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That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950 by Allen Lowe

That Devilin’ Tune is a useful antidote to the Ken Burns TV series, CDs and books dealing with jazz history.

Where Burns emphasizes his “great man” theory, Lowe, while not neglecting Armstrong, Parker and Ellington, speaks of the evolution of jazz more in terms of movements that were founded by a number of musicians. He gives more emphasis to significant but less-well-known artists, since it does take a number of musicians to create and flesh out a genre.

Also important is Lowe’s lack of dogmatism regarding exactly what jazz is. He realizes that the music we regard as jazz is only part of a group of African-American musical forms and constantly relates it to other genres such as the blues, minstrel and gospel music, ragtime and R&B; thus we see jazz emerging from a larger core of music.

Lowe had previously authored American Pop: From Minstrel to Mojo; On Record 1893-1956, and created a nine-CD set to accompany it. For this volume he produced a 36-CD set. Buying it as well as the book may be beyond many readers’ means, but if you are able to afford it, it’s well worth owning because the CDs demonstrate so accurately the points that Lowe is concerned with making. The discs and prose complement each other brilliantly.

Lowe is a professional saxophonist who’s worked with Julius Hemphill, Don Byron, Roswell Rudd, David Murray, Loren Schoenberg and Bob Neloms; a sound engineer and restorer; and a scholar who’s delved deeply into African-American music. However, he realizes that jazz has European as well as African roots, and that some great jazz musicians were white. Thus he’s evenhanded and generous with his accolades.

I found the early portion of this volume to be particularly useful in that Lowe does such a good job of dealing with the popular music that jazz came from and sorting out the various genres into which it evolved. He never lets you forget the big picture and repeatedly emphasizes that jazz and pop music are constantly in a state of flux and will be so in the foreseeable future. In this regard he doesn’t get self-righteous about musicians altering or upgrading their styles if they think it will get them more money.

The recorded examples that Lowe provides are intelligently chosen and work very well with his text. He doesn’t make the most obvious choices either; some of his picks are downright rare. Congratulations to him for providing us with a 1939 Skinnay Ennis track with a Gil Evans arrangement that predates the latter’s work with Claude Thornhill.

Considering the quantity and high quality of charts that Gil Fuller provided to Dizzy Gillespie, it’s odd that Fuller’s not given more praise by members of the jazz community. Lowe lays some heavy compliments on him, though, while pointing out that among some musicians Fuller was considered a self-seeking hustler. Perhaps he was a cad, but he wrote a number of fine arrangements and deserves praise for them.

Lowe also deserves credit for the attention he’s given the great pianist Dick Twardzik, whose work should be heard more widely. Additionally, Lowe’s choices are often valuable in that they’re of interest to followers of several genres-blues, R&B and Western swing-in addition to mainstream jazz.

Now in preparation are Lowe’s volumes about jazz of the 1950s and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s and ’60s. Let’s hope he can find an audience to support his admirable efforts.

Originally Published