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Visions of Jazz: The First Century
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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
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.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2000
I am 57 years old, a white, suburban male, with almost no experience in jazz. I know what I like, but I don't know why, and although I enjoy older generations of singers and songs, many of the people in this book are unfamiliar beyond their names. That is the triumph of this book. It is so well written, so beautiful and rapsodic,so educational and entertaining, I want to learn more, hear more, and find the connections. The only thing I wish were included were photographs and a 10 cd set to hear the music the author refers to. Now, I have to get a saxophone or trumpet !
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2006
Gary Giddins was only a name to me until Ken Burns's JAZZ series aired on PBS in early 2001. While I appreciated all the commentators in that remarkable series, it was the observations of Giddins that I began to eagerly anticipate night after night. He made me SEE music that I knew and loved but whose structure and complexity I had often been unable to grasp. Despite some jazz appreciation classes in college and haphazard collecting of old jazz records over the years, I had not gotten much past the "I know what I like" phase. His passion for music I was less familiar with led me on some rewarding treasure hunts.

I bought "Visions of Jazz" shortly after the conclusion of the Burns miniseries. I devoured it. I have turned to it time and again in the intervening years. Many critics overanalyze their subjects to the point where they suck the life out of the very thing they're attempting to illuminate. Giddins does not have that problem. His prose sings and swings with the elan of his beloved Sarah Vaughan.

Giddins's re-examination of the music of Ellington and Armstrong may seem at first blush to be superfluous; you may think you know all there is to know on that subject. But he proves that even the most accessible jazz figures and their music evolve from and operate within a such a complex idiom that periodic re-evaluation is necessary, and, if approached with respect for both the subject and the reader -- which Giddins has above all else -- it is most welcome indeed.

There are chapters in "Visions of Jazz" about musicians with whom I was completely unfamiliar. But I took a chance and read them, and wound up buying some Matthew Shipp recordings. It's that kind of book. You can take out as much as you put in.

As much as I appreciate Giddins's bone-deep love of jazz, his scholarship and wry humor, I also respect him for his fearlessness in making a case for, say, the inscrutable Cecil Taylor. But I am probably a big fan of someone who leaves Gary Giddins cold, and that's OK. The jazz tent is big enough for us all.

Why not 5 stars? The only "perfect" thing in jazz is Ellington's "Just a-Sittin' and a-Rockin."
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2000
The research and time but into this indepth overview of the first century of jazz is absolutely remarkable. Discussing the most influential and popular jazz artists of the century, this book gives insight into the artists and their music as well. Absolutely outstanding!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2002
Veteran jazz critic Gary Giddins is immensely articulate and intelligent, and yet so readable and user-friendly. As erudite as he is, he never pontificates, or "talks down" to the reader, as many jazz writers often do. Few writers can "hear" the music as well as he does -- and he somehow transmits this to the reader. Not content to be merely an historian, Giddins can also analyze a Charlie Parker solo with the best of them (as he does here), and his musical knowledge is formadible. He provides telling accounts and anecdotal information of the great jazz players and singers with great authority, a strong command of the language and an intrinsic love for this music. Of the dozens of books on jazz I have read, this is still my favorite. Each refreshing chapter stands on its own, and as a jazz player and teacher, I simply can't recommend a better book than "Visions of Jazz".
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Gary Giddins is probably the most articulate and learned jazz critic in the USA. This is an outstanding contribution to jazz scholarship. Its format is deceptively conventional in its linearity: it runs through the century through portraits of the musicians themselves, in chronological/thematic groupings. But it urges the reader forward with an exciting, fully engaged narrative that expertly interweaves the complementary and conflicting elements of the jazz tradition like counterpoint in a fugue. Giddins' infectious enthusiasm and enchanting storytelling skill make this an irresistible read. Unfortunately it falls slightly short of a comprehensive reference work; the index of recordings serves only as a vague guide to the aspiring collector, and the index of names is helpful, but not as powerful as a full index. A full index and coherent discography would have enhanced an already highly recommendable work.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 1998
I bought Visions of Jazz as a gift for a friend who is a music lover. I started reading through it and after two chapters I knew I wasn't giving it away. This is a book that you read first for pleasure and then reread as a reference. The book is a compilation of biographies that reads like a novel. The historical references, music criticism and wonderful narratives about the artists give the book depth and bring the music alive. I purchased the accompanying CD, which is great background music while reading or doing anything else. Mr. Giddins has such a profound knowledge and love of music that you can't help but want to be part of his world and vision. I bought another copy for my friend, it was too good to keep to myself.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 1998
I have always been interested in jazz but I was intimidated by it. The wonderful thing about Giddins's writing is the way it draws you into the music and makes you want to listen; also the incredible range of music discussed, from Jelly Roll Morton to Joshua Redman with excursions into singers, songwriters, and other people ("sidesteppers" Giddins calls them) who have influenced or been influenced by jazz. The chapters on musical humor--specifically Fats Waller and Spike Jones--are a revelation. Giddins has the ability to analyze a solo note for note and keep you enthralled; when you finally get the record, you hear it in a different way, for example Armstrong's Tight Like That or Coleman Hawkins's One Hour or Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca or Sarah Vaughan's Thinking of You, and dozens of others. By the time you get to the book's last three words--"Jazz is everywhere"--you feel that Giddins has more than made the case for the universality of this music. This is a great book.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I had some thoughts of using this as a text in a jazz history course, but it's probably better suited to jazz aficionados and "adult" learners (I tend to attract 18-year olds). Giddins may very well be the best jazz writer on the present-day scene, admirably carrying on in the tradition of Martin Williams, Leonard Feather, Gunther Schuller and Nat Hentoff. The sketches, retrospectives and evaluations in this collection are guaranteed to inform as well as provide fresh perspectives on things already known. Perhaps Feather and Hentoff are better at providing some of the first-hand personal information that helps a reader join the music to the musician, the musician to the human being. The making of this music does not come without great physical risks and costs, and it's always fascinated me how jazz artists have come to terms and compensated for weakened chops (Diz), altered timbre (Sarah), or a foreclosing mortage on one's time (Duke). Perhaps it's to his credit that Giddins avoids the merely anecdotal along with amateur psychologizing, though such details can often spell the difference between the glimpse that is insightful and the one that is memorable.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 1999
This is an outstanding, invaluable guide to jazz. I recommend it fully, with just one caveat -- not enough coverage of the incredible influence of Brazilian music (percussion, bossa nova, rhythms, MPB composers) on jazz. For that reason, one should also consult "The Brazilian Sound" (Temple University Press) as a supplement to this work.
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