Who are the giants of jazz?
Ask 100 jazz fans and you'll probably get 100 different answers.
Nevertheless, Time-Life Records isn't shy about offering its own nominees in a new album series called "Giants of Jazz."
A Sidney Bechet album is the latest release. It was preceded by albums by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins," Jelly Roll" Morton, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagerden, Bix Beiderbecke and Billie Holiday.
Time-Life officials say there eventually may be 30 albums in the series. Forthcoming releases will include Earl Hines, Red Allen, Benny Carter, James P. Johnson, Red Norvo, Art Tatum and Lester Young.
The nine albums released so far contain three records each, hgihlighting a performer's career. They also include biographical booklets with separate looks at the lives and music of the artists. Each album costs $19.95 and is available only through mail order from Time-Life Records, 541 N. Fairbanks Court, Chicago, Ill. 60611.
Time-Life has entered what is rapidly becoming a jazz record mail-order "sweepstakes." The Book of the Month Club and the Smithsonian Institution have similar programs. However, Time-Life is more ambitious in trying to examine the entire career of a performer in three records.
It's an excellent idea, to introduce a large body of a performer's work to a mass audience. And many subscribers may well end up looking at Armstrong and Ellington, Hawkins and Holiday as serious artists for the first time after hearing these albums.
The musical selections are diverse and usually cover a wide chronology. The fidelity is generally excellent. The biographies are filled with anecdotes and the musical analayses are succinct. And some interesting discs, like those in the Teagarden set, are being returned to print after a long absence.
But the series is seriously flawed.Too many questionable selections are included. The liner notes are frequently a hodgepodge of anecdotes and bromides.Important recent records are generally ignored, and the range of musical styles is limited.
No one would expect general agreement on such a subjective -- and idiosyncartic -- process as choosing the artistic highlights of a performer's career. However, it's inexcusable to leave out such Armstrong master pieces as "Big Butter and Egg Man," "S.O.L. Blues," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Skip the Gutter," "Weatherbird," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "I Double Dare You." And it's just as reprehensible to include Armstrong pap like "Marie," with the Mills Brothers, or marginal material such as "Lil's Hot Shots" and "Willie the Weeper."
The same ojbection applies to the Hawkins album, which includes four selections by the tenor saxophonist delivering competent but uninspired solos with the Ramblers, a good but undistinguished Dutch band of the 1930s. Nowhere is his great unaccomplanied solo, "Picasso," his studio appearances with the Count, Basie Orchestra in 1941 or his superb Keynote label material from 1944.
The albums also ignore outstanding latter day work of several performers. Nothing is included, say, from Armstrong's last great album in which he performs W. C. Handy music, Hawkins taking his bold excursion into modern jazz with Thelonious Monk, or Ellington's splendid work from the 1950s and 1960s (the various suites or the magnificent Billy Strayhorn album of 1967. Even more curious is the absence of the sterling Ellington small ensemble discs from the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The album annotations are generally disappointing in their emphasis on the anecdotal at the expense of careful analysis of the musicians and their times.
Finally, how can an album series that so far plans no treatment of the jazz modernists (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Sarah Vaughan, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis) purport to call itself the "Giants of Jazz"?
The series may serve as a quick introduction to a group of performers. But people who want to hear a more comprehensive and serious treatment of the music of Bechet and Morton, Young and Carter, should go elsewhere.