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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.)

Mathieson is sure-footed in summing up the contributions of his subjects and he’s at his best when he goes out on a limb, but he’s at his weakest when he repeats conventional “wisdom.” The now-familiar assertion that Monk was Bud Powell’s mentor gets another tired airing, but will any of the writers making this claim tell us how it can be true? Did Monk influence Powell, who had been a child prodigy, as a pianist or composer? Obviously not. Nor is he likely to have taught Powell any more about harmony than he learned from him. Mentor is what Oliver was to Armstrong. What Monk was to Powell was his closest friend. The fact that Powell sang Monk’s praises when almost no one else did is evidence of loyalty, not indebtedness. Still, Mathieson obviously “gets” Powell, unlike many of the Monkophiles, and does generally a good job writing about his later work-not an easy subject.

I would have liked to have seen Charlie Christian’s enormous importance acknowledged; many of the innovations that Mathieson credits to Dizzy Gillespie can be heard on Christian’s astonishing “Swing to Bop” solo and elsewhere. And while Gillespie’s historical importance is beyond question, a critical evaluation of whether he was ever as deep an improviser as Eldridge before him or Navarro after would have been welcome.

Miles Davis gets even more of a free ride. The implications of the fact that Davis basically stopped writing once Wayne Shorter was in the band aren’t addressed, nor is the pathetically small live repertoire of that quintet. And jazz-rock is depicted yet again as some kind of daring innovation. My question is, Why is Wes Montgomery’s and Cannonball Adderley’s mid-’60s work dismissed as commercial while Davis’ post-1970 recordings are taken so seriously?

When Mathieson writes about subjects that haven’t received a lot of ink, like Navarro and Herbie Nichols, he does a good job. The question of Nichols’ outsider status vis-à-vis the jazz community remains vexing, but I can perhaps explain why his tunes are only now being performed-any musician who has tried it will tell you that they are just plain difficult (including “2300 Skiddoo,” which Mathieson doesn’t seem to like but most Herbie-heads consider a masterpiece). In fact, some of his harmonic devices make the innovations of the early boppers seem like baby steps.

Originally Published