A new take on a standard

This history of jazz is more a primer on how to listen to it

'Jazz' offers novices lessons on history and detailed analyses of performances by greats such as Louis Armstrong (left) and Billie Holiday, supplemented by an optional CD boxed set being released in conjunction with the book. "Jazz" offers novices lessons on history and detailed analyses of performances by greats such as Louis Armstrong (left) and Billie Holiday, supplemented by an optional CD boxed set being released in conjunction with the book. (Louis Armstrong House & Archives)
By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / November 22, 2009

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Do we need another gargantuan book that purports to retell the history of jazz? The aficionado’s bookcase is crammed with such texts, which come and quickly go. But the latest one, by the highly respected and talented jazz scribes Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, arrives with a twist.

Simply and audaciously titled “Jazz’’ this 704-page monster is really more of a beginner’s guide. The well-informed won’t glean much from these pages. But the listener who has only dipped his toes in and would like to take a few swimming lessons - well, then, this is his book.

At its heart, “Jazz’’ is a history lesson. Giddins and DeVeaux start with post-Civil War African-American folk culture and wind up in 2008, when the Grammy for best album went to Herbie Hancock for “River: The Joni Letters,’’ his tribute to Joni Mitchell. But this book also serves as a covert primer on how to hear jazz - what to listen for, and how to understand what is going on. Such a conceit might seem pretentious - indeed, it might seem arrogant, suggesting that the listener needs to know something before she can appreciate the music and determine whether she likes it - but it is not.

If anything, the authors analyze individual performances to the extreme, in their attempt to impart wisdom. Here is what distinguishes “Jazz’’ from those that have come before: It contains copious dissections of 78 tracks. A recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues’’ or Sarah Vaughan’s “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?’’ is scrutinized and annotated, with authors’ notes explaining what happens as the tune begins, eight seconds into it, and on and on.

In just about every case, it’s an overly academic exercise that becomes a buzzkill. By nature, a jazz fan wants to be surprised, energized, even jolted by music. Forget all that. A two-and-half-minute recording of “Weather Bird’’ by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines consumes two pages of examination: “0:00: Armstrong plays the opening melody on trumpet, discreetly backed by Hines’s piano. 0:04 Armstrong displays his command of dynamics. Some notes are played at full volume.’’ Et cetera, et cetera.

In many instances the intense analysis comes at the expense of history. Billie Holiday was perhaps jazz’s most important singer, yet the authors’ dissection of “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,’’ one of her lesser known pieces, gets as much ink as does her entire career. More problematic is that the passages mean nothing to the reader unless the reader is multitasking: reading and listening to a recording at the same time. Yet who among us possesses all of the recordings mentioned herein?

Ah, problem solved. And here’s the twist: It’s not just a book; it’s a CD box set. W.W. Norton & Co. is simultaneously releasing a four-CD package containing all 78 tracks. This is ingenious marketing: $40 book + $60 CD set = $100 sale. But, again, this book (and CD collection) is for the novice, and it would be hard to improve upon “Recordings: For Jazz’’ as an audio introduction. The selections do a fine job of representing the genre’s many stages, and the audio fidelity is supreme.

Get beyond all that, though, and there’s not much to distinguish the actual book, which is largely an aggregation of what has come before. Complex life stories - Django Reinhardt’s, Thelonious Monk’s, Ella Fitzgerald’s - are condensed in a few paragraphs. Landmark recordings are dispensed with no sooner than they are introduced. Yes, the authors are trying to distill 100 years of history but still: We’ve heard all this before. The lack of footnoting is particularly troubling. The so-called end notes are insufficient; they fail to attribute even the most basic sourcing. Then there are the liberties taken by Giddins and DeVeaux. They write that free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler “died, a suicide, at thirty-four.’’ Really? Ayler’s death has been a constant source of speculation and argument. His body was found floating in New York’s East River in 1970, and the cause of death was never determined.

Quibbles aside, one could do much worse for an introduction to jazz. It’s all here (albeit abbreviated), from Bessie Smith to Buddy Bolden to Louis Armstrong to Coleman Hawkins to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Jason Moran. The basic configurations of the jazz ensemble are examined and explained for the uninitiated. Frank Sinatra, for once, gets respect in a jazz history, and fusion - the real thing, as done by Miles Davis and his compatriots - gets more due than Ken Burns and his ilk would ever afford. George Russell’s complicated theories about chords’ relation to one another are explained in a way almost anyone can comprehend, and the contributions of contemporaries as disparate as Wynton Marsalis and Vijay Iyer are presented in their proper contexts. Massachusetts finally gets its props as the center of jazz education, and Boston-bred George Wein, the impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival, gets more than the requisite passing mention.

All of which is well and good. Just be prepared to buy the CDs if you want to appreciate “Jazz’’ to its fullest.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at

By Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux
Norton, 704 pp., illustrated, $39.95

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