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Visions of Jazz: The First Century by Gary Giddins

As we approach the millennium, it is only natural to expect a mounting flurry of books dealing with all sorts of phenomena that saw their beginnings in the early years of the twentieth century. Many of these will take the form of chronological histories, detailed accounts of year-by-year events that, in sum, will present a lucid seamless picture of a vital art form in the process of redefining itself by stages. Jazz, with its colorful cast of characters, inclusive of both revered icons and renegade iconoclasts, as well as many thousands who fit neither mold, lends itself particularly well to this approach. Taken generation by generation, style by offshoot or backlash style, this type of text serves an invaluable purpose to all students of jazz, whether enthusiastic neophytes or wizened cognoscenti. But this is not the only way to write about history. Gary Giddins openly opts for another path, that of the centrally focused essay. He is not trying to depict the entire story of jazz, but he is attempting to weave a thread of continuity through it via the study of individual performers, all of whom share in one way or another a particular creative vision. The number of such musicians is in itself staggering, but the goal is even more so. Considering, though, that the major part of this material had its origins in columns that Giddins has been writing for more than 25 years, we should not be overly daunted by his seemingly Herculean effort. Good writing, as well as reflective thinking, does take time.

We have long known Giddins to be a careful wordsmith-even a casual scan of any one of his essays will reveal fresh metaphors and uncommon uses of common and not so common words-but even more importantly than this exercise of craftsman-like skill is the perception and heightened insight he brings to his discussions of the jazzman’s art. Structurally, the book is divided into 79 chapters, each of which deals with one or, sometimes, two or more related musicians. Ellington is covered in three widely separated chapters, each concentrating on a different period in his long career, while just a few of the other major figures include Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, Hawkins, Pee Wee, Waller, Goodman, Eldridge, Shaw, Sinatra, Bird, Diz, Sarah, Monk, Bud, Dexter, Miles, Mulligan, Blakey, Billie, Getz, Rollins, Dinah, Tatum, Mingus, Cecil, Ornette, and Coltrane, as well as a slew of assorted avant-gardists, free-jazzers, and modern mainstreamers.

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