A New History of Jazz
It is not surprising that an Oxford-trained scholar should produce a weighty volume of jazz history that exudes erudition throughout its 896 pages of text and 51 pages of notes. But Alyn Shipton also happens to be a talented jazz bassist, a commentator for BBC radio and the author of a spate of highly acclaimed books, including a biography of Dizzy Gillespie that was voted the 1999 “Book of the Year” by JazzTimes. Shipton, in short, knows the jazz world from the inside and the outside and is eminently qualified to undertake the gargantuan task of chronicling the history of this unique art form, from its 19th-century roots to the present. The real question, though, is whether there is anything new to say about this oft-told story.
The answer, it turns out, is yes. Though much of the material is familiar to jazz fans, Shipton manages to find fresh angles, skillfully embedding the music in its social and historical context, providing interpretations that often contradict conventional views and exploring areas—for example, jazz singing, the role of radio and film and the international aspects of jazz—that have received scant attention in many previous histories.
One of the keys to Shipton’s method is to look beyond what we think we know. While he gives New Orleans credit as the main breeding ground of the new music around the turn of the century, he also looks at parallel developments elsewhere—on the plantations and in other towns and cities around the country. He explodes the “mythology” that traces the roots of jazz to the blues, and informs us that the standard 12-bar blues format is in fact a 20th-century invention. He stresses the importance of the so-called territory bands as a breeding ground for players—including Count Basie and Charlie Parker—who were to play a leading role in shaping mainstream jazz styles. He questions the notion that bebop was an expression of political and racial revolution, tracing its origins to musicians firmly grounded in the big bands of the swing era—not a few of whom were white.
This is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) work that deserves a place in any jazz library. It is encyclopedic in its scope, to the point where the reader can sometimes bog down in detail—we are walked through literally hundreds of specific recordings that the reader can relate to only if he already has a voluminous record collection or knows the tracks by heart. On the whole, though, Shipton tells an engaging story, bringing it to life with copious quotes from the musicians themselves—many of them from his own interviews.
Though early jazz and the swing era hardly get short shrift, Shipton devotes the bulk of his attention to the modernists. Thus the main passage on John Coltrane gets 25 pages (compared with 20 for Armstrong, eight for Morton and six for King Oliver). He judges Coltrane to be “the most influential saxophonist” and Ornette Coleman “the most significant jazz innovator” of the last four decades of the 20th century.
In assessing the perpetual struggle between the traditional and the modern, Shipton’s heart seems to be with the former—after all, he played bass last year in a Hot Five tribute at Switzerland’s Ascona festival—but his critical faculties lean toward the innovators. As he puts it in his concluding chapter: “The imperative throughout jazz history has been to mingle [the] investigation of the tradition with something new and original.” Which is precisely what Shipton has done with this impressive tome.