (repertory) Orchestra and is, with Whitney Balliett, the finest stylist writing about the music today. (A scrupulous researcher, he demolished the long-standing legend that Armstrong was born on the too-perfect date of July 4, 1900; it was actually 13 months later.)
This heavy-duty assemblage of 79 essays—most longer than the typical column, but incorporating thoughts and passages from earlier works—is, in his own words, not a conventional history or critique but a "spot check" of the century's artists and their works. Dozens of important figures are absent, and only the chronological grouping of subjects—who stray here and there beyond jazz and into other realms of show biz—gives it any thematic unity. Every piece, however, is a hard gem of criticism, worthy of a Priestley or Wilson, getting to the heart of each artist's contribution through close analysis of his or her body of work and explaining it elegantly.
Consider his description of the unique sound of Stan Getz's tenor saxophone: "With his rigid embouchure and slightly aspirate sonority, he produced a breezy tone backed by heroic force." Or his description of a duet between Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan: "...an essay in contrast between the altoist's tensile asymmetrical figures and the baritonist's sagacious melodicism." Or his summing up of the genius of Bud Powell's pianistics: "He was our Schubert and Liszt rolled into one, perhaps the only jazz musician who could impart the stately melancholy of the former's Sonata in B flat and the demonic exhilaration of the latter's Sonata in B Minor."
The pieces take us from the eldest statesmen of jazz to today's youngsters, delving heavily into the most sacred figures—Armstrong, Duke Ellington (in three articles), Parker, Coltrane, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins—then dipping a toe into the avant-garde. His ultimate opinions essentially concur with the mainstream of jazz criticism, though he comes up with occasional heresies, such as ranking Rollins' recent disc "+ 3" above the canonical "Saxophone Colossus." He can also slip up: he says Parker's "Warming Up a Riff" is based on "I Got Rhythm" rather than "Cherokee." But such errors are exceedingly rare and his revisionist appraisals are always worth examining. Who knows: he could even be right.
What is absent here, apart from his brief introduction, is a large, analytical view of the state of the art and its future: a summing-up and forward look from this critical juncture. A critic as perspicacious and mature as Giddens really owes it to us in a centennial volume titled "Visions of Jazz."
Jazz and cinema, the two great arts created in our century, are products of its technology: cinema directly and jazz indirectly. It is difficult to imagine improvised music surviving and progressing as it has without the advent of sound recording. Without it, jazz might have become a form of troubadour music, passed on literally from person to person. The 78-rpm shellac disc, with its three minutes of music per side, was a miracle that permitted people everywhere to enjoy the music, learn it and build upon it. Then the tape recorder and the long-playing record made it possible to record jazz "live" and liberate it from the three-minute-per-song prison.
In my youth, just after World War II, vast amounts of the music were out of print, sometimes after only a few years. Which meant scouring dusty bins in used-record shops for a scratchy old Count Basie–Lester Young jam or some such treasure. Today, thanks to digital technology and the compact disc, the entire history of recorded jazz, including lengthy concert and nightclub performances, is readily available—sometimes with greater clarity of sound than the originals. Tesser, who is Playboy's jazz columnist and a widely published critic, gives a succinct history of the music based on that immense body of digital discs.
While Giddins' book aims at the initiated jazz fan, Tesser offers a sophisticated primer—an introduction to the music built around his descriptions and recommendations of quintessential CDs. It is neither a boy's book of bebop nor an attempt to be as comprehensive as the indispensable "Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD." Rather, it's a solid effort to outline the story briefly but intelligently—if sometimes too breezily—and illuminate it by detailing a series of discs epitomizing each developmental phase.
In the first nine chapters he writes a short, smart introduction to each school or style—appropriately overlapping the time periods rather than using the hackneyed decade-by-decade division. He then recommends and annotates 20-plus discs or sets for each period. (The exceptionally productive years 1953–65, when bebop begat cool jazz, hard bop, modal and free music, get special treatment with double the space and number of recommendations.)
Afficionados can spend the next hundred years questioning the inclusion or exclusion, the over- or under-rating of any of these or the 300 additional discs he notes more briefly—including the final chapter's list of the 50 "essential" discs needed to start a collection. Some may wonder why he doesn't point out that one Parker disc trumps a whole decade of jazz-rock fusion offerings, but he is clearly attempting to be even-handed across the spectrum. I seriously question, however, the inclusion of popularizers such as George Shearing or Grover Washington Jr. in this rarefied grouping. One can be too even-handed and overly inclusive.
Thankfully, he does include in his pantheon many Chicago-based musicians such as tenor man Von Freeman, multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell and some members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians overlooked by bicoastal critics. But the book's special contribution, even for the initiated, is his chapter on the nineties.
He identifies and analyzes leading performers such as trumpeter David Douglas, reedman Ken Vandermark, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianists Matthew Shipp, Danilo Perez and Marilyn Crispell and other cutting-edge artists overshadowed in the media by the so-called young lions or neoclassicists—the Brothers Marsalis, James Carter, Nicholas Payton and so forth. The real future of jazz lies with the innovators, not the recidivists, however skilled they may be.
Novices and seasoned fans alike will get a big kick out of Cooke's colorful coffee-table book, which has a trove of photos, some of them quite rare, plus reproductions of classic album covers to illuminate the montage of brief historic notes, snatches of critical commentary and other ephemera. One engaging device is the inclusion of a few lines in every year's spread telling what was going on in the rest of the world. We learn that in 1955, when Parker died, we also lost Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann—and Bill Haley launched "Rock Around the Clock." Something to ponder at the beginning of jazz's second century.