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The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler

An indispensable research tool for jazz writers, record collectors, musicians and fans, Leonard Feather’s series of biographical dictionaries has served a wide variety of needs for the last 45 years, not the least of which being the role model for several other major works of their kind. From the beginning, Ira Gitler worked as Feather’s primary aide, and by the time of The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, he was given equal credit as co-author. In this 1976 work, Feather and Gitler presented biographical essentials, career overviews and updates for 1,400 musicians, including many whose names did not appear in the earlier volumes. However, considerable space was also devoted to photos, essays and reference lists of interest to the jazz scholar. A quarter of a century has passed since then, and the number of musicians now thought important enough for inclusion has grown to 3,300, thus forcing the authors to dispense with such space-consuming niceties as photos and related textual material.

In this present edition, we find thoroughly updated biographical sketches, ranging in length from a few lines for the most obscure figures to three to four columns for the most musically and historically significant artists. All periods and styles of jazz are covered, from early New Orleans jazz to avant garde and free. Unfortunately, bands and individual players of limited or only local renown, such as the territorial groups of the ’20s and ’30s, are largely overlooked, as are also many gifted jazzmen who did not perform as full-time professionals. If these had been included, the total number could have easily exceeded 5,000. Some of the major blues artists are also covered, but only those who worked primarily in association with jazz musicians: yes to Ma Rainey and T-Bone Walker, but no to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. Fusion players are, for the most part, excluded, except for those whose earlier reputations were made in jazz. Another departure from the previous editions is the inclusion of a number of players who specialize in Latin jazz, a genre barely even acknowledged in the early ’70s.

For the first time in this series, some bands that worked and recorded under collective group names are also accorded individual mention. Thus, we find entries for bands as diverse as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, the Original Memphis Five, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Irakere, Jazz at the Philharmonic and Weather Report. Oddly, though, there is no entry for The Missourians, that formidable pre-Swing Era big band that provided the groundbase for the young Cab Calloway. A valuable feature of the band entries, though, is the identification of key players, thereby facilitating the sometimes wearisome task of cross-referencing. Wrap-up time for the final manuscript must have been in late June or July 1999, as there are death dates provided for Red Norvo and Jesse Stone, who both died in April, and Mel Tormé, who died in June, but none for Harry “Sweets” Edison, who died in July, or Spiegle Wilcox and Leroy Vinnegar, who both died in August. A curious omission in this area is that of 92-year-old clarinetist Rosy McHargue, a widely experienced jazzman who died in June without even earning a passing mention.

Expectedly, in a book of this size and density there will be the inevitable typos. One which caught my eye involved a one-time playing associate, trombonist and actor Conrad Janis, whose birth date in the ’50s and ’60s editions was correctly given as 2/11/28, but which in the present tome appears as 2/11/19. Taken along with his career credits, this seeming nine-year gap in his musical life can only be explained by an extraordinarily late start on his instrument. It is hoped that Janis’ is the only such error in this ambitious work, but if a random glance at a single entry could reveal such a gaffe, the odds tell us that more extended study might uncover even more accidental departures from accuracy. That caution stated, it only remains to say that, for the most part, the entries are presented in highly abbreviated phrase chunks which, in addition to birth and death dates and places, provide career highlights, names of leaders worked for and band associations, dates of service and other important data, as well as brief lists of recommended recordings. Needless to say, space was a major consideration in the planning of this book, so the graceful flow of leisurely-paced prose had to take a back seat to the urgency of fact, an unavoidable concomitant of the Information Age in which we live.

Considering the all-encompassing spread of more than a hundred years of jazz history, it seems safe to say that there may have been upwards of 10,000 American musicians who have spent significant parts of their lives as professional jazzmen. If we include the many decades worth of gifted semi-pro jazz musicians and those artists from other countries who are not represented in these pages, that figure could easily be doubled. It should be obvious, then, that the efforts of Feather, Gitler and associates, as well as those of John Chilton in his Who’s Who of Jazz, Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley in their Jazz: The Rough Guide, and those evident in Barry Kernfeld’s multi-authored New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, are but stepping stones to a growing fund of knowledge inconceivable in 1936, when Hilton Schleman published the first semi-biographical discography, Rhythm on Record.

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