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The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia

As our murderous century draws to an end, surveys of its various arts are inevitable, and as a forerunner, Ted Gioia’s concise history is a fine achievement, its main text occupying only 400 pages-not too many to daunt the internerds! The book is in two equal parts, the second beginning with “Modern Jazz and The Birth of Bebop.”

Of the first, I can say that it is even-handed and gives a good picture of the peaks in what many still consider the greatest period of jazz. Some of the heroes, victims of compression or Gioia’s personal taste, are omitted or treated too briefly, such as Jimmy Harrison, J.C. Higginbotham, Trummy Young, Eddie South, Hilton Jefferson, Sidney DeParis and one heroine, Helen Humes. Otherwise, judgments and appraisals are well considered and enlightening.

The second part, with which I have less sympathy, continues the story chronologically, describing each “innovation” carefully but not always critically.

What is perhaps insufficiently stressed here is that major names of the preceding era, like Armstrong, Ellington, Hines, Goodman and Basie, lived on into the ’70s and ’80s alongside Carter and Hampton, their legends lending luster to the world’s conception of jazz. When the primos of bebop-Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Mingus and Clarke-followed them from this vale of tears, there was a sudden falling off, a kind of void made by the paucity of significant figures commanding international respect. The malaise this caused is a primary motif in the other two books.

Lovers of bebop should find Gioia’s description fair enough, although it incidentally explains why musicians (Coleman Hawkins was a notable exception) and fans of the swing era disliked the new music. To them, the unconventional harmonies, virtuosic emphasis, thin, “cutting” sounds, obtrusive percussive punctuation and sameness of routines (sandwiches of solos between opening and closing unison theme statements) represented anything but progress. Yet familiarity, far from breeding contempt, soon won bebop surprising popularity, especially within the sizeable element of the jazz audience that always hungers for novelty and change.

Following a chapter on the desperate decline in big-band fortunes, Gioia turns to “The Fragmentation of Jazz Styles.” Most of the leading boppers had had experience in big bands and had played for dancers, but now they set their sights on the “prestige” of concerthalls and (Dizzy excepted) eschewed anything so vulgar as “entertainment.” The M.J,Q., the Cool Coast, Getz, Mulligan, Pepper and Desmond are discussed before proceeding to “Jazz in Transition: Miles, ‘Trane, Evans, Dolphy, Rollins,” where we are told how Bill Evans learned “to construct phrases that broke away almost completely from the gravitational pull of the ground beat,” (Had “It Don’t Mean a Thing” become just an old-fashioned anthem by this time?)

Next up are “Hard Bop,” “Post-Bop” and “Soul Jazz,” which together brought another change of direction, considerable commercial success and some renewal of interest on the part of African Americans. From the victories of Silver and Blakey, this section leads to Mingus, a rock-oriented Miles Davis and the final chapter, “Freedom and Beyond,” where free jazz and the joys of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are detailed, “In place of Coleman’s human cry on the saxophone,” Gioia writes, “one finds Taylor’s fusillade of notes, unforgiving and unapologetic,” And “unlistenable” some might add. But after striking “a raw nerve” in 1956, Taylor found a new level of “musical maturity” in 1960 and 1961, before emerging “as a respected elder statesman of the music in the early 1970s.” He also managed to get corporate America to fund a recording project!

Some kind of jazz revival apparently occurred in the 1970s despite all this difficult music making. Anthony Braxton, for example, “succeeded brilliantly in tearing down the artificial barriers that had segregated the avant garde jazz community,” although by 1983 David Murray was advising that “The music has to start swinging again. I think it reflects the sociological aspects of the times-people don’t want music they have to suffer through.” Zappa, too, saw the light when he joked about jazz as “the music of unemployment.” The fusions with rock, world and classical that Gioia cites “had succeeded in tremendously expanding the boundaries of jazz” and they justified his description of what jazz had become as “the most glorious of mongrels.”

Now, jazz at the beginning was a blend of African and European elements and, like blended Scotch whiskey, became popular throughout the world. But a blend of a blend with a blend is all too likely to make a bad cocktail that turns off the customers. Not author Eric Nisenson, however. In his Blue: The Murder of Jazz, he seems to be waging guerilla warfare with the dread triumvirate of Marsalis, Crouch and Murray at Lincoln Center, just as though they were omnipotent and N.Y.C. were typical of the jazz world. That they thought it time to reconsider root values when jazz was so clearly in a mess does not please him at all. He stands for freedom, revolution, progress, broadened horizons, risk-taking, the shock of the new, and all that old corn. He thinks that playing for dancers “may inhibit the jazz musicians from being more adventurous”, but then he didn’t discover jazz till the 1960s, when Kind of Blue evidently became his kind of bible. He doesn’t really believe that jazz is dead and he doesn’t name the prospective murderers, not realizing that in all probability they will primarily be musicians who play for their own pleasure. Some of the most vital jazz these days, he says, is made outside the U.S. by the Lebanese oud player, Rabih-Abou-Khalil, and by Jan Garbarek, whose music is often “a fusion of Coltrane, free jazz, fusion and Fast Indian and Brazilian rhythms with his native Norwegian folk music.”

The arguments about the over-emphasis on black musicians at Lincoln’s Center are rehashed and shamefully, because none of the pro-white critics has so far, to my knowledge, had a word to say about the virtually lilywhite groups that play to largely white audiences at jazz parties throughout the country. But the neo-classicism that so distresses Nisenson is what turns young musicians back to the hard bop of his youth, and not, after all, the music of Ellington, Bechet and New Orleans that Marsalis has championed so effectively.

Tom Piazza’s Blues Up and Down was published simultaneously by St. Martin’s Press, and surprisingly, for in large part it refutes Nisenson. “Jazz is more alive and vital now than it has been for the last 25 years,” Piazza says, “Claims that jazz is dead, even that it has been murdered, arise regularly, like seven-year locusts.” His book consists of articles written for magazines between 1979 and 1995. Except for one on the Folkways legacy and another on country matters, most are relevant to the present issues. Well worth having between book covers, too, is a scathing put-down of Collier’s Ellington biography. In other pieces, the reader is brought close to the musicians, as in the delightful reportage of Tommy Flanagan’s conversation on pages 38-40,and in several encounters with Wynton Marsalis.

Piazza, who admires and respects Marsalis, explains him especially well. At 35, he knows what has stood the test of time and has himself accomplished much of worth. Jazz needs argument and discussion of this kind at the present juncture. The response to the recent overrated/underrated feature in this magazine showed how balefully influential the promotions of the last three decades have been. Readers were upset when their well-hyped favorites were considered overrated, but none was in the least concerned with those musicians who were considered underrated. Such people could benefit from reading these three books together. It is, of course, hard to believe, as Piazza does, that jazz will never die, but recurrent radical changes and infinitely elastic criteria are no guarantee of immortality. And if the music has held up an ironic mirror to the century, reflecting lean times and fat times, wars and racial conflicts, may it not now be serving the same purpose more accurately than we realize?

Originally Published