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The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music by Don Micheal Randel

Most of the 6,000 musicians in this reference volume are Western composers of the art-music variety, but sandwiched among them are theorists, educators, and performers. Nearly 300 jazz figures get covered, all but a few with short capsule biographies. Faced with the usual space limitations, editor Randel had tried to be inclusive. Yet the relative lengths of articles-e.g., five columns for Mendelssohn, one for Ellington, a tiny paragraph for James Brown-maintain traditional aesthetic hierarchies.

Jazz aficionados will find The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music valuable mainly as a source of information on classical music. Its low price and one-volume format give it an edge over similar reference sources on the market. The jazz and pop entries provide information available in fuller form elsewhere-dates, career highlights, occasional comments on style or historical importance.

Minor factual errors appear (e.g., different dates for Herbie Hancock’s LP Takin’ Off, too many years for the Lunceford orchestra’s residency at the Cotton Club), as do well-worn critical formulations (calling Roy Eldridge “the stylistic link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie” and Jelly Roll Morton the “first great jazz composer”). More useful are suggestions for representative recordings, as when clarinetist Buster Bailey’s “Man with a Horn Goes Berserk” (1938) is cited as an example of his “Prodigious technique” (though similar cross-references-often mentioning the same records-also turn up in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz).

Not many jazzwomen here-no Geri Allen, Jane Ira Bloom, Lil Hardin, Shirley Horn, Melba Liston, Emily Remler or Hazel Scott, among others. Plenty of references, though, to drug and alcohol problems of jazz musicians.

 Hip as it tries to be, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music lumbers under some heavy historical baggage.

Originally Published