Thursday books: Jazz blowing hot and cool
Thursday 18 March 1999
BY GARY GIDDINS, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, pounds 25
THE PLAYBOY BOOK OF JAZZ
BY NEIL TESSER, BLOOMSBURY, pounds 14.99
FOR MOST of the first century of its existence, jazz was best known for what it wasn't: orthodox, white, respectable and middle-class. Forged in the muggy, disreputable furnace of Storyville, a black sub-section of New Orleans where prostitution and its attendant vices were legalised as a form of containment, jazz was what people did when they were doing what they weren't supposed to do. It wasn't simply so-called black music, inspired by funeral bands and whorehouse pianos. Rather, jazz was unofficial culture, a sort of carnival break from the humdrum and mundane.
In its early days, "jazz" denoted intensely unquantifiable things such as sex, dance, hot music and a perpetual state of nervous stimulation. It was perfect urban music, a means of burning off all that commuter haste and metal. When Louis Armstrong took some of King Oliver's better Dixieland musicians to Chicago in the Twenties and recorded a series of spectacular singles (which provide the soundtrack for many a classic Woody Allen comedy), he blew the last bars of restraint out of ensemble music and instituted in its place a ragged series of free-form solo improvisations.
Suddenly, the controlling melody wasn't the whole story; rather, it provided a runway from which wild riffs and lugubrious vocals took off, as in Armstrong's influential burst of "scat" in the aptly-titled "Heebie Jeebies": "Eh, eef, gaff, mmff, dee-bo, deedle-la-bahm/Rip-rip, de-doo-de-doo, de-doo- de-doo, da-de-da-da-do..." No wonder many people considered jazz, and scat- singing in particular, a form of lewd exhibitionism. " 'Taint What You Do," Trummy Young used to sing, "It's the Way That You Do It."
But, like most innovations in politics and art, jazz quickly generated its own antithesis. If Armstrong and his hard-bop descendants wanted to just blat it all out (Armstrong, incidentally, was also a fervent proponent of that other form of inner release, bowel purgatives), then the counter- trendies of jazz dispensed their music with more restraint and composure. The laconic, tuneful Bix Beiderbecke, for example, adored Armstrong but went on to sound like everything Armstrong wasn't: more flowing than percussive, more Ravel than Jelly Roll. Coleman Hawkins created his own rough flare about the same time as Lester "Pres" Young brought balance to the early recordings of Billie Holiday. Pretty soon, East Coast "hot" made way for West Coast "cool".
No form of music has ever been quicker at embracing competing styles than jazz, from the Latin samba of Stan Getz's middle years to the electric fusion of Miles Davis; as Dexter Gordon, the great West Coast tenor saxophonist, remarked: "Jazz is an octopus." It turns everything it's not into everything it is.
For the last three decades, Gary Giddins has been one of jazz's smartest and most prescient critics, and his large, authoritative and highly personal new book sets out to canonise his many obsessions over the years. Designed as a sort of "auteur" guide to jazz, including more than 70 essays on everyone from Al Jolson and Bunk Johnson to Dinah Washington and Joshua Redman, Giddins's book focuses on those artists he considers to be indispensable.
Probably the only consistent quality about Visions of Jazz is its intelligence and persuasion. Giddins prefers the jumpy pyrotechnics of Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum, for example, to the more accessible harmonics of Bill Evans or Dave Brubeck. While he occasionally lapses into the sort of circuitous blather than makes some people hate critics (at one point he describes Armstrong's no-nonsense persona as "the culmination of a hidden musical phylogeny that developed in the relative isolation of a cultural outland"), even his wildest assertions possess the weight and integrity of well considered affection. Like Andrew Sarris's The New Cinema, this is the sort of book that is hard to put down even when it gets really annoying.
On the other hand, The Playboy Guide to Jazz is, like many such guides for middle-aged guys pretending to be hep, pretty naff (Bloomsbury, by the way, is a fine literary publisher that has a lot to answer for in terms of its consistently shoddy reference books). Subscribing to the 100 Great Books style of aesthetic reduction, Neil Tesser's approach seems designed to sell jazz to just the sort of people who won't really like it - in other words, those looking to assemble a library of noteworthy CDs that do justice to their new display shelves.
Still, Tesser is just uncool enough to pay tribute to those pop-moderns discounted by Giddins: Pat Metheny, say, or Keith Jarrett. His book may be a bit silly at times, but it isn't entirely useless. Those who already love jazz should read Giddins and skip Tesser. But those who don't love it (yet) might actually benefit from reading both.
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