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The new standard jazz history
on May 30, 2000
Gary Giddins has performed a remarkable feat. He has covered one hundred years of jazz history in one volume. At 700 pages it is big for sure but it is well researched and very readable. At first glance it appears that Giddins has structured and organized the book in the worst possible way by having one chapter on each of the seminal figures of jazz history, and in semi chronological order.
The pitfall here is that it lends itself to a book that looks like lots of note cards strung together. This structure can also obscure the larger picture; jazz is not just the history of a bunch of individuals. Giddins very skillfully avoids both of these traps. Each chapter is well researched, filled with anecdotes about the musician or group, and through the chapters flows the larger background of the historic movements and issues in the development of jazz.
Giddins also approaches jazz with a refreshing "inclusiveness" and wastes precious little energy in defining what jazz is or in dismissing various movements as "unpure" or other such nonsense. In fact he makes the point right up front that jazz owes as much to popular music for its genesis as it does to spirituals or black folk music. In the chapter on Irving Berlin he points out that Tin Pan Alley was a mixture of black, Jewish and other ethnic blends of music, and in fact, Berlin was even accused of having an underground railroad of black song writers in his back room that he was ghosting for. And this, at the time, was not meant as a compliment..
Of course, jazz cannot be discussed in a vacuum and race plays an important part in its history. Giddins adds two bits of trivia, which I find speak volumes in themselves about where we are and where we have come from. One was that Al Jolson lobbied Gershwin for the part of Porgy. He, thankfully, did not get it. Second was that Ellington's all black orchestra played in an Amos and Andy movie in the 30's and the producer had the lighter skinned members of the orchestra blacked up with makeup for the scenes. I suppose this was to dispel any idea in the minds of the movie audience that the band might be integrated.
The book lacks a recommended discography, which would have been valuable. Giddins does comment on the recordings of his subjects in their respective chapters so that is a big help. There is a 2 CD companion set with the same title which is a nice-to-have but it is largely an afterthought and the only connecting material is the 4 inch square flimsy comment sheets that come with the CD which does not really relate back to the book itself.
This is a essential book for any jazz lovers library.