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Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (The History of Jazz) Paperback – June 19, 1986
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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"Here, at last, is the definitive work...written in the best intellectual tradition. It is clear, thorough, objective, sophisticated and original. A remarkable book by any standard, it is unparalleled in the literature of jazz."--Frank Conroy, The New York Times Book Review
"A remarkable breakthrough in musical analysis of jazz. I emphasize musical because that's the element of jazz least often written about with this degree of skill and clarity."--Nat Hentoff
"A superb job, in its thorough scholarship, its critical perception, and its love and respect for its subject. All future commentary on jazz--indeed on American music--should be indebted to Schuller's work."--Martin Williams
"The best informed and most thorough work of jazz criticism thus far...It is just what we who began to love jazz thirty-five years ago wanted but could never find." --Hudson Review
"Jazz...has inspired an enormous literature. The writer always mentioned first among buffs and scholars in Gunther Schuller; his Early Jazz...is a basic book." --Wilson Quarterly
From the Back Cover
Early Jazz is one of the seminal books on American jazz. it is the first of three volumes on the history and musical contribution of jazz, taking us from its beginnings as a distinct musical style at the turn of the century to its first great flowering in the 1930's.
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It was after first reading Schuller's analysis of Louis' solo on "Big Butter and Egg Man" and then reading it again--except with the WAV audio file in my ear and the pause control by my finger--that I fully began to understand and embrace the melodic-rhythmic-harmonic genius of Louis Armstrong. Schuller writes like a man possessed of superhuman energies that refuse to be restrained until the ultimate prize has been attained: the full and accurate yet utterly compelling representation of the beauty of an historic musical moment that would otherwise be lost to posterity or, at best, ground into the mill of generality or, worse, of mere opinion and rumor. (I have as yet to read Schuiller's succeeding book, "The Swing Era," an erudite and overwhelming tome which, when seen alongside the accessible "Early Jazz," can be a withering experience to the general reader--like James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" when compared with his "Ulysess." (Having survived Robert Browning's "Sordello" (barely), I have every intention of reading "The Swing Era.")
The point is not about later studies of Louis (or the original works of Joyce and Browning) but the absolutely essential nature of Schuller's "Early Jazz." I simply have encountered nothing like it--in terms of close analysis of improvised solos and interpretations to be drawn from such examinations in relation to the soloist, his milieu, and the legacy of the entire jazz tradition.
With respect to the other books on Armstrong (and just as importantly Duke Ellington), I'm all the more cheered by their appearance when the few remaining syndicated jazz shows (e.g. Parlocha) no longer bother to program their music (later versions of Ellington's tunes as played outside the Ellington band "don't count"). At the same time, it's discouraging not to see studies of one of the last survivors of the "jazz life," alto and tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt. While "legends" like Rollins and Ornette could pick their moments, traveling with hand-selected rhythm sections to ample remuneration, Stitt was a "lone wolf" (Morgernstern), a perpetual road warrior, traveling throughout America (North and South), Europe and Japan, using local rhythm sections when necessary, cutting as many as 150 LPs under his own name. Moreover, he was a superlative musician, perhaps the most "perfect" of all saxophonists (though his preference for "closure," or the tonic note, would necessarily become a strike against him among those critics compelled to see "difference" as "innovation" and therefore preferable to Stitt's habitually "tidy" reinventions of tunes from the Songbook).
Though I've collected over 100 of Stitt's recordings, the assembling of a study will remain to younger writers with energies approximating (at least) those of Schuller. Sonny (like Bill Evans) has been gone for over 30 years, but much of his life still resides in the memory of Chicago's most valuable resource about the music from Parker onwards. Joe Segal started "The Jazz Showcase" in 1947 and, though the club has had to relocate more than a few times, Segal is still at the door collecting tickets.
Because of Siegal's love of "tuff tenor battles," I would drive from Wisconsin to Chicago, frequently on a weekly basis, to see Sonny Stitt in the company of 2-3 other tenor greats. Not Getz or Rollins or Coltrane (all of whom traveled with their own supporting casts and charged "out-of-sight" prices for their services) but Stitt plus any combination selected from the folllowing: Jug (Gene Ammons), Moody, Jaws (Eddie Davis), Griff (Johnny Griffin), Long Tall (Dexter Gordon), Booker Ervin, Clifford Jordan, even Don Byas, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Hank Mobley (sadly, a shadow of himself). Segal wasn't, at least at the time, a fan of Richie Cole, but Stitt and Cole can be heard on "Just in Case You Forgot How Bad He [Stitt} Really Was." I don't recall a Stitt-Art Pepper "shoot-out," though the pair can be heard on a couple of provocative recordings from "The Hollywood Sessions." Rollins also appeared at the Showcase but with no other saxophonist.
It pains me that so few today are aware of the brilliance of tenor saxophonist Harold Land (before Coltrane, he was declared the best improviser in jazz by Carmell Jones and Victor Feldman). And sadly, the many hats of Jack Sheldon have, unlike Satchmo's, seemed to lead to his dismissal from serious consideration as either a trumpet player or vocalist. (As Land's frontline partner in the Curtis Counce Quintet, Sheldon sparkled, playing with an inimitable, instantly recognizable voice that served as a persuasive replacement for the immortal Clifford Brown (who had served as Land's bandmate in the Brown-Roach ensemble). And like Louis, Sheldon's rough-voiced singing (which was no joke to Sheldon--in fact, in the present millennium he's recorded off-beat, ultra-hip exchanges on recordings by both Tierney Sutton and Cheryl Benton, the latter playing the Anita O'Day role to Sheldon's taking the original Roy Eldridge trumpet and vocal part on the Gene Krupa hit: "Let Me Off Up-Town"). The goal of the Curtis Counce Group was, essentially, to create a West Coast equivalent of the Miles Davis Quintet. And with the help of two exceptionally skilled and inventive young talents--drummer Frank Butler and pianist Carl Perkins--the recorded evidence (on Contemporary) suggests that they succeeded.
If the world of jazz is better served by more Louis Armstrong books, I'm all for them. But I would be ecstatic to see an informative, eye (and ear)-opening book about some of the unsung heroes of the second half of jazz history.
As for the lasting legacy of Louis Armstrong, it would be in trustworthy hands were it for no other study than Schuller's essential "Early Jazz."
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As it was, while living in between of it.