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October 2000

John Edward Hasse, editor
Jazz: The First Century

John Edward Hasse assembled capable writers, including Michael Brooks, John Litweiler and Kevin Whitehead, to contribute chapters to this coffee-table book, and numerous others to write sidebars. The principal writers involved come off pretty well, and no overview this general can be very enlightening to those of us who have read many of the same books as the authors, but I do think there’s a lot of room for improvement in Jazz: The First Century.

Two basic problems keep cropping up. One is the modern post-TV, post-Internet format that presents everything in cute little boxes, literally and figuratively. The artsy (I guess) layout of the photos and colored screens on half the pages are merely distracting, but the USA Today-style graphics are obnoxious, and the sidebars are too short to be satisfying, though not too short for some tedious ax-grinding. The main articles laid out, like old schoolbooks, with bold-faced headings, which the text illuminates. Thus, we are told early on in big, bold letters of ^New Orleans’ Six Jazz-Creating Conditions^, half of which existed in not just the Big Easy but any large African-American community, while the others are linked with the evolution of jazz only by implication (and why six, anyway?). I doubt Hasse would have come up with this sort of thing were he not committed to the clumsy format.

The other underlying problem is more pervasive, and that is the tendency of the writers to confuse what’s been written about jazz with its actual history. They often just rehash what they’ve read elsewhere, and where nothing has been written already, little imagination is shown—a problem especially evident in the first chapter. While the African influences are dealt with fairly accurately and the difficult subject of the minstrels is handled deftly, scant attention is paid to the crucial development of specifically African-American folksong, a process that was plainly influenced by English and Scottish traditional music. There are no African traditional songs that sound like spirituals; these developed, presumably, because early African-Americans digested the basics of the strongly melodic Anglo-Scottish folksong they heard around them (much as early white fiddlers incorporated syncopated phrasing). It would also seem apparent that what W.C. Handy called the “groping racial sense of harmony” was influenced by white traditions like shape-note singing more than by classical music. These subjects have been dealt with more by gospel and folk music writers than jazz historians, who generally continue to copy each other’s weak licks.

Hasse is aware of the article by Joshua Berrett that details Louis Armstrong’s surprising debt to opera, but because no jazz writer ever asked Louis anything specific about a much more obvious influence, it doesn’t get singled out here. That would be Louis’ early membership in vocal quartets, an experience he shared with many other young New Orleans musicians. Wouldn’t it seem that learning music by part singing along the lines of early black quartets would have more bearing on the evolution of the free-wheeling New Orleans front line than ideas for coloration. Louis learned from overtures or from the presumed Caribbean influences? Not until someone writes a book about it, evidently.

Generally, this book is good at contemporary conventional wisdom. But where that lags, there are problems. For instance, don’t look here for evidence of Bud Powell’s true stature. We are told that around 1940 Monk was the pianist in the bop vanguard. Yes, he had the gig at Minton’s, but listen to Monk’s anonymous playing on the Joe Gordon tapes and then to the ’44 recordings of both him and Powell. They reveal no basis to assume that one was ahead of the other. Powell is also identified by the usual “man who adopted Parker’s approach to the keyboard” tag, despite testimony from Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and others that that ain’t the way it happened.

Another distraction is the lamentable attempt to apply affirmative action retrospectively. Ann Kuebler describes Mary Lou Williams as a “mentor” to Parker and Powell, and states that there were other talented females who might have made a major impact on modern jazz but stayed at home because they were uncomfortable with the drug habits of the Minton’s/ Monroe’s coterie. The fact that the critics who frequented that scene were all men is mentioned, as if they were somehow complicit in ignoring unknown “genii” who weren’t even there and whose identities we are never told. Female jazz instrumentalists do have an even harder row to hoe than their male counterparts, but what is Kuebler trying to accomplish with this? Can’t we just talk about what actually happened? Along the way, producer Moe Asch is praised for recording Mary Lou. The fact that the gallant Asch almost never paid royalties owed to artists isn’t mentioned—at least he didn’t discriminate, presumably.

Granted “The 100 Essential Jazz Albums” listing near the end is a good general guide for neophytes, but it still features some weird choices: ’50s, not ’30s Eldridge? There are five Miles Davis titles comprising 11 discs and none feature the classic quintet? Mary Lou Williams, but not Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, Andrew Hill or Teddy Wilson? Are the people who are falling all over each other in the rush to glorify Williams actually listening to her records? There’s a difference between good and great, after all. The additional “More Recordings” listing is downright embarrassing. Three Quincy Jones titles are given but none by Hank Mobley—need I continue?

The last chapter, “Late Century Tradition and Innovation,” is a depressing exercise. The social underpinnings that nourished jazz have vanished, and while many great performers are still active and there will always be room for adventurous younger spirits in the greater bohemian community, the music of suburbanite music-school grads is never going to be what the music we know as jazz was. The newer names are often the product of corporate hype that drives a market largely ignorant of the music’s history, just a small-scale version of the hype that induces the kids to buy the newest poster-boy or -girl. Hell, even rock writers are hip to that rather important angle, but no mention is made of it here.

Then again, I don’t suppose a book projected as Jazz: The Whole 75 Years would interest publishers. And despite the shortcomings noted above, the present volume might help some younger readers find their way back to the real thing.

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