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New Dutch Swing by Kevin Whitehead

Europeans have been faithful, even fanatical chroniclers of jazz in the United States. Few American writers, by contrast, have taken the trouble to study the developments of jazz across the Atlantic. The critic Kevin Whitehead decided to buck this trend. A few years ago he left New York and settled in Amsterdam. There he immersed himself in the Dutch avant garde, getting acquainted with veterans of the scene like drummer Han Bennink, pianist Misha Mengelberg, and saxophonist-bandleader Willem Brueker, as well as younger musicians little known outside of Holland. He attended concerts, hung out in smoke-filled clubs, listened to recordings, and conducted many interviews. New Dutch Swing offers a report of his study abroad.

Experimental jazz has flourished in Amsterdam since the 1960s. Whitehead tells the story of how this came to be, profiling major figures-nearly all of them still active today-and documenting the important role played by such musicians’ collectives as the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) and the UIM (Union of Improvising Musicians). At times the history proves difficult to follow. Whitehead constantly shifts between past and present and splices in long interview quotes without first identifying the speaker. A firmer editorial hand and clearer organizational scheme would have produced a more reader-friendly text. As the narrative moves toward the present and the cast of characters grows ever larger, one wishes for more interpretation and synthesis, not just reportage.

The underlying critical argument of Whitehead’s book is that the exuberant eclecticism and irreverent humor of the Dutch avant garde are signs of health. The musicians he meets don’t care about preserving some hallowed jazz tradition or worry about swinging and playing the blues. Instead they freely cut across genres and regard all musical influences as potentially useful. As saxophonist Ab Baars tells Whitehead: “Every kind of music is good, whatever it is.”

Such tolerance and open-mindedness are appealing qualities. A postmodern Pilgrim in search of musical freedom of expression, Whitehead seems to have found it in Amsterdam. For an American critic weary of ideological battles and conservative jazz orthodoxy back home, Holland appears to be the promised land.

Originally Published