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The Oxford Companion to Jazz by Bill Kirchner

One reason for the general public’s hostility or confusion regarding avant-garde art is that it receives so little attention in schools and in the media. There’s a time gap during which the public has to catch up with the innovations of great avant-garde artists, many of whom go underappreciated through most or all of their lives. Postbop music from the ’50s is only now being appreciated outside the hardcore jazz community, accounting for the success of the young lions who play it. Often educators, editors and scholars have no interest in experimental art, especially if produced by those younger than they are. I have friends 10 years younger than me, in their early 50s, who were into Coltrane and Miles Davis during the 1960s and today still can’t get into anything more modern. Some are musicians.

Ken Burns’ nearly 20-hour jazz documentary was criticized for months prior to its release for devoting only two hours to the last 40 years-or 40%, of jazz history-and some of that time wasn’t devoted to innovative music. The Columbia/Verve five-CD set, a companion to Burns’ series, has some good, if obvious, selections on it, but the chronologically last CD contains cuts by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dexter Gordon, all of whom made their major impacts before 1960, by the reactionary Marsalis and his retro Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and by the commercial Grover Washington Jr. The primary reason to study history is for the light it sheds on current events. Cut off from the present, it loses much of its value, which is a major cause of Burns’ documentary falling short.

The Oxford Companion also gives short shrift to recent innovations in jazz. There’s an essay devoted to avant-garde jazz between 1947 and 1967, but none to avant-garde from 1968 to the present. True, there is a selection entitled “Jazz Since 1968” by Peter Keepnews, but in it he devotes more space to Marsalis and other revivalists and the comeback of Dexter Gordon than to any individual experimenter of today. This is comparable to writing an article on jazz of the 1940s and giving more room to the Dixieland revivalists than to Charlie Parker.

Some may claim that the jury’s still out on avant-gardists like Joe Maneri, but that’s a cop-out by the ignorant, jaded and gutless. It’s been obvious since 1997 that Maneri was a great musician, just as it was obvious that Ornette Coleman was great in 1960. Coleman had to wait a long time after that to get his props, though. In this volume, Maneri, John Zorn, Mark Dresser, Barre Phillips, Chris Speed, Tim Berne, Mark Ribot and other outstanding, current, cutting-edge musicians are barely noticed or go unmentioned. There should have been at least one chapter devoted to their work.

In view of Oxford’s resources this is a disappointing volume, for more than the reason cited above, but there are some stimulating essays in it. Editor Bill Kirchner’s been a jazz composer/arranger/instrumentalist and scholar and he’s picked some highly qualified people to write for him. Over the years, Bob Belden has done a great deal of work on Miles Davis, as Lewis Porter has on John Coltrane, and both have much of interest to say about their subjects. Dick Katz contributes a lucid essay on jazz piano in the 1940s and 1950s. Other essayists have not been given enough room to do much more than a once over lightly on their subjects. Thus we have general essays on the 100-year histories of jazz clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and trombone playing crammed into roughly 12 to 15 pages. Gunther Schuller gives us a lot of substantive material in his jazz-trombone piece, but the most advanced trombonist he cites is Albert Mangelsdorf, who was born in 1928. Granted, Mangelsdorf still sounds far-out to a lot of today’s fans, but there has been some evolution of trombone playing since he made his major impact. Schuller does not mention the relatively well-known George Lewis, let alone lesser-known but unique stylists in his essay, including Joe Fiedler and Steve Swell.

Similarly, Randy Sandke, in his essay on jazz trumpet/cornet playing from Buddy Bolden to the present does a nice job, but his work suffers from space limitations and he neglects more modern trumpeters, citing no influential stylists between Woody Shaw and Dave Douglas, who couldn’t be ignored because he’s received so much media attention. Mention could’ve been made of, among others, Herb Robertson, who influenced Douglas and the excellent, if thus far under appreciated Russ Johnson and Dave Ballou. Sandke also cites Wynton Marsalis in his chapter. Marsalis may have great chops, but he’s a derivative, backward-looking stylist who happens to have gotten a lot of publicity. He may swing and play blues-tinged solos, but he’s a mediocre improviser. Sandke says that Marsalis “seems less concerned with exploring new territory than with summing up the jazz tradition as he sees it…” Nevertheless Sandke feels he must include Marsalis also, perhaps because of the media attention he’s received.

Indeed, it seems that some of the people who put this book together may have wanted to make it less rigorous so that it would have more mass appeal. We have pieces entitled “Jazz Criticism,” “Jazz Clubs,” “Jazz Education,” “Jazz and American Literature,” “Jazz and Dance,” “Jazz in Films and Television.” There’s nothing wrong with addressing these topics, but I myself would’ve preferred it if the space given to them had been used to deal with music and musicians who were given short shrift.

Unfortunately too, there are some writers in this volume, like Keepnews, who have recognizable names but are just journalists without any particular musical expertise. As it is, even some of the solid essays in this book do not shed new light on their subjects because the space given to them is not sufficient. Just setting out the basic material on the history of jazz trumpet may take up a dozen pages. If you don’t get beyond that, knowledgeable readers aren’t going to learn much. Perhaps Oxford wants this book to serve as an introductory volume, which, however, looks so encyclopedic-it’s oversized and 852 pages long-that it should be in every jazz fan’s library. In any event, it’s not a disaster, but it could’ve been far, far better.

Originally Published