Book Review: The History of Jazz – Second Edition, Ted Gioia (Oxford University Press, 2011)

It is perhaps hubris to use “The” in this book’s title. There are numerous accounts of how “America’s music” germinated and flowered all around the world. But if a handful of people are to be given some latitude, Ted Gioia is one of them. As the founder of the Jazz studies program at Stanford and a former editor of Jazz.com, Gioia has the credentials to speak authoritatively about the jazz form and its beginnings.

Gioia’s research and depth of coverage in this 400 page tome are quite simply awesome. From the root of the African drum, to its evolution in New Orleans during the Slave Trade, to the jazz artists who top the charts today, this account is remarkable for its thoroughness. What Gioia does particularly well is take the reader on a mostly chronological journey through jazz’ family tree without forcing a linear structure. Instead, he takes us along a branch over the course of a decade or so, then pulls back and describes an adjacent branch, explaining its similarities and differences to the former.

I picked up this book simply because I wanted to understand just that – the complex pedigree of today’s jazz music and the great musicians that shaped it over the years. Much of the music I write about has its ancestry in jazz and I enjoy exploring those connections.

In the end, I was delightfully edified by the answers to all the questions I had before I read it: Where did bebop come from? How was it different from hard bop? Why is Ellington so important? Was Bird more influencial than Coltrane? And so on.

What’s more, Gioia cites generous examples of key players, compositions, and recordings. I found it fascinating to read a passage about Ahmad Jamal, for example, and quickly look up the tracks referenced on youtube or iTunes so I could listen along while I read.

At times, The History of Jazz comes across as professorial and academic but Gioia also captures the very human element of jazz with rich biographies of key figures. Generous (and welcome) length is given to Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis among others. Their personal history, influences, and choices are explored in good depth and give us an understanding of what made these musicians unique and how they shaped jazz.

Being a relatively recent Second Edition, the references are up-to-date and on the mark. The book comes full circle with the final sections exploring the “new traditionalists” who have recently reached back to the swing era of the 30s and 40s and the modern jazz era of the 50s and 60s. Reading about Diana Krall or Herbie Hancock in this context and then listening to their current works enriches our appreciation for what their music is today and where it came from.

Although it is a dense and lengthy book, those of you interested in jazz and its many subgenres will find it a valuable resource. For me personally, this book went even further. I hadn’t set out to read it cover to cover but once Gioia started connecting the dots for me, I wanted more. This, for any historian, is a job well done.

Favourite insights I gleaned from Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz:

  • Louis Armstrong was influenced and mentored by Joe ‘King’ Oliver, one of the first great players of the cornet. But Armstrong was a better virtuoso and heralded the beginning of the age of the soloist.
  • Benny Goodman was the first media celebrity. As radios made their way into American living rooms, band leaders would be among the first household names.
  • Duke Ellington brought a classical approach to jazz, making ‘art’ music instead of popular music. Although not as commercially successful as some of the more dance-oriented bands of the time (e.g. Benny Goodman), his work would later be recognized as some of the most ingenious musical compositions in the genre.
  • Charlie Parker is the father of Bebop, a form of jazz less concerned with the swing rhythm and simple melodies. He and Dizzy Gillespie characterized the form with their super-fast and complex melodies. When challenged about the seemingly off notes he played in his solos, Parker famously said, “there are no wrong notes if you play them in the right context.”
  • The relationships between band leaders and sidemen are numerous and intertwined. All the greats started as sidemen, ascended as leaders, took on new sidemen, who then ascended as the next generation of leaders. Miles Davis is a great example. In the late 40’s Davis at 19 years of age, was one of Dizzy Gillespie’s sidemen. In the 50s and 60s, Davis fostered talents under him like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Evans. Each of them went on to be giants of jazz in later years.
  • As with any art form, jazz was shaped not only by its players but by its environment. The advent of the railway, racism, WWII, the rise of television, and the 60s protest ethos all had a significant impact on what kinds of jazz proliferated and diminished through the years. “Free Jazz,” for example, emerged in the 60s when conformity to the norms of the 50s was viewed as artistic compromise.
  • As the big band era gave way to the modern jazz era, some big bands carried on into the 70s. One of the most long-lived was lead by a Japanese-American woman named Toshiko Akiyoshi who, to date, has garnered 14 Grammy nominations. Akiyoshi was discovered in 1952 by Oscar Peterson. She was the first Japanese student at Berklee. Her daughter is Monday Michiru, a well known vocalist in contemporary House and Dance music.
  • Miles Davis’ 1969 release, Bitches Brew, is the progenitor of jazz fusion, most remarkably, the construction of jazz compositions around electronic instruments.
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