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January/February 2006

Lawrence Gushee
Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band

Pioneers of Jazz traces the brief but highly significant career of the Creole Band, famous for having turned down the chance to be the first jazz band to make records. Testimony from such luminaries as Jelly Roll Morton has left lovers of early jazz in a state of perpetual depression about the lack of any recorded legacy, and reading this book certainly won't help; one positively aches to know what they sounded like as they toured the vaudeville circuit between 1914 and 1918, propelled by Freddie Keppard's powerful cornet. As the word "jazz" was first gaining currency and New Orleans musicians beginning to find themselves in demand with Chicago and New York City sophisticates, our protagonists were already spreading the word in Peoria and beyond.

Lawrence Gushee assiduously avoids leaping to conclusions about the events he chronicles, preferring to let the fruits of many years of research speak for themselves. In lesser hands this might make for very dry reading, but Gushee writes stylishly, entertaining us with factual nuggets he has mined (a real-life PR man named A. Toxen Worm being the irresistible example) and delivering pertinent details--especially relating to bandleader/bassist/rapscallion Bill Johnson's life--with the timing and panache of a master novelist.

Put simply, Pioneers of Jazz is one of the finest books ever written on early jazz, and no one even slightly interested in the formative years of our music can do without it.

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