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Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History by Robert Walser

In this anthology of 62 widely varied pieces written between 1917 and 1995, musicologist and educator Robert Walser draws his sights on not so much the history of jazz per se, but the many ways in which this music has been perceived and regarded in print over the years. The nine major sections of the book are conveniently divided into decades, but not all of the inclusions were necessarily published during these particular time periods, but rather were selected for their textual relevance to the spirit and thought of the decades to which they were assigned. Thus, in “First Accounts,” alongside some newspaper articles about jazz written during the 1917-1919 period, we also find excerpts from Sidney Bechet’s posthumously published autobiography, Treat It Gentle and Jelly Roll Morton’s 1938 oral interviews for the Library of Congress. The widely rad jazz scholar will certainly also be familiar with several of the other extracts taken from books by well-known artists and critics, i.e., Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Andre` Hodier, Charles Mingus, Albert Murray, LeRoi Jones, and Miles Davis, but the vast majority of inclusions consists of pieces that appeared in books, periodicals, and learned journals not likely to be in everyone’s personal library.

Walser precedes each selection with an informative headnote in which he isolates the main thesis of the writer’s specific point of view, and in several of the more abstruse sociological and ethnomusicological pieces of recent origin this is especially helpful. Some of the issues discussed by the various contributors range from the immorality and crudity of jazz as compared with European classical music, the role of ethnic pride in the music’s origin, race relations and bigotry, gender prejudice, the longstanding controversy regarding aesthetics versus mass appeal, jazz’s role as both the voice of the common man and as a democratizing force abroad, the relationships and conflicts between stylistic genres, the roles played by white musicians and critics in an African-American art form, structured versus “free” jazz, straight-ahead versus “pop” jazz, the growing problems of inclusivity in terms of defining the music’s boundaries, jazz as folk art or “America’s classical music,” the need for a non-European, African-American-based cultural understanding in the appraisal of jazz traditions and techniques, and the directions in which jazz may be headed in an age of irreconcilable philosophical positions.

Among the more rewarding apologists, theorists, analysts, and explicators not already mentioned are Ernest Ansermet (1919), Langston Hughes (1926), Robert Goffin (1934), Alain Locke (1936), John Hammond and Duke Ellington (1938), Charles Delaunay (1940), Sidney Finkelstein (1948), Norman Mailer (1957), Gunther Schuller (1958), Ralph Ellison (1959), the confluence of musicians and critics involved in “Jazz Summit Meeting” (*Playboy*, 1964), Ben Sidran (1971), Max Roach (1972), Billy Taylor (1986), Wynton Marsalis (1988), Hazel V.Carby (1986), Christopher Small (1987), Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. (1991), and Scott DeVeaux (1991). But by far the strangest bit of theorizing appears in Dr. Miles D. Miller’s 1958 “Psychoanalyzing Jazz,” wherein the presumably serious author attempts to explain jazz sonority and other aspects of playing in terms of repressed and sexual aggression. If you think that some musicians and critics are off-the-wall, just try reading this one with a straight face.

Originally Published