The Essential Jazz Records, vol. 1, Ragtime to Swing
The Essential Jazz Records, vol. 1, Ragtime to Swing
by Max Harrison, Charles Fox, and Eric Thacker

Continuum, 2000
ISBN: 0720117089
reviewed by W. Royal Stokes
copyright © 1985, 2002 W. Royal Stokes

"A thorough knowledge of the specific performances analyzed here should lead to comprehension of jazz as a single, indivisible entity," insists Max Harrison, one of three learned English critics who have pooled their informed insight for this collection of bylined reviews of albums released in 15 or so countries. The admission that "a considerable proportion of the issues recommended here are not easy to obtain" is an understatement, for some are out-of-print and many of those available today will be dropped from the lists tomorrow.

An immense body of information is packed into the volume, the writing is lucid, literate, and frequently a joy to read, and the discussion builds on itself until, mirabile dictu, we see "a network of relationships which unite the many strands of this music." Faultless the effort is not, yet nothing approaching the compass, balance, and erudition of this volume has been produced on this side of the ocean.* And is it really surprising that we have been so consistently outdistanced in jazz scholarship by Europe, considering that our society has all but disowned this music, the finest jewel of its artistic heritage?'

Further insight into the authors' objectives is provided in Harrison's introduction (from which the earlier quotations are taken). Their concern, he explains, has been to present the established classics in "context with a substantial body of related, allegedly subsidiary material." This is the rationale to fleshing out the eras, locales, and styles with well-chosen examples of the work of artists whose importance cannot be reasonably denied but whose names all too often fall between the cracks. It is a most refreshing guideline, the generous practice of which rewards with greater enlightenment as to the music's evolution than nearly all other surveys, whether they be annotated record sets, histories, or critical essays. For along with the innovators and the other major figures, due recognition is accorded to the likes of Phil Napoleon, J.C. Higginbotham, Herman Chittison, Leon Ropollo, Miff Mole, Frank Teschemacher, Cliff Leeman, Tiny Parham, Bob Zurke, Connie Boswell, Lee Wiley, Joe Marsala, Captain John Handy, Kid Thomas Valentine, and many more whose contributions were integral to the music's development. Also noteworthy in the design of the book's argument is that on occasion a group is included as "part of a larger pattern" rather than for intrinsic worth, a leader is discussed solely for organizational abilities, or a band is evaluated in terms of adding perspective vis a vis another unit.

There are, inevitably, omissions, the most conspicuous to these eyes being Wild Bill Davison, whose name is mentioned but once and then without reference to recorded performance. Female instrumentalists fair even worse for, except for Mary Lou Williams and several other pianists, they are ignored. Charlie Shavers, Vic Dickenson, and Jimmy Rushing come in for some hard knocks and Mezz Mezzrow gets off rather too easily, described by Fox as "a performer whose own playing fell far short of his aims" and by Thacker as "able to penetrate to the heart of the jazz reshapings of the blues." Their indulgence, however, is balanced by Harrison's acerbity in dismissing the clarinetist's "melodic indigence, rhythmic stiffness, execrable tone, and myriad wrong notes."

The book is divided into sections dealing with Origins, The Twenties, Jazz In Europe, The Thirties, etc., with attention given to peripheries such as "The Influence of Jazz on European Composers." The one- and two-page reviews of the "essential" records frequently cite additional materials, there are indices of names, LP titles, and tune titles, and eight pages of notes provide many references to other critical views, both supportive and differing. There are too many omissions from the six-page bibliography to mention here. An indication of the authors' carelessness in this regard is the glaring absence of such basic tools as Leonard Feather's encyclopedias and Sheldon Harris' Blues Who's Who, Stanley Dance's and Whitney Balliett's interview collections, and Marshall Stearns' Jazz Dance. It is especially odd that two recent works dealing with jazz abroad and written by Englishmen are missing, namely Chris Goddard's Jazz Away From Home and Jim Godbolt's A History Of Jazz In Great Britain.

On the plus side, and providing good enough reason to check the book out, are: the authors' courage of their convictions; their recognition throughout of the principle of continuing and overlapping tradition, and their ability to relate artists widely dispersed in time; and the catholicity of outlook that can draw comparison to the artistic concepts of, to name only several of their cross-cultural allusions, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, Carl Jung, Jane Austen, Robert Schumann, and Homer. Caveats notwithstanding, one looks forward to Volume 2.


*This review of the 1984 The Essential Jazz Records, Volume 1: Ragtime To Swing, which originally appeared in the November 1985 issue of Down Beat, clearly needs updating vis a vis this observation, as a number of splendid guides have appeared in the interim. -- WRS]


W. Royal Stokes is author of Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press,1991), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about their Careers in Jazz, also from Oxford.


C o m m e n t s

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