Chistmas Books Special - Part Two: Jazz

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The Independent Culture

'The jazz critic," said the former Downbeat editor Dan Morgenstern, "is at best tolerated and at worst despised by the great majority of jazz musicians." This sentiment, quoted early on in John Gennari's Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and its critics (University of Chicago Press, £18) will be familiar to any scribe who's ever wondered why his innocent note-taking at the back of a club provokes such wariness in the musicians whose efforts he is documenting. I can vividly remember shrinking into my seat at the BBC Jazz Awards one year when the otherwise affable Courtney Pine had a go at the critical fraternity (as Gennari notes, they are pretty much all men), and the audience of jazz professionals roared their agreement.

Yet the jazz critic has often played a far more important role vis-a-vis his subjects than the rock reviewer, describing as he is a music that long ago shed any close relationship with popular taste. As an art form, jazz has built up a language of analysis every bit as sophisticated as those used to write about installation art or classical music, and the critic often shares the professional insecurity of jazz's practitioners. "Like the vast majority of musicians," writes Gennari, "they've had to scramble and scuffle to stay afloat in their chosen discipline... No writer has ever made a living writing exclusively about jazz."

Why does all this matter? Because in the first century of jazz's existence, it's the critics who have articulated the arguments about where jazz is from, who it belongs to and where its boundaries lie. They have been its historians and its definers; and if anyone queries the latter purpose, one can ask just how it is possible to love or document something if you cannot say what it actually is.

This is a valuable book, and a fascinating one, ranging from the important role played by the critic John Hammond in promoting Benny Goodman and Bessie Smith in the 1930s, to the epic battles over the "Young Lions" movement in the 1980s. It was then that the American critic Stanley Crouch was fired from The Village Voice after punching a colleague in a disagreement about music. "Just because I write, it doesn't mean I can't also fight," he said, which surely ought to close any discussion about whether critics really care about the music or not.

Not even the sainted Humphrey Lyttelton has been immune to criticism in his time, as he recalls in It Just Occurred to Me... (Robson Books, £12.99), one of the most charming and laugh-out-loud funny books I have ever had the pleasure to read. His addition of a saxophone to his New Orleans-style band in 1953 was so controversial that students attending a gig in Birmingham printed a huge banner reading "GO HOME, DIRTY BOPPER". "Bruce," writes Humph of the offending saxophonist, "was highly sensitive, and from then until the end of his life he remained deeply suspicious of Birmingham and its jazz population."

As Lyttelton is also "Chairman Humph" of Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, the son of an Eton housemaster whose correspondence with Rupert Hart-Davis was published in six volumes, and the possessor of an array of distinguished and eccentric relatives and ancestors, this book does not only concern itself with jazz. It also contains information about such vital subjects as how to make scrambled eggs on toast. If you have an electric toaster, warns Humph, "be sure the machine is fully run-in before use. If not, it is likely to fling the finished slice up to the ceiling and thence into some distant corner of the room, where it will be pounced upon and devoured by a dog, a cat or even perhaps a swan that has entered the house unannounced."

Useful in an entirely different way is the Eighth Edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (£30) by Richard Cook and Brian Morton. The thing to do with a book like this is to look either for mistakes or for opinions with which you vehemently, if not violently (although not to Stanley Crouch lengths) disagree. It is a tribute to Cook and Morton's expertise that neither are apparent. There are some slightly odd omissions - still no entry for the superb late Seventies group Steps Ahead, for instance - but plenty of tart observations: "Should anyone ever tell you that Teo Macero never produced a dodgy record," they write of Maynard Ferguson's "Chameleon", "this is the one to pull out."

The publication that best filled a gap this year has been Tom Perchard's biography of Lee Morgan, Lee Morgan: His life, music and culture (Equinox, £18.99). The book is, amazingly, the first on the trumpeter who helped define the Blue Note sound in the 1960s but died aged only 33 after being shot by his girlfriend in a New York club. The records have always been Morgan's legacy, but Perchard proves Gennari's point that critics have their uses, too.

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