During the last 100 years, music readily identified as jazz has performed multiple roles. In the beginning, jazz was an outlaw music, as disreputable as gangsta rap yet nowhere near as lucrative. Then there was a period of immense popularity, when jazz was the language of the American hit parade. This was replaced with a backlash that turned jazz into the epitome of hip, the sound of a self-conscious counterculture. A period of confusion followed, with jazz as high art vying with attempts to merge with contemporary pop. Eventually jazz became known as "America's classical music." These roles have not been mutually exclusive; depending on the audience, the musician and the historian, they are all capable of fitting most anything ever known as jazz.
That's the background information holding down the chord changes in Visions of Jazz: The First Century, a new book by Gary Giddins, the primary jazz critic for the Village Voice since the early 1970s. Giddins doesn't set up jazz as a story with a beginning, middle and present, but his roughly chronological structure takes us through these periods. Focusing on some 75 individuals who contributed to jazz's development, Giddins sets musical artistry into contexts both large and small. "Jazz is too capacious, generous, and lively an art to surrender to either ... concise survey (or) minute specialization," he says. Instead, his approach here is to close in on some small aspect of a musician's career, then pull outward until we can see where that aspect fits in a series of larger pictures.
Giddins could have written a concise survey of jazz history (as if jazz bookshelves needed yet another one of those) or an intensely focused study of one element of jazz (he's already written books on Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong). I have little doubt that he's heard every jazz recording ever made and seen virtually every performer alive in the last 35 years. He knows his subject inside and out, from the dim, distant past to the increasingly complex present. Giddins has devoted his life to jazz, stepping outside its parameters only to learn how another musical style might have affected the one he really loves.
Unlike most jazz fanatics, who tend to draw the line somewhere either stylistically or historically, Giddins is truly interested in every little stream that's flowed into or out of the great river of jazz. He argues in favor of the musical contributions of Bert Williams, Al Jolson, W.C. Handy and Spencer Williams, all of whom existed on the fringes of jazz, if they came close to it at all. Yet, to Giddins, these are people who deserve the respect they've barely been given. Of Handy, for example, who has often been denigrated for merely popularizing songs he'd not written, Giddins says: "It was Handy who organized the elements of the blues with compositional ambition, joining diverse refrains and focusing primary attention on melody."
This points to Giddins' overwhelming joy in form, a joy that separates him at least in emphasis from most other jazz critics. To Giddins, the single most important element of jazz is not necessarily improvisation and certainly not swing (though he's quite fond of both); it is the construction of music from individual elements placed in an interesting and unique formal relationship. Therefore the individual notes are important, in the way they combine to form melodies and variations, but the actual sounding of the notes is important, too, as is emotional content. Referring to a Coleman Hawkins solo on a 1929 Red McKenzie 78, Giddins says, "He has everything under control -- rhythm, intonation, melody, harmony, even the suspenseful romanticism (note the tension-building arpeggios in measures nine and ten) that remains at the core of the modern ballad style." That's the way Giddins tends to write about music. He describes literally hundreds of individual recordings in minute detail and makes each of them sound worthy of the attention. Sometimes he'll go on for pages, lavishing attention measure by measure on a particular favorite. (Only bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie cause him to get really bogged down in extensive transcription rather than description; their dazzling skills are displayed so fast that even Giddins can't explain what's happening without relying on traditional musical notation.) Other times, he'll refer to a series of recordings, briefly touching on highlights of several songs that lead one to believe the artist is a genius.
Now, there's a point: Giddins believes that each of the musicians he studies (with the single exception of Stan Kenton, chosen for comic relief as an example of kitsch, which must be "exquisitely, deliciously, and conceitedly bad") is, at least for the duration of the music he's discussing, absolutely brilliant. Reading this book is virtually guaranteed to make you want to hear quite a few of these artists, and, if you try to follow enough of his recommendations, it's guaranteed to make you think he's crazy at least once or twice. I tried listening to Rosemary Clooney and Tommy Flanagan, and the thrills of Giddins' prose just didn't come through my speakers. There's nothing wrong with that. The real value of Giddins' book is not necessarily the focus he provides on any given musician but the method of close listening he describes so effectively. Try this look at Louis Armstrong's masterpiece on for size: "'West End Blues' begins with a clarion call-to-arms -- a bewitching, fantastical, rhythmically head-long cadenza that, in Gunther Schuller's words, 'served notice that jazz had the potential to compete with the highest order of previously known expression.' The keening momentum of that passage cannot be precisely notated because note values are subtly altered by Armstrong's embouchure technique and extremely supple phrasing. The piece itself is an unusually banal King Oliver blues, but Armstrong refashions the twelve-bar theme into a varied and emotionally charged performance. Each chorus differs from its neighbors: a sober trombone solo accompanied by woodblocks; enchanting exchanges between clarinet and voice; a dreamy salon-style piano solo; and, ultimately, Armstrong's resplendent return on trumpet, holding one note for four measures then caroming into a series of fervent descending arpeggios."
You can pay that kind of attention to any music you happen to enjoy. During the weeks I read this book, I listened to music by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Television, the Afghan Whigs, Lauryn Hill, Christine Collister, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach, Heather Myles and Thelonious Monk. I heard so much more than I had heard before -- the ways the drums pushed or pulled at vocalists, the subtleties of vocal phrasing, the development of contrapuntal lines, the elegant simplicity of some melodies. Because Giddins can find rapture in music as controlled as that of Duke Ellington, as frenzied as that of Cecil Taylor and as obvious (to us, anyway) as that of Irving Berlin, I figure I can apply his approach to just about anything else.
Jazz fanatics will be able to argue with Giddins or nod their heads in agreement. They will also undoubtedly be intrigued by his description of someone they hadn't heard much before, whether it's a precursor like Ethel Waters, an early star like Pee Wee Russell, or a younger player such as Geri Allen or Don Byron. Jazz novices will decide they need to marvel at the work of Armstrong, Ellington, Monk, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Julius Hemphill, James Carter and Cassandra Wilson. Visions of Jazz lovingly complements the experience of music.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.