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January/February 1999

Gary Giddins
Visions of Jazz: The First Century

As we approach the millennium, it is only natural to expect a mounting flurry of books dealing with all sorts of phenomena that saw their beginnings in the early years of the twentieth century. Many of these will take the form of chronological histories, detailed accounts of year-by-year events that, in sum, will present a lucid seamless picture of a vital art form in the process of redefining itself by stages. Jazz, with its colorful cast of characters, inclusive of both revered icons and renegade iconoclasts, as well as many thousands who fit neither mold, lends itself particularly well to this approach. Taken generation by generation, style by offshoot or backlash style, this type of text serves an invaluable purpose to all students of jazz, whether enthusiastic neophytes or wizened cognoscenti. But this is not the only way to write about history. Gary Giddins openly opts for another path, that of the centrally focused essay. He is not trying to depict the entire story of jazz, but he is attempting to weave a thread of continuity through it via the study of individual performers, all of whom share in one way or another a particular creative vision. The number of such musicians is in itself staggering, but the goal is even more so. Considering, though, that the major part of this material had its origins in columns that Giddins has been writing for more than 25 years, we should not be overly daunted by his seemingly Herculean effort. Good writing, as well as reflective thinking, does take time.

We have long known Giddins to be a careful wordsmith—even a casual scan of any one of his essays will reveal fresh metaphors and uncommon uses of common and not so common words—but even more importantly than this exercise of craftsman-like skill is the perception and heightened insight he brings to his discussions of the jazzman’s art. Structurally, the book is divided into 79 chapters, each of which deals with one or, sometimes, two or more related musicians. Ellington is covered in three widely separated chapters, each concentrating on a different period in his long career, while just a few of the other major figures include Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, Hawkins, Pee Wee, Waller, Goodman, Eldridge, Shaw, Sinatra, Bird, Diz, Sarah, Monk, Bud, Dexter, Miles, Mulligan, Blakey, Billie, Getz, Rollins, Dinah, Tatum, Mingus, Cecil, Ornette, and Coltrane, as well as a slew of assorted avant-gardists, free-jazzers, and modern mainstreamers.

Giddins freely apologizes for the omission of a few dozen jazz giants, such as Bechet, Bessie, Bix, Teagarden, Noone, Hines, Hodges, Webster, Carter, Henderson, James P., Wilson, Christian, Wardell, Jacquet, and Brownie, as well as several others equally deserving of inclusion. Although he doesn’t mention them by name, I’m sure that he also regrets slighting Berigan and Braff, Freeman and Miller, Sullivan and Stacy, Wettling and Tough, Zoot and Al, Wilber and Davern, and many other great white jazzmen. Certainly, all of these musicians had personal visions as fixed and dedicated as those selected for microscopic scrutiny, but for one reason or another they didn’t make it to the post. Could it be that the corraling fence—the hook, as it were—was erected long after the herd had been assembled, that the notion of a unifying theme, the “visions,” was merely a convenient way to gather together a stray community of diffuse observations into a wieldy, unified tome? A similar criticism could be brought against any diverse collection of essays, but when they are bannered to represent a single theme, it seems rather misleading.

It should be obvious by now that no such subjective stew as this will satisfy everyone’s taste, but there should be enough here to both stoke the embers of forgotten fires and provoke the curious to new appetites. Giddins is one of our best writers, and if the balance he strikes between the measured, thoughtful prose of Martin Williams and the poetic imagery of Whitney Balliet prompts the rereading of a few of his phrases or sentences for sheer pleasure, then the many years he has spent in honor of his love have been well spent.

Accompanying the book is a two-disc set of 38 selections (75:55/76:13), the contents of which were drawn exclusively from the catalog of Capitol/Blue Note and its umbrella labels. As a consequence, Giddins’ historically broad-ranging coverage is done a disservice by the limited nature of the source recordings at the conglomerate’s disposal. For example, while we find no recorded examples at all of jazz as it was played in the ‘20s, and only three tracks from the late ‘30s and ‘40s, there is the curious inclusion of one totally irrelevant pop track by Kay Starr, a singer who is only accorded brief passing mention in the text. It is safe to say, though, that no one will buy this otherwise highly recommended book solely on the basis of the CDs.

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