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Jazz: A History of America's Music Hardcover – November 7, 2000

4.2 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

First off, let's get the kudos down: Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns deserve far more than simple gratitude for bringing jazz to the limelight with this lavishly illustrated volume. The book features among its 500-plus pictures many of the previously unseen shots of musicians and venues glimpsed in Burns's 10-part documentary, Jazz. (See our Ken Burns Jazz Store for the lowdown on the series.) Jazz: An Illustrated History follows the film episode by episode, and it's filled with rich historical detail in the early chapters. Like the series, however, the book trails off after a certain point in chronicling jazz's history. It gives background aplenty on early New Orleans music, the migration of jazz up the Mississippi to major urban centers, and the developments of swing and bebop. After bebop, the history gets a bit perfunctory. Dozens of major figures get mere sidebar coverage. Little is said of substance on Latin or Brazilian jazz, European contributions to the music, fusion, or umpteen smaller deviations from the mainstream. There are wonderful essays that highlight elements of jazz culture, particularly Gerald Early's consideration of race and white musicians in jazz and Gary Giddins's five-page essay on avant jazz. And there are fine sidebars as well. But developments during and after the 1960s are dealt with primarily in impressionistic guest essays rather than detail-oriented historical narrative. It is, of course, difficult to capture all jazz history in any single volume. So perhaps this ought to have been called Jazz: A Historical Appreciation, since the hundreds of images certainly create an intense sense of the music's milieu. --Andrew Bartlett

From Publishers Weekly

A companion volume to the new Burns and Ward documentaryDa 19-hour, 10-episode series set to air on PBS in January, 2001Dthis lavishly illustrated history describes the evolution of jazz during the 20th century, focusing on the careers of a key players like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman. In his introduction to the massive volume, Burns writes that his decision to make Jazz was inspired by a comment made by Gerald Early, a writer he interviewed for the authors' last documentary, Baseball. "Two thousand years from now," Early said, "there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: The Constitution, baseball and jazz music." Burns admits he knew next to nothing about jazz before deciding to create "the most comprehensive treatment of jazz ever committed to film," and there lies the work's Achilles' heel. Burns has his conclusionDthat jazz is a metaphor for the United StatesDfirmly in hand before he begins to know his subject. This smugness translates into a rather tepid, conservative view of jazz. Not every subject or musician can be touched upon in one book; however, it does seem strange that such a sweepingly titled volume does not touch upon the musical roots of jazz, e.g. Africa's talking drums, or mention the Lockbourne Airforce Base, where many noted black jazz musicians received training. The entire 40-year period from 1960 forward is relegated to a single chapter, a rather pronounced statement about how the authors feel about more recent achievements. More than 500 illustrations and photos. (Nov. 6)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (November 7, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067944551X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679445517
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.4 x 11.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #93,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on November 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns have produced another handsome book, featuring the same opulent look and feel as their earlier, best selling books on The Civil War and Baseball. Their writing on jazz's early history is outstanding. Burns & Co. have also done a magnificent job of culling the nation's photo archives for rare photos of jazz's most famous founding fathers along with many of its long since forgotten contributors. For me, this alone is worth the price of admission.
The big problem with this book is that it provides, at best, a severely truncated and tendentious history of the music. The (generally crisp) narrative simply peters out about 1955. One chapter gives a cursory overview of several developments in the 1950s. The final chapter covers the remaining 40 years in a slim, almost perfunctory twenty or thirty pages. Perhaps the book should have been titled "Jazz: The First 50 Years."
It appears to me that the authors - both autodidacts in the field of jazz - simply lost their nerve. Writing a jazz history in the years after 1950 admittedly gets harder. The music splits into many competing schools and styles. Much of it is simply harder for the uninitiated to listen to. But this is no excuse to gloss over or ignore the great music and musicians who mean so much to jazz fans born after 1940. (Would you believe that Charles Mingus only merits a piddling sidebar?)
The authors seem to have signed onto the orthodoxy of Wynton Marsalis and his ilk. In a nutshell, this holds that jazz took (multiple) wrong turns in the modern era. It stopped featuring the familiar, danceable, toe-tappable shuffling swing that earned it its original popularity. In other words, modern jazz has turned into a musical dead end.
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Format: Hardcover
I loved this book; it's well-balanced and has plenty of cultural perspective. There were lots of anecdotes and photos that I have never seen before (the pictures of blacks dancing at an outdoor big band show at Randalls Island in 1938 are almost worth the price of the book alone). The main criticism about this book (and the Ken Burns Jazz series in general) is that it gives short shrift to jazz since the 1960s. First off, as Ken Burns has said himself, he's an historian, so this project will obviously focus more on the origins and development of the music rather than present-day musicians. And as much as today's jazz musicians and fans like to tell you otherwise, there haven't been too many groundbreaking developments in the music since the free jazz movement of late Coltrane and early Ornette Coleman, or the funk/rock excursions by Miles Davis. Furthermore, and more importantly, jazz is simply no longer a big part of the present-day American landscape. Although jazz records rarely sold as well as more pop-oriented music (a jazz record that sold 20,000 copies was considered a big hit), the music was always written about in mainstream publications and talked about by just about anyone. Heck, guys like Miles, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Coltrane were occasionally featured on prime-time television. Today, the biggest (and perhaps only) jazz star is Wynton Marsalis, a bland neo-traditionalist who hasn't forged any new ground himself. For myself, I'd rather read about Satchmo, Bird, Billie Holiday and Monk.
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By A Customer on April 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
As a jazz fan and a professional music retailer, I can recommend this book as a wonderful place to begin one's discovery of jazz or gain more knowledge of the cultural legacy of the music. In conjunction with the excellent video series and a box of cds by the titans written about by Ward, ie. Armstrong, Ellington, Davis, Parker, Holiday, etc., one can have a wonderful adventure either discovering the music for the first time or revisiting and expanding old passions. Those who quibble with its incompleteness run the risk of branding themselves cynics after the fashion of Wilde's definition: "A man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing."
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By A Customer on December 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. First of all, it is well-written. Ward draws the reader into the life of jazz greats by making judicious use of first person accounts. He weaves their lives and stories into a broader sociohistorical context, showing, for example, how racism and economic poverty shape, and are shaped by, the music. The beautiful pictures and overall format help provide a compelling sense of the time and drama presented in the narrative. There is a lot of new information in the text even for seasoned jazz veterans. Yet the writing, and stories, are accessible to newcomers to the music.
Ignore the petty sniping by some of the reviewers complaining about the abbreviated treatment that jazz from the last 40 years receives. This is a book which aims to provide a panorama of jazz AND society. So the focus, understandably, is on those musicians who have had the greatest impact on American culture (e.g., Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis). Just hearing those names immediately evokes a certain place and time in American history. Sadly, many jazz musicians of the past 40 years have chosen to marginalize the music: the names "Lester Bowie" and "Pharoah Sanders" don't resonate for the public-at-large because, and this may be hard to take for some, the influence and popularity of the so-called avant-garde outside of the jazz intelligensia is minimal.
The purpose of this book is to present a history of America's music. It overwhelmingly succeeds. I don't think the music has ever received a finer treatment in print.
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