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Giant Steps: Bebop and the Creators of Modern Jazz 1945-65 by Kenny Mathieson

The professed aim of Kenny Mathieson’s Giant Steps is for an introductory type of book roughly comparable to the Jazz Masters books that covered the ’20s, ’30s, etc., with the argument being that there is room for another such series that would take into account recent scholarship. Mathieson writes well, and his insights into the music are keen enough that even when covering familiar ground he can sometimes put a new spin on things. This book would make a good gift for a young musician interested in the music’s history, and is generally about a three-star read. But there are problems that may be inevitable with this sort of approach.

The Jazz Masters books often relied on first-hand accounts, where Mathieson, like so many contemporary authors, depends on what’s already been written; he spends a lot of time talking about his subjects’ recordings rather than their lives. Whether this is appropriate for an introductory book is open to question. One problem is that neophytes can get the idea that the recordings are really covered in full, which in a case like Charlie Parker’s live work would take a whole book. Mathieson does do a generally good job of pinpointing which recordings are important, though I’m unsure whether the technical explanations won’t go over the heads of lay readers but be judged inaccurate by musicians (if you’re going to bring up the flatted fifth, go ahead and say that it’s really a raised eleventh, for instance.)

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