[Dixielandjazz] FW: Jazz book of possible interest

Bill Haesler bhaesler at bigpond.net.au
Tue Jun 21 18:33:19 PDT 2005

Dear friends,
This long, but informative (1990) review of Gary Giddins book 'Vision Of
Jazz' may be of interest to many of you.
It comes, albiet a little late, via John Whiteoak and the Australian Dance
Bands list.
The review itself contains some interesting observations on our music.
Perhaps, I should have bought the book when it came out.
I think that it is still around in Sydney, so I might reconsider.
I have never seen the CD locally.
A chapter is available at
Kind regards,

October 18, 1998
All That You-Know-What Without even trying, Gary Giddins has written an
important history of jazz.

By ALFRED APPEL JR. he publication of ''Visions of Jazz: The First
Century'' is a major event because Gary Giddins is our best jazz critic.
This enormous book contains 79 essays, many of which originally appeared
in different form in The Village Voice. ''Need I add,'' he rhetorically
asks in his acknowledgments, ''that at no time in this work's long
gestation was it conceived as a conventional critique or history?'' He
insistently tells us at the outset that he has failed to discuss several
important musicians. As it turns out, ''Visions of Jazz'' is the finest
unconventional history of jazz ever written -- a brilliant,
indispensable book, comprehensive enough given the certainty that a
total history of jazz at this point, the century mark, invites a shallow
Invariably, Giddins writes out of admiration and love. (His
characterization of the estimable pianist Tommy Flanagan holds true for
him as well: ''a deep lyricism that eschewed sentimentality.'') The
traps and temptations of such a tack are obvious, but his temperament
seems to insulate him against blind enthusiasm.
The essays do indeed cover jazz's first century, ranging from W. C.
Handy to Cassandra Wilson. Giddins writes at some length about each
subject, his essays falling into two types: a life-and-works
retrospective survey of an older or deceased musician, or a less
ambitious review of performances and recent recordings. Divided into
eight parts, the book is roughly chronological, though Giddins is too
wise to hold to any strict time line, especially since his history of
jazz is the story of the most talented performers, their recordings the
subject of the closest musical scrutiny; his book's index of songs and
selected albums runs to 20 pages.
Giddins's opening section, ''Precursors,'' begins with an essay on Bert
Williams and Al Jolson, two blackface comedians. Purists and
progressives alike may find this puzzling, but that reinforces Giddins's
point: jazz has to be understood in the context of its origins as
popular entertainment, 19th-century minstrelsy in particular. Louis
Armstrong, one of the heroes of ''Visions of Jazz,'' is a case in point.
Many racially sensitive people still see Armstrong as an Uncle Tom, a
buffoon, rather than as the daring, signifying minstrel-trickster who
deconstructed and dispatched the racism of demeaning ol'-time songs like
''Shine'' and ''Carry Me Back to Old Virginny'' -- a great man, really,
and Giddins writes about him superbly, as he did in his ''Satchmo'' (1988).
The opening section also includes the ragtime-to-riches saga of Irving
Berlin, the Tin Pan Alley story incarnate: songs that at first tapped
into black sources, then came to life independently, and, like George
Gershwin's, would become part of American culture. The almost-forgotten
singer and actress Ethel Waters is presented as no less a pivotal figure
in the evolution of American song than Bing Crosby and Armstrong -- a
versatile crossover artist who could bring perfect intonation and
articulation to vernacular material, influencing black and white singers
The second section, ''A New Music,'' discusses the classic figures, from
Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Duke Ellington to Coleman Hawkins,
Chick Webb and Fats Waller. Giddins violates chronology sensibly enough
by grouping sui generis instrumentalists, like Art Tatum, John Coltrane,
Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. This sequence of names suggests that
he has an unusually wide range of musical interests and open-ended
curiosity -- unusual because jazz critics, like everyone else, often
settle on a favorite period or handful of musicians. Not surprisingly,
Giddins's ears are open to post-modernists like Henry Threadgill, Don
Pullen, David Murray, Joe Lovano and, in the final essay, Don Byron, the
black jazzman who plays Webern and Jewish klezmer music. When Giddins
considers the way another black musician, Dexter Gordon, the first great
bebop tenor saxophonist, weaves musical quotations from other songs into
his improvisations, he is describing the pan-racial, multicultural and
even utopian essence of so-called modern jazz: ''They fold into his
solos like spectral glimpses of an alternative universe in which all of
Tin Pan Alley is one infinite song.''
The section titled ''A Modern Music'' addresses bebop mainly, though an
essay about the parodist Spike Jones fits in nicely, if loosely. Giddins
does not push the importance of parody in jazz and modernism (a pairing
explicit throughout ''Visions of Jazz''), especially the wittiness of
bebop quotations of pop songs effected by the likes of Gordon and
Charlie Parker, comparable as they are to the allusiveness of literary
modernism. The frequent use of the words ''modern'' and ''post-modern''
throughout ''Visions of Jazz'' seems to assume that readers share a
definition and understanding of these widely applied terms, which isn't
necessarily so. Brief, working definitions would help us all, and
Giddins almost supplies one himself in his discussion of Armstrong's
singing: ''Implicit in the liberties Armstrong took, and in the rise of
jazz itself, is the assumption that musicians are superior to the songs
they perform -- a radical stance by classical principles, where a
performance is evaluated by its fidelity to the text. In jazz,
performance is the text.'' This sounds exactly right, and is one step
away from a comparison with collage. A majestic Armstrong transformation
of a stupid song (like ''Sweethearts on Parade'') is analogous to the
modernist art of collage, assemblage and the metal and raw wood
sculpture of Picasso.
Vernacular, or demotic, modernism is the feat of creating more out of
less or almost nothing at all; Giddins explains this art of musical
rescue and reassemblage through singers of genius, in his explications
of Billie Holiday's version of ''A Sailboat in the Moonlight'' (a 1937
Guy Lombardo hit) and Sarah Vaughan's ''Thinking of You'' (a winner for
Eddie Fisher and Don Cherry in 1950). ''Make it new,'' Ezra Pound urged
in 1914, and these jazz modernists do so by revivifying trite lyrics and
melodies. '' 'Tain't what you do, it's the way that you do it,'' as
Trummy Young sang with Jimmie Lunceford's band in 1939.
Ellington is different from such collagists because he composed his own
material. Ironically, serious discussion of Ellington is now vexed by
the promotion of him as the greatest American or 20th-century composer,
classical music included. It is therefore good to remember, in this
prestige-conscious and very politicized time, that Ellington's
reputation was enhanced as early as 1927 by highbrow praise of his
miniatures alone, recordings that are, at most, three minutes long.
Ellington's reputation, Giddins contends, does not depend on his
extended compositions. Ellington's music, he concludes, is
''Shakespearean in its reach, wisdom and generosity'' -- an
uncharacteristically Miltonic chord. This said, Giddins can still ignore
Ellington's current status as an unassailable classic. His perusal of
Ellington's ambitious ''Black, Brown and Beige'' (1943-46) finds the
''Black'' section overlong and ''The Blues'' strangely
''un-Ellingtonian'' and eclectic, with its echoes of Debussy. He calls
the very verbal ''Second Sacred Concert'' (1968) ''outright
proselytizing'': ''Some of the choral sections are reminiscent of school
pageants.'' In the current jazz orthodoxy, this is apostasy, but such
frank appraisal instead of hagiography only makes Giddins more credible
and persuasive. When he turns to the most esteemed Ellington orchestra,
the so-called Blanton-Webster band of 1940-42, he discovers that its
most famous recordings have been analyzed so often that, lest he become
a bore, he must discuss the seemingly marginal disks long overlooked by
writers. His close attention to ''I Don't Know What Kind of Blues I've
Got,'' ''Jumpin' Punkins'' and ''John Hardy's Wife'' unveils them as
small new masterpieces, reinforcing the composer's greatness and also
our sense that his extended works do not have to be deemed better than
(say) Aaron Copland's for Ellington to remain ''beyond category,'' to
use the highest praise Ellington himself could bestow. Ellington's
phrase should allow us to step fairly around the problematic tag
The section ''A Popular Music'' covers the swing era (1935-45),
extraordinary as a period when popular music was highly musical as well
as popular -- a time when the likes of Berlin, Gershwin, Cole Porter and
Jerome Kern were composing for Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies.
Giddins writes not altogether uncritical celebrations of Ella
Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Lunceford, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie,
Lester Young, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. He can flatly say that
''Goodman, like Elvis 20 years later, adapted black music for white
tastes. He toned it down, cleaned it up'' -- and that's that. Giddins is
not going to dwell, as cultural critics inevitably do, on Goodman as yet
another white poacher and prospector on the vast African-American mother
lode. He simply won't let the race issue obscure the clarinetist's great
The essay on Count Basie and Lester Young gives almost equal time to
Young, the star tenor saxophone soloist of Basie's 1936-40 band and one
of jazz's supreme improvisers. Giddins argues against the
long-prevailing opinion that Young's talent was diminished after 1945
because of his traumatic Army court-martial and stay in a detention
barracks (hence the title of his subsequent record, ''D.B. Blues''). By
pinpointing shifts in Young's style in pre-Army recordings from 1943, he
shows that Young's postwar style had evolved naturally as a choice of
expression. Only the jazz initiate may appreciate the radicalness of
this point and how it defines Giddins's independence and immense value
as a critic. Giddins pays proper due to the Basie-Young classics of the
30's, but again goes against received opinion by praising Basie's
post-1950 bands, which are often denigrated as cold, impersonal swing
machines. They ''kept the game alive,'' says Giddins, who reminds us
that the swing era did not entirely die around 1945 but persisted in the
glorious post-1950 music of other enduring swing-era figures like
Ellington, Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw briefly (his 1954 small
group) and the less well-known Jimmy Rushing.
Giddins opens his heart when discussing singers. Rushing, he writes of a
great reissue, ''Rushing Lullabies,'' sings a certain blues ''at a slow,
bleeding tempo.'' Of the first recordings of Billie Holiday and Lester
Young, he writes how ''Holiday's voice and Young's tenor entwined like
ivy around the trellises of 'This Year's Kisses' and 'I Must Have That
Man.' ''
A magnum opus that could serve as a textbook, ''Visions of Jazz'' sorely
needs a discography. Because Giddins's retrospective surveys are rarely
specific about an artist's best available recordings, a relative
newcomer to jazz needs some shopping advice. However, Giddins has
brilliantly edited a compact disk as a companion to the book. Also
titled ''Visions of Jazz,'' and issued by Blue Note Records, the CD
contains 38 selections programmed along lines traced by the book, with
surprising, delightful twists, including its very generous running time
of 151 minutes.
The CD includes certain well-known recordings by Thelonious Monk, Bud
Powell, and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, because they are
discussed in detail in the book. But Giddins also seems to assume that
his readers already own many of the most famous recordings of artists
like Armstrong, Ellington and Basie, and therefore omits anthology
chestnuts. His listeners are instead treated to relatively uncelebrated
masterpieces like Coleman Hawkins's rapturous ''Out of Nowhere'' (1937);
Bobby Hackett's stately, heart-stopping ''Pennies From Heaven'' (1945);
Lester Young's almost defiant ''D.B. Blues'' (1945); Ellington's
deliberate and tender piano trio rendition of ''Passion Flower'' (1953);
and Sinatra's lilting ''Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams'' (1954), probably
selected because Sinatra lets three jazz soloists loose as in no other
session from the tightly arranged 50's. Giddins is unfailingly fresh in
his selections. Instead of drawing on music by Jelly Roll Morton to
accompany the essay about him, he slips in Art Hodes's obscure 1945
version of Morton's ''Mr. Jelly Lord.'' The book's Irving Berlin essay
is complemented by the totally unexpected appearance on CD of Kay Starr
splendidly singing ''You're Just in Love'' -- retrieved from a
long-out-of-print 1960 LP. This is inspired archeology.
Inspiring, too, is the return of another 50's singer, Rosemary Clooney.
One of Giddins's final and finest essays in ''Visions of Jazz'' is
devoted to Clooney's winning story, and it is a story -- years of
despair and obscurity followed by recovery as a person and as an
improved performer and recording artist. Giddins reviews her more recent
work for the Concord Jazz label, singling out the CD's titled ''For the
Duration'' (1991), where the accompaniment of the tenor saxophonist
Scott Hamilton and the cornetist Warren Vache recalls the Billie
Holiday-Teddy Wilson sessions of the 30's; ''Girl Singer'' (1992); and
''Do You Miss New York?'' (1993). Giddins has ''big ears,'' as jazz
musicians used to say, and his jazz vision, his tireless listening
habits, are in the public interest. If you follow up on his Rosemary
Clooney recommendations, Gary Giddins will simply bring you pleasure and
joy. Who could ask for anything more?

Alfred Appel Jr. is a professor of English at Northwestern University.
He is the editor of ''The Annotated Lolita,'' and his book ''Jazz
Modernism: Hemingway to Armstrong'' will be published next year.

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