Histories of jazz provide details, little passion
In the last few years, media attention has focused like never before on jazz as we mourned the passing of singer Frank Sinatra, marked the centenary birthdays of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and gathered to watch Ken Burns' PBS documentary on jazz.
There hasn't been this much attention paid to jazz since the end of World War II. And it was the end of World War II that really marked the end of the Big Band Era, which has been to date the only period in its one hundred years in which jazz has been a truly popular music. Despite the proclivity of jazz fans to proclaim their favorite music as America's only original art form, Americans themselves have little interest in and even less knowledge of jazz.
For those curious about jazz and wanting to learn more, there are hundreds of books about the music. Jazz' improvised nature has long inspired writers to try to capture some sense of the music on paper. But finding a good book about jazz, one that is informative without being preachy, passionate but not parochial well, that's tougher.
Recently out are a fairly solid broad overview and an updated edition of an old favorite.
Mark Gridley's "Jazz Styles" has taught more than a generation of college students the basics about jazz. Many of us who came of age in the '70s and '80s still have our old dog-eared copy sitting in a place of honor on the bookshelf.
"Jazz Styles" is intended as a classroom textbook for introductory courses on jazz. It's fairly academic in tone (although far more readable than most college texts), and, unlike most books on jazz, is organized by types of jazz, rather than chronologically.
Gridley's book is more about the music than the people who made it. The artists, of course, are featured prominently, since the various styles revolve around their creators. But there is very little biography here instead, Gridley gets into technical discussions about the making of the music.
Words don't do an adequate job of explaining sound, so there are also two separate companion CDs available for "Jazz Styles." The first is intended for classes aimed at music students, and contains demonstrations of different passages typifying a particular lesson from the book: you get a blues progression, a trumpet vs. a flugelhorn, stop time vs. half-time.
The second disc is titled "Jazz Classics," and is intended as a one-volume alternative to the "Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz," the multi-volume box set considered the standard for introductory jazz courses. Gridley's CD, produced by Columbia/Sony, ranges from African roots music through Weather Report's mid-'70s rock-jazz fusion, and includes selections from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Interestingly, Gridley has broken most of the songs up into several tracks, so that listeners can go directly to particular passages or solos of note. Want to hear Ben Webster's 1940 solo on his classic composition for Ellington, "Cottontail"? Just go right to track 16. It really does give a new appreciation for non-musicians in trying to get a grasp on how jazz is created.
It takes a little discipline and patience to work your way through "Jazz Styles," especially if you get the CDs and take the time to listen to the tracks as they come up in the text. But it probably offers the best understanding of jazz from a musical standpoint of any book available.
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From a purely historical perspective (as opposed to the more musical approach in Gridley's book), jazz has been overly covered and yet thinly so. There have been dozens, perhaps hundreds, of jazz histories written. And nearly all take the standard New Orleans-Chicago-New York route, ending some time shortly after Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" album in the late '60s.
John Edward Hasse's "Jazz: The First Century" unfortunately doesn't stray far from that formula. Hasse and his stable of contributors (the best known of whom is Bob Blumenthal) cover the basics well, and the book is beautifully illustrated with photographs of the musicians written about, but there is little new or enlightening here.
It's no better nor worse than a half-dozen other jazz histories the critical details are all here, there are no major historical gaffes, and the staff's analysis is solidly in the mainstream.
There's just a feeling after reading it that something is missing: a sense of passion and urgency, the kind of near-desperate longing that infuses the best jazz playing and the best writing about jazz.
Veteran jazz fans will enjoy the photos, but probably skip much of the text. Those who've recently been turned on to the music will find this an informative history, and the suggested reading and listening lists (to which this critic contributed) provide a solid starting point.
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