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Jazz made trite

A Century of Jazz
A Century of Jazz
By Roy Carr (editor)

Hamlyn: 1997

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This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1997.

Because there are so few histories on jazz, because the form has been generally ignored by academia, there is a tendency in the jazz community to welcome warmly any and all books about the music.

But Roy Carr so misses the mark in his new "A Century of Jazz" that it would be insulting to the music to not take him to task.

Not that his intentions are bad. This is a beautifully illustrated and ambitious project, meant to chronicle the first century in jazz's history. It is organized better than many jazz histories, with chapters set aside by style rather than in a strict chronological order.

And, to be fair, it is undoubtedly much harder to write a book-length history of jazz than it is to write a short review of such a book. Nor should Carr be castigated for having a different take on the music than most other critics – if nobody ever tried out new ideas, things would get stale in a hurry. Besides, experimentation is in the spirit of jazz.

Nevertheless, Carr and his fellow contributors have written a book that at times seriously misrepresents the history of American music and in so doing will confuse and mislead the casual fan seeking to expand her/his knowledge of the music.

Note that there are few errors of fact in Carr's book. Instead, the inaccuracies are those of misplaced emphasis and of interpretations grossly deviating from the mainstream history of the music.

To begin with, Carr is one of these jazz elitists who go around claiming that jazz is America's only art form. To reinforce this notion, in various chapters the argument is made that all American music is really a derivation of jazz. Blues, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues and even Western swing are all explained in a context of simply being different incarnations of America's One True Music. Of course, given that one chapter is given over to jazz-rock fusion and another to acid jazz, which is hip-hop/jazz fusion, this argument of the supremacy of jazz fails to stand on its own for very long.

And Carr's take on Latin influences is similarly twisted. He argues that it was a 1943 recording in New York, Machito's "Tanga," that was the first "authentic Afro Cuban jazz record." And further, that it was American jazz stars who bridged the gap between jazz and Cuban music.

Which would be news to the Cuban big bands of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, which were every bit as much swing bands as their popular U.S. counterparts, and were performing and recording in their native country for years before Machito's release. Carr then goes on to dismiss Latin musicians who play more introspective music – any non-dance music – as lacking "authenticity," while praising rock star Carlos Santana as an example of a legitimate Latin jazz artist. Now, Santana is an excellent guitarist as well as musical visionary, but definitely was not a jazz musician for most of his career (excepting his "Devadip" period with Alice Coltrane in the mid-'70s, which the author doesn't even mention).

Carr's gratuitous swipe at Desi Arnaz – describing the bandleading drummer (and subsequent TV star) as "the stereotype hand-kissing Latin lounge lizard, slumming beneath plastic palm trees in padded white tuxedos smelling of hair oil and cologne" – makes one wonder if Carr has ever even listened to Arnaz's seminal big band Latin jazz recordings of the late '40s. To compare those groundbreaking dance tracks to Xavier Cugat's society bands is like comparing the Sex Pistols to Pat Boone. Perhaps Carr is confusing Arnaz with the cheesy character of Ricky Ricardo whom he portrayed on TV (although even there, Arnaz's band simply cooked). Regardless, the misrepresentation of Arnaz's contribution in popularizing Latin music is egregious and fatal to what little credibility Carr still has at this point in the book.

Equally offensive are the racial overtones of Carr's assertion that Latin and black musicians are more in touch with their erotic side than their white counterparts. The myth of the black man as sexual predator hardly belongs in a history of an art form invented and largely developed by black men.

And in bemoaning the lack of any stylistic innovators in the past few decades, Carr writes: "Apart from Pat Metheny – a musician equally at home with Ornette Coleman or David Bowie – there has been a noticeable lack of players, in recent times, possessed with a truly original voice."

PAT METHENY? Sure, he's "equally at home" with Ornette or Bowie – Metheny is a musical chameleon, completely without voice. He's a pleasant enough guitarist, but why on Earth hold him up as the epitome of originality when you have young artists such as Joshua Redman, Leroy Jones, Steve Coleman or Bennie Green, instrumentalists whose individualistic playing can be identified within just a few notes?

On and on this kind of tripe goes, Carr tossing out ridiculous statements like the above over and again, like a bad preacher on a drinking binge.

Jazz is beautiful, rich and inspiring enough without having to build it up into some sort of all-encompassing quasi-religious world view that denies the value of other traditions, other arts.

Carr's book is a disappointment for its parochial tunnel vision, it's inability to step outside jazz's own reference points and its hubristic dismissal of facts that contradict its smug assertions.

Then there are the numerous typos; Joshua Redman as "Joshua Redmen"; Christian McBride given a sex-change operation and made into "Christine McBride." Where were the editors? The proofreaders? How did this book get into print in this condition?

Particularly distressing is that the softcover edition was published by the respected jazz and blues house Da Capo, which is usually far more careful. The Da Capo name rightfully carries weight and confers legitimacy; this book deserves neither.

Not all is dreary, of course. Carr has sometimes-solid taste in music and his suggestions in each chapter on which albums to listen to or buy in order to learn more about the music in that chapter are top-notch if incomplete; still, buying anything recommended here will serve you well. The photographs throughout – both of the artists and the record covers – are wonderful, reproduced in stunning clarity on a nice, heavy paper stock.

But the beauty of the packaging and Carr's excellent taste in music aren't enough to overcome the historical inaccuracies. Save your money and buy a couple of CDs instead.