Jazz has been a part of America's cultural heritage for a full century, but it's probably true, as Tom Piazza notes in his new book, that it is "more appreciated than understood." Once the prevailing popular music of the land, it has shrunk to a mere 2 percent of the market.
Yet this venerable art form refuses to grow old and go away. And if, as author Gerald Early has said, America's three great contributions to the world are the Constitution, baseball and jazz, then it's time jazz was better known in the land where it was born.
Now Hear This
Piazza, a novelist and critic, aims to fill the gap with Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen (Random House, $27.95), a basic how-to book. With an accompanying compact disc of seven diverse works, Piazza illustrates musical forms, improvisation, the blues vocabulary, musical storytelling and other distinguishing elements of jazz.
One of its central hallmarks, he reminds us, is that the performer aspires to an individual voice: "Rather than striving for a Platonic purity of tone, an ideal sound, as a classical orchestral musician might, every jazz musician strives to develop a personal sound, one that is unique and that expresses his or her own personality and sensibility." On every page, you realize how astutely Piazza has listened. In his annotations, which sometimes follow a recording second by second, he peels away some of the mystery of jazz, which only makes it seem all the more magical. His chapter on improvisation, which traces the contrasting styles of Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie in their 1957 recording of "The Eternal Triangle," is the best analysis of the subject I've ever read.
You wouldn't think a book of basic musicology would be controversial, but Understanding Jazz was prepared with the help of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) and has an introduction by Wynton Marsalis. In the hermetic world of jazz, you could not find a redder flag to wave. Over the past 20 years, Marsalis has returned jazz to its historical fundamentals as the artistic director of JALC, which has made him both the most influential and the most reviled figure in the music.
One writer who thinks Marsalis is thwarting the future of jazz is British critic Stuart Nicholson, the author of biographies of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Nicholson spends a full third of his polemical Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has it Moved to a New Address) (Routledge; paperback, $19.95) spitting venom at Marsalis and his cabal, accusing them of driving jazz back into the past. He charges Marsalis with reverse race, age and sex discrimination, and with being a lousy composer. For good measure, he takes potshots at Ken Burns's 2000 documentary on the history of jazz. (In a nutshell, it had too much history.) Nicholson argues that Marsalis has enforced a musical conservatism that "limits horizons" and has "marginalized" electric jazz and the free-jazz styles of Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor -- as if that were a bad thing. With Nicholson's casual reference to the "hegemonic styles" of the traditional jazz idiom, you wonder who's being more judgmental.
Nicholson praises Miles Davis's experiments with rock and funk in the 1970s, claiming that when Davis died in 1991, "jazz was plunged into a crisis of confidence" because its "only surviving bona fide superstar was suddenly gone." This is nonsense. First of all, many "bona fide superstars" were still around, including Fitzgerald, Gillespie, Rollins, Oscar Peterson and Elvin Jones. Second, Nicholson is wrong to praise Davis's baffling and banal forays into electronica; it's like saying "Analyze That" is a great movie because Robert De Niro is in it.
It's possible to agree with some of Nicholson's points -- that Jazz at Lincoln Center is rife with cronyism, that jazz is no longer an exclusively African-American mode of expression, that government subsidies would benefit the music and society as a whole -- and still find his larger arguments wrong-headed.
Nicholson sees the future of jazz in what he calls "glocalization," a kind of global musical village with distinct regional voices. He is particularly enamored of Scandinavia, where musicians borrow from Nordic folk songs and sometimes perform with laptop computers. But in fact, this international trend has been around since the 1930s, when Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli gave jazz an elegant French accent -- even without downloading.
Nicholson criticizes jazz for falling behind classical and pop music "in terms of electronic experimentation," then lavishes praise on Grandmaster Flash, Herbie Hancock's hip-hop dalliances, deejay dance mixes and the passing fad of acid jazz. Ultimately, his plea that listeners accept every electronic gadget and Euro-squawk is at least as dogmatic as Marsalis's mission to restore the historic integrity of jazz. When you introduce electric instruments, computers, hip-hop and all the rest, the fundamental language of jazz is altered. The music may be perfectly fine, but you can't call it jazz.
The Joy of Sax
One musician who embodies Nicholson's theory of "glocalization" is Paquito D'Rivera, a Cuban-born saxophone and clarinet virtuoso who plays classical music, jazz and Latin dance music with equal skill. A professional musician since the age of 6, D'Rivera has also written a novel, and in My Sax Life (Northwestern Univ., $29.95) he's produced a breathless, sometimes vulgar romp through his life, both before and after his exile from Cuba.
A staunch opponent of Fidel Castro, D'Rivera has no patience for anyone who admires anything about Cuba under communism -- and that includes Nelson Mandela and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He dramatically describes his 1980 escape, when he sought asylum in Spain and left his wife and son behind. (They were later reunited, but the marriage didn't survive.) D'Rivera recites endless lists of sidemen and recording dates, but he reveals little of his own musical approach, except to praise Brazilian music as "the most balanced formula of rhythm-melody-harmony in the world" and to mock Cuban trumpeters for "playing high-pitched notes that only dogs can hear."
D'Rivera may be one of the few saxophonists Michael Segell didn't interview for The Devil's Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool (Farrar Straus Giroux, $25). Segell, a New York journalist and amateur musician, guides us on an entertaining journey from the saxophone's origins in the fevered mind and workshop of Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax to its modern masters.
We learn that the instrument business was so cutthroat in the 19th century that Sax was almost assassinated by rivals. Itinerant saxophone showmen, such as the Six Brown Brothers and Rudy Wiedoeft, became international celebrities in the 1920s, only to find "ignominy and destitution in the thirties." Segell offers a short course on the saxophone in jazz, from Coleman Hawkins to Joe Lovano, but he takes us down a few too many side streets, exploring the private worlds of the single-minded collectors of saxiana.
If you think Segell goes too far when he calls the saxophone the "gateway to new levels of perception and experience," consider this: In 1951, movie censors removed a saxophone soundtrack from a provocative scene in "A Streetcar Named Desire" because they thought it sounded like sheer, unbridled lust. It wasn't restored until the DVD version.
In telling the beguiling story of the saxophone, Segell is obliged, alas, to include this unwelcome fact: Kenny G is the best-selling instrumentalist of all time. *
The photos that accompany this review are taken from Jazz (Chronicle, $40), a striking book by California photographer Jim Marshall. Something about jazz musicians -- their concentration, their stark profiles on a darkened stage, the cigarette smoke swirling around their heads -- is conducive to beautiful black-and-white images. Marshall's book includes entrancing portraits of, among others, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ben Webster, Bill Evans and Ray Charles. In their hands and in their focused faces and eyes, you can practically hear the music come to life.
Matt Schudel is a Washington Post staff writer.