by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux
Dallas Morning News
15 November 2009
Duke Ellington warned against labeling as "jazz" the music he and his musical compatriots mastered. At the beginning of Ellington's 50-year reign in American music, jazz was a term synonymous with "race music," "Saturday night music" or "jungle music," pejorative labels meant to deny the artistry of African-American improvisational music.
Though Ellington often referred to his idiom as "Negro folk music," he wanted his efforts to receive the same critical appraisals and accolades awarded to his classical art music contemporaries. More important, he wanted his compositions, arrangements and recordings to exist "beyond category."
Jazz is an excellent, comprehensive primer for listeners new to America's "classical" music. Beginning with basic tutorials in music vocabulary, composition theory and the techniques of musical improvisation, authors Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux prepare readers for the close analyses they offer of essential folk and jazz tunes in each chapter. The book is paired with a CD compilation of those key songs to guide readers toward becoming listeners. Giddins and DeVeaux use their listening lessons to emphasize and amplify the critiques and profiles filling Jazz's 19 chapters.
As in their previous works, the authors have drawn upon the techniques of music theory and ethnomusicology, American and African-American studies, literary new criticism and new historicism, and cultural studies to delineate jazz's integral, central position in 20th-century Western history.
DeVeaux, one of America's best jazz scholars and educators, teaches music at the University of Virginia and wrote The Birth of Bebop (1997), the most comprehensive historical and musicological study of bebop's invention and development as a singular musical tradition. Writing for Jazz Times and The New Yorker, Giddins is America's most esteemed music critic. His essays, especially those in Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998), display Giddins' abilities to match in quality the eloquent, lyrical and inventive music he critiques, and to make the innovations of Louis Armstrong or Bing Crosby or Billie Holiday relevant to contemporary tastes.
It's difficult to suggest which chapters of Jazz are the best because reading Giddins-DeVeaux on Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or Count Basie and Ellington is to initiate a superb musical education. Yet Jazz is an important departure from other jazz histories whose stories end in the 1960s. The book is strongest in its final chapters when the authors mark spaces on the contemporary field for players such as Wynton Marsalis, a traditionalist; Keith Jarrett, a historical fusionist; the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an avant-garde group; and Jason Moran, a younger pianist whose performance catalog runs from traditional to electronica, including pieces by James P. Johnson, Thelonious Monk, Afrika Bambaataa and Bjork.
Jazz is not encyclopedic. The authors' choices emphasize their notion that jazz musicians created America's native-born music while pushing it beyond categorization. Giddins and DeVeaux illustrate that "jazz" is now a powerful, onomatopoeic expression of the music's traditions, joy, urgency, release, sexuality, seriousness, soul, suavity and swing.