April 1998

Scott DeVeaux
The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History

Recently several superb books about jazz have appeared—Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz, Barry Kernfeld’s What to Listen for in Jazz, Fujioka’s collaborative Coltrane discography, and a few others. Scott DeVeaux’s newest book definitely belongs on that list.

Though trained as a musician and music scholar, DeVeaux chooses here to discuss not only the musical features of swing and early bebop, but to explain this music “as an integral part of American history and culture.” With meticulous care he has sifted through a mountain of information about swing and early bebop, giving equal emphasis to social, racial, economic and musical issues. He has reassessed many well known facts and assumptions, and given us a fresh portrayal of this fascinating time in music history.

The book falls into three main parts. Part One focuses on the swing style and its cultural milieu, with Coleman Hawkins serving as the protagonist. Part Two, dealing with the formative years of bebop, includes one of the best discussions of jam sessions (“The Jazzman’s True Academy”) I have seen. More excellent reading awaits in the final part, devoted to issues raised when bebop went public in the middle and late 1940s.

I hope readers fearful of musical examples and analyses will give this book a fair reading; these portions are infrequent and relatively short, and serve to back up the points that are made in a clear, elegant and non-technical prose. In his epilogue DeVeaux says: “The task of the historian is always to impose order on chaos—to assemble the shards of experience into coherent patterns.” He has met this task admirably.

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