By Bill Crow

Oxford. 350 pp. $19.95

JAZZ is a music of so many elements, so many of them astonishingly original and complex, that it's easy to forget how high a place humor occupies among them. But if you think about it for a moment, the connection becomes immediate and obvious: Men and women who can improvise musically, often at the speed of light, are likely to be people whose wits are as quick as their imaginations. Much of their humor is musical: Count Basie at the piano, Sid Catlett on drums, Milt Hinton on bass -- these are wits of a very high order. But there is also jazz talk, which is part lingua franca and part repartee and part merciless putdown -- and all hugely amusing.

It's a language born both of the mental alacrity of those who speak it and of the peculiar circumstances in which their lives are lived. To be sure the jazz scene has changed a bit over a generation or two -- fewer smoky nightclubs, more antiseptic auditoriums -- but it still means incessant travel, erratic and sometimes impossible playing conditions, arbitrary bandleaders and agents and managers, groupies and hangers-on and artificial hepcats, booze and dope and irregular food. That so much truly original and inspired music is created in these conditions is something of a miracle; that musicians have resorted to humor as a means of coping with them is scarcely surprising, but the level of that humor is exuberantly high.

It is the principal ingredient of Jazz Anecdotes, which is presented as a compendium of jazz stories but is really an omnium gatherum of jazz talk. Take for example the time Jimmy Knepper, the trombonist, drove up to a 60-cent tollgate and forked over a dollar and a dime. "What's this?" the collector asked. Knepper replied: "An intelligence test." Or the time Chet Baker, the trumpeter, was introduced to Romano Mussolini, jazz pianist and son of the executed Italian dictator. "Oh, yeah, man," Baker said by way of greeting, "it was a drag about your dad." Or the time a dancer asked Woody Herman if his band could play "Jewish music." Herman replied: "We have some arrangements by Al Cohn."

Speaking of whom. Cohn ran into a friend, who told him, "I'm going back to school. I'm studying Jewish history." "What would you like to know?" Cohn replied. Once a panhandler asked Cohn to give him a dollar for a drink. As he handed over the money Cohn said, "Wait a minute. How do I know you won't spend this on food?" In Europe, Cohn was urged to try a local brand, Elephant Beer. "No," he said, "I drink to forget." Once Cohn remarked to a friend that he'd just made an album with 24 mandolin players. "Where did they find that many mandolin players?" he was asked. "Well," Cohn said, "all day today you couldn't get a haircut in Jersey City."

Cohn was probably the champion wit of modern jazz -- though there's disappointingly little herein of Paul Desmond and Dave Frischberg -- but he had plenty of predecessors. Chief among them was perhaps Eddie Condon, whose merits as a guitarist were open to debate but whose mind was as quick as Art Tatum's hands. In a hotel suite Condon "noticed a fake fireplace with artificial logs and the illusion of a fire created by red cellophane in front of a light bulb." Condon said: "It's cold in here. Could you please throw another bulb on the fire?" The difference between modern and traditional jazz? "They flat their fifths. We consume ours." At the first Newport Jazz Festival, held at the home of American tennis, the Casino, Condon was asked by a club member what he thought of the scene. "It's the end of tennis," he said. And sick in the hospital with acute pancreatitis, Condon said as he took a transfusion: "This must be Fats Waller's blood. I'm getting high."

Truth to tell much of the humor in Jazz Anecdotes, as in jazz, has to do with drinking and drunks. It's a little odd that in a book broken down into 43 sub-categories Bill Crow didn't find space for one on alcohol, but perhaps he realized this has been so pervasive a part of the jazz life that it would simply have to be represented in any section. It's sad, though, to read about the fine clarinetist, Pee Wee Russell, who "spent a number of years of his life so thoroughly soaked in alcohol that his memory of them was blurred when serious health problems finally forced him to give up drinking," or to encounter a succession of tales about Zoot Sims, the tenor saxophonist, laughing off his own addiction to the hard stuff. Reading Jazz Anecdotes one can't help but note that even more than in American literature, alcohol has been in jazz an instrument of distraction and debilitation masquerading as inspiration.

But if drunken war stories are omnipresent in Jazz Anecdotes, they're scarcely alone among important themes. Chief among these, apart from musical matters, is race. Needless to say this means that some sour notes are struck, by black and white musicians alike, yet for all the racial tension with which the music has been afflicted it remains that jazz has done more to unite the races than to divide them. With the rarest of exceptions, jazz musicians understand that talent and achievement matter more than color or ethnicity, and they have acted accordingly.

None has been more outspoken, or more wittily so, than the great trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie. In the summer of 1959 he appeared at a jazz festival in French Lick, a town in southern Indiana where certain racial barriers were still enforced. The encounter produced what is my favorite story in a book that's full of winners:

"From the lobby the blue water of the pool looked inviting, and {two black musicians} had just about decided to go get into their swim suits when Dizzy Gillespie stepped out of the elevator. He was wearing bathing trunks from the French Riviera, an embroidered skull-cap from Greece and embroidered slippers with curled-up toes that he'd picked up in Turkey. A Sheraton bath towel draped over his shoulders like a cape was fastened at the neck with a jade scarab pin from Egypt. With a Chinese ivory cigarette holder in his left hand and a powerful German multiband radio in his right, he beamed cheerfully through a pair of Italian sunglasses.

" 'I've come to integrate the pool!' he announced. He led the way to the beach chairs at poolside, enthroning himself in one with plenipotentiary panache. After he had the attention of everyone at the poolside, he grabbed {the white musician} Jimmy McPartland, who had also come down for a swim. Arm in arm, the two trumpet players marched to the diving board and jumped in together, and the last barrier to integration at French Lick was down."