THE HISTORY OF JAZZ
By Ted Gioia
Oxford. 471 pp. $30

Go to the first chapter of "The History of Jazz"

Go to Chapter One




All the Right Notes

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page X03
The Washington Post

The title of this book is commandingly peremptory: not "a" history of jazz, but "the" history of jazz. Yet The History of Jazz lives up to that claim. It is a remarkable piece of work, not without its shortcomings or its invitations to argument but, withal, the definitive work: encyclopedic, discriminating, provocative, perceptive and eminently readable. With its publication, it can no longer be said that the literature of jazz falls far short of the music itself.

The sweep of Ted Gioia's narrative is grand, indeed helps us understand just how grand the story of jazz really is. It begins in Africa, moves on to the cotton fields of the Deep South, to New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Kansas City, the West Coast, and finally establishes itself throughout the globe. It embraces a vast cast of characters, a few of them geniuses, some of them true "characters," almost all of them singular and endlessly interesting. It parallels the course of 20th-century American history with eerie accuracy, and it covers artistic changes and developments of breathtaking range.

If you are, as I am, old enough to have witnessed much of what Gioia describes, you will be both startled and delighted to grasp the full import of the story of jazz. When I was born, in October 1939, the greatest of the big bands were at the height of their glory; in the nearly six decades since then, the music has made its way through bop, hard bop, cool jazz, modern jazz, free jazz, fusion, the repertory movement and the new traditionalism -- to name just a few of the styles that have come and gone, each leaving something to be assimilated into a tradition that grows ever larger, ever deeper, ever more complex. But I, at least, have been too close to the action to see the forest for the trees; now, thanks to Gioia, we have the entire panorama.

It is tempting to go on and on at endless length, hauling out the names and the genres and the styles about whom and which Gioia writes with such authority, but lovers of jazz know them already and those who do not know the music well would find the exercise bewildering. Suffice it to say that his analysis of the giants -- Armstrong, Ellington, Goodman, Parker, Gillespie, Mingus, Davis, Coltrane, Mulligan, Rollins -- is keen, admiring yet unsentimental, at once distinctly his own yet incorporating the best of jazz criticism and scholarship. He writes with real originality about the distinctive contributions of the guitarist and raconteur Eddie Condon, a "secondary figure [who] managed somehow to become a primary source in the history of jazz"; the arranger Don Redman, "an influential link between the Jazz Age and the Swing Era"; the nonpareil drummer Sid Catlett, whose "two-decade career included gigs with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, a whole history of rhythm encompassed in those seven names"; and the pianist Lenny Tristano, prickly and monomaniacal, the "key elements" of whose style became "defining elements in jazz piano."

So much that Gioia does along these lines is so fine that I could fill this page and several others describing and quoting from it. Instead, though, it is probably more useful to more readers to trace, in brief, the broader themes that are at the heart of this book. A few will seem familiar, others less so. But if they have all previously been brought together within the pages of a single book, one that makes the connections among all of them as astutely as this one does, I am unaware of it.

The most important is raised in a paragraph that deserves to be quoted in full, not merely for what it tells us about the development of jazz but for the light it sheds on how jazz is a distinctly contemporary art form:

"Jazz has always been a music of fusion. 'Nothing from New Orleans is ever pure' -- so goes an old throwaway phrase. But even by Crescent City standards, early jazz was an especially complex melange. The Southern mentality that obsessively measured infinitesimal gradations -- delineating differences of quadroon from octoroon the way Aquinas demarked angels from cherubim and seraphim -- quickly came to a cul-de-sac in tracing the lineage of this radical new music. Impure at its birth, jazz grew ever more so as it evolved. Its history is marked by a fondness for musical miscegenation, by its desire to couple with other styles and idioms, producing new, radically different progeny. In its earliest form, jazz showed an ability to assimilate the blues, the rag, the march and other idioms; as it evolved, it transformed a host of even more disparate sounds and styles. It showed no pretensions, mixing as easily with vernacular musics -- the American popular song, the Cuban son, the Brazilian samba, the Argentinean tango -- as with concert-hall fare. Jazz in its contemporary form bears traces of all these passages. It is the most glorious of mongrels."

It is difficult to imagine a more succinct description of jazz's evolution and central character. Cross-fertilization is its dominant characteristic, which is why the balkanization to which its performers, composers and listeners are too often prone -- dividing as they do along lines of style, of tradition and of, alas, race -- is so unrelated to the true reality of the music. Jazz is a mix, as Gioia conclusively demonstrates, not merely of musical styles but of other influences, some of which are not immediately detectable: the phonograph recording and the radio, the ceaseless combat between art and commerce, a seductive, pervasive "mythology . . . that romanticized the jazz life," the pull between tradition and the "forward-looking" impulse of modernism. The point about jazz is not that everything within it seems so different but that everything connects.

The History of Jazz is not absolutely perfect. Gioia deals with the questions of race that are so central to every aspect of it but tends to dance around them; an extended discussion of the conflicting and mutually reinforcing strains of Jim Crow and its obverse, Crow Jim, is missing, and is a major omission. Every reader's personal inclinations will at times run aground on Gioia's judgment; I happen to think he overrates Stan Kenton and, in emphasizing the "chamber-music style" of the Modern Jazz Quartet, underemphasizes its persistent, if at times subtle, swing. Though he provides a useful, highly selective list of recommended recordings, it is a pity that his publisher did not include a compact disc of illustrative selections, as Yale University Press did a couple of years ago for Barry Kernfeld's What to Listen for in Jazz.

Never mind. If you are looking for an introduction to jazz, this is it. If you know and love jazz well, this is your vade mecum. Me, I expect to be reading around in it for the rest of my life.

Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is yardleyj@clark.net.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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