April 1998

Jonny King
What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide To Understanding and Listening To Jazz

Jazz seeks to proselytize beyond the converted, but seldom goes about it cannily. Pianist King is onto something in putting the callow listener on the piano stool, in the record session, choosing repertoire, and checking out solos at close range. While this brief “how to” guide may attract keen youth who want to be in the know about (or archaically, “tripped to”) jazz, King’s parochial view shows jazz not as a world-reaching art form but rather as Gotham bebop revisited. The unlearned reader, scanning King’s shortlist of classics—not just from a single era (’50s-’60s), but from a single label (Blue Note, a riff through the slim tome shows mostly Francis Wolff session shots)—would assume that jazz was played almost exclusively by black American males, most now dead.

Though King defines and defends the limitations of his scope with a lawyer’s plausibility, he nonetheless imparts little sense of a musical stewpot which has for three generations been irrevocably absorbing Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, and other musics. (If jazz is a microcosm of democracy, immigrants are keeping it vivid and dynamic.) More egregiously, King affords white players (C. Corea and M. Vitous excepted) only passing mentions; as for women, the index lists a mere six black singers and one white pianist, mentioned incidentally. King’s attempt to draw in listeners actually excludes.

Politico-historic blindness aside, King’s setlist is well chosen: he unearths a rare Monk gem, “We See,” to parse its leadsheet, and trots out Sonny Rollins and Hank Mobley as tenor exemplars. If readers use their ears, he’ll score points. King’s analogies can be glib (pot calls kettle black!)—he calls Gillespie “Bird of the trumpet” and Davis “jazz Picasso;” with his emphasis on explaining jazz argot to the masses, a glossary is also in order for future editions. Not to mention a Blue Note special edition CD with tracks by Diane Reeves, Kurt Elling, and Renee Rosnes.

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