How to explain a lick to a layman

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The Independent Culture

There have been a succession of learned studies published this year, not least Equinox's volumes on Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano (Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and his popular legacy by Peter Ind; Chasin' the Bird: the life and legacy of Charlie Parker by Brian Priestley; both £16.99). For sheer pleasure, though, none can beat Jazz Anecdotes: Second Time Round (Oxford £10.99), a new edition of possibly the most delightful book ever written about jazz. Academic analyses are all very well, but the tales assembled by the US double bass player Bill Crow give a real feel of the jazz life. The experience of the pianist Eddie Thompson, trying to play in a very noisy nightclub, for instance: "The roar of conversation made the piano nearly inaudible. A few customers down front were trying to hear the music, and one of them rose in righteous indignation. He loudly went 'SHHHHH!'. From the piano, Eddie said, 'I'm sorry. I'm playing as quietly as I can.'"

Woody Herman supplied the perfect response to the listener who, ignoring the fact that Hermans's Herd was a jazz ensemble, asked if he could perform any Jewish music. "Well," said Herman, making a play on the name of a band member, "we have some arrangements by Al Cohn."

As well as stories of the humour necessary to cope with the demands of the bandstand and explanations of nicknames (Johnny Hodges being nicknamed "rabbit" not because of his prominent front teeth, but because of his fondness for lettuce and tomato sandwiches), there is the occasional poignant allusion to the second-class status black musicians suffered in the US. Just before Louis Armstrong's death, Clark Terry was asked to sound the ailing trumpeter out about an honorary degree from Harvard. But Pops, often criticised for pandering to white audiences, was not impressed. "To hell with them, Daddy," he said to Terry. "Where were they 40 years ago when I needed them?"

Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address) (Routledge £12.99) is a serious and passionate discussion about jazz's future. He sharply criticises the over-codification of jazz and the excessive reverence of the "tradition" advocated by the Wynton Marsalis school of thought, which greatly influenced Ken Burns's mammoth television series. An art form which ought constantly to investigate the new needs voices like Nicholson's to remind us of its purpose.

Richard Cook has had a busy year, producing not only a Jazz Encyclopaedia for Penguin (£30), but also It's About That Time: Miles Davis on and off the record for Atlantic (£14.99). One may well ask if we really need any more books on Miles; not six months seems to go by without another appearing. But if you want to go beyond Ian Carr's biography and Miles's own autobiography, Cook's new book would not be a bad choice for further reading. He explores his subject's life through his recordings, and isn't afraid to cock a snook by raising doubts about just how good, for instance, "Kind of Blue" was, or by castigating Herbie Hancock for playing a feeble solo on "Seven Steps to Heaven", when no word is normally said against Hancock's acoustic playing.

Cook's Enyclopaedia contains definitions useful to the layman - of "lick", "gig" and "bebop", for example - while the aficionado will relish the tartness of some of his entries. The late Neil Ardley has been posthumously praised as part of the revival of interest in UK jazz of the 1960s and 1970s. In Cook's opinion, however, Ardley's 1975 album Kaleidoscope of Rainbows still sounds "like a boring and ponderous record which might almost sum up why British jazz was losing so much of its audience at the time". I also like his bald statement about another UK musician, Harry Gold: "Nobody in jazz played the bass sax for longer than Gold."

Confirming that Cook is a man of good taste (that it is to say, my taste), he is generous about Maynard Ferguson and sees what I've always seen in another trumpeter who doesn't get his due, Randy Brecker. "Even when he doesn't sound as if he's trying all that hard, the lovely sound breaks through." So simple, but beautifully put.