Christmas books: Jazz - Of beginners, nerds and Courtney Pine

William Sutcliffe looks at the perfect books for pianists and unembarrassed jazz-rock fans
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The Independent Culture
Putting a picture of Courtney Pine on the cover of a history of jazz is a little like emblazoning a history of cinema with a photograph of Oliver Stone. One can only assume that the people in the art department at Thames and Hudson never got round to reading Mervyn Cook's book, Jazz (Thames and Hudson pounds 7.95), and have never listened to any jazz records either.

Cook's sketchy but well-illustrated book attempts the impossible task of summing up the entire history of one of the century's major art forms in 200 pages. The result is an overview that is useful only for someone approaching the subject for the first time. By the time you have listened to enough of the records to be able to understand the book, you will have absorbed most of the information in the book anyway. Infinitely more satisfying is Ted Gioia's The History of Jazz (OUP pounds 19.99). This study is written in enough depth to reveal interesting facts about musicians with whose work one is already familiar. The real difficulty for anyone attempting to trace the history of an art form is to turn the narrative into something other than a survey. The cast of characters is so huge, and the interconnections between them so complex, that to give each figure their due without writing a book that feels like an unalphabetised encyclopedia of the subject is an almost impossible task.

Gioia gets over this hurdle more successfully than the authors of other recently published histories of jazz. A combination of lucid prose and sheer enthusiasm for the music gives this book an energy and intellectual coherence that, unusually for this subject, turns the book into a genuine history - not just a collection of facts.

Jazz geeks will be pleased to know that on one level, it is a collection of facts. No history of jazz would be complete without the odd eyebrow- raiser, along the lines of revealing that during his infamous 1959 to 1961 sabbatical, Sonny Rollins often spent the evening playing his saxophone to startled passers-by on Williamsburg Bridge, or pointing out the there is no tenor sax on Birth of the Cool. However, this book ascends to something more by achieving the rare feat of imposing a convincing structure on the extraordinarily diffuse development of jazz in the course of the century.

Most interesting of all is Gioia's analysis of the 1960s: a penetrating examination of the political and ideological roots of Free Jazz, with the freedoms demanded by the black rights movement mirrored in the search for new musical freedoms, which lead to the atonal and rhythmically radical music which burgeoned in that decade.

John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s, by Frank Kofsky (Pathfinder pounds 15.45), is an entire book dedicated to this subject. Unfortunately, however, Kofsky fails to see the political climate of the era with honesty or balance, and fails at length. Billed as an "expanded and revised" edition of his Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, published in 1970, the book reads as if more effort went into expansion than revision. It kicks off with the curious assertion that white people refuse to accept that jazz is a "black art", going on to say that "whites are generally unable to believe that blacks, as a people ... are capable of creating anything that is of durable value."

In the struggle to achieve serious recognition for jazz, these observations might have had some validity in 1970, but 28 years on, they represent a ludicrously out-of-date assessment of the position of black music in American culture. Moreover, Kofsky's leaden prose prevents him from bringing his subject to life. The book does, however reprint the author's enlightening and historically important interview with the elusive Coltrane, dating from shortly before the saxophonist's death.

Another lengthy book dealing with the subject of one of Gioia's chapters is Jazz-Rock (Canongate pounds 12.99) by Stuart Nicholson. Such specialisation means that Nicholson really can get to the core of his subject, which he does with some relish. There is an occasional tendency to lapse into muso-speak, such as describing Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" as "a medium- tempo minor-7th vamp over which Hancock's polytonal approach made use of triads and fourths", which somehow feels like the wrong way to get to grips with a funk tune. However, on the whole, this book is both readable and entertaining, assuming you already have an interest in the subject and aren't embarrassed to own up as a jazz-rock fan.

Bill Evans is universally recognised as the pianists' pianist. In other words, his music is a bit boring, but he had an innovative technique and steered clear of horn players. Being the undisputed master of the jazz trio is something that impresses pianists but tends to send the rest of us to sleep. Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger (Yale pounds 19.95) therefore has, one suspects, a limited readership. Still, if you are a pianist, and you are interested in reading the in-depth life story of a guy who spent his entire life doing nothing much other than playing the piano, then this could well be the book for you.

Pettinger's problem as a biographer, that musicians are generally a little dull, is not one faced by Ian Carr. In writing Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography (Harper Collins pounds 19.99), the hardest task would be one of selection rather than padding out. Davis is not only one of the undisputed major cultural icons of the 20th century, he was also a fascinating human being who lived a restless and extreme life, at the top of his profession for more than 40 years.

Miles Davis is a biographer's gift subject, and Carr has done him ample justice. Miles's own autobiography, co-written by Quincy Troupe, published in 1989, will always be the definitive portrait of Davis, but this biography is a fascinating counterpart to that book. Curiously, Davis's character is presented in a more flattering portrait in Carr's work than in his own book. The autobiography is swamped by Davis's egotism, misogyny, violence and pride, creating the cumulative impression that the book is an accidental hatchet-job on its own author.

Carr, however, reveals a kinder, softer and infinitely more likeable man. The account of Davis's comeback in the early eighties, after five years of drug-addled seclusion, is particularly memorable. It is hard to imagine Carr's biography being bettered or superseded.