By Spencer Bennett
Jazz Styles: History & Analysis (Sixth Edition)
by Mark C. Gridley (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 442 pages, paperback, with one accompanying cassette, $40.00; for information on and ordering of supplementary CDs, cassettes, and video, call 1/800/947-7700)
from Jazz Notes 9/3 1997Copyright © 1997, Spencer Bennett
Anyone who has been on the jazz scene for more than a couple of years knows this book. By my calculation two generations of aspiring musicians and critics have dog-eared editions of Gridley's volume sitting on their shelves next to Gunther Schuller's works on early jazz and swing. And rightly so. Like Schuller's monumental texts, Gridley's book is iconoclastic, brilliant, unique, and, at times, provocative. Although the author claims that his intent was to provide material for high school and college classes on the history of jazz styles for both practicing musicians and exegetes, he has, over the past thirty years, given philosophers of jazz plenty of grist for our mills, food for thought, and charts for our air guitars.
First, the book is unique because it represents Gridley's lifelong attention to how jazz sounds. I think we all struggle with this and there are many approaches to the problem: anecdote, biography, interviews, analogies, social context, psychological discourse, etc. But Gridley shuns all of these (I defy you to find one Eddie Condon wise crack in the book) for the technique of textual analysis. For him, the jazz piece is scriptural; it requires monkish (no pun intended) attention. It requires shutting out the outside world which, in this case, are all those distractions which hover over the jazz world like dark shadows: drugs, the market place mentality, and racism. But it also requires the years of discipline which go into a trained musical ear. Jazz Styles is as much about the art of listening to music as it is about one genre, and I think it shames most of us who call ourselves jazz critics into the realization that we either don't or are not capable of the devotion to text witnessed here. To put it bluntly: the cat has a fantastic, dedicated ear.
Second, the matter of discourse. The more I write about jazz, the more I dispair over my language skills. At other times, even the attempt seems ludicrous. What complicates the task of the jazz writer is that jazz is built on improvisation, a kind of musical fluidity that prevents us from making definitive claims about performances as is done in critiques of the classical repertoire. What complicates the task further is that critiques of recorded music, so standard in our age, are illusions when we are dealing with a blip on the radar screen of great improvisers. The fiasco of the Schuller/Sonny Rollins "Seven" essay comes to mind. Gridley has solved this problem, if only to his satisfaction and our admiration, by creating his own style of discourse. It is a style which is singularly Hemingwayish in a world of jazz writing that reads like Faulkner. It is short, conscise and punchy. It builds its authority, less by analogy or metaphor, than by suggestion. By borrowing single phrases from the language of politics, the visual arts, and ordinary experience, Gridley, like a good improviser, makes the most of innuendo, knowing when to leave the air rich with possibilities for the reader to complete and when to bring a thought to completion. He describes Coltrane's drummer Elvin Jones as he "roams through his drums and cymbals, distributing portions of triplets . . . . While listening to Jones, you might get the impression that he is juggling. Things seem forever up in the air, never sharply defined in exact, predictable proportions." (258) When discussing Ben Webster's style, he asserts that the breathiness which lingers in the sound is deliberately intimate and thereby romantic. Gridley creates his own lexicon. Some players are "tuneful", others are "bell-like" or "floating" or "machine-like". Given the great number of musicians and period styles covered in the book, I marvel that he is able to do such fresh description of each one and not exhaust his arsenal of adjectives. But veterans will not only concur in these descriptions but envy him this appropriate usage.
As history the book doesn't fair as well. Gridley admits that the book is more a description of jazz styles than "a decade-by-decade cronicle of the changing jazz scene. But if the description of players' styles is thus made prominent, the historical account suffers. The chroniclers may be dull but they keep each other honest. For example, in his exclusive focus on the origins of jazz in New Orleans, the author neglects other regional influences, particularly the delta traditions of work songs, spirituals, jubilees, and blues that rang over cotton fields for the last half of the nineteenth century. By the same token, novitiates must be puzzled in the next chapter on early jazz when they discover that Earl Hines, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Bix Beiderbecke, and Red Nichols all came from someplace else. How did living on the East Coast or in the Midwest, places far from the red light district of New Orleans both in geography and temperament, shape early jazz?
And on the jazz gender question you can smell the male cigar smoke a mile away. It's bad enough that women have been largely relegated to the art of jazz singing as the only category suitable for them, but worse that Gridley does not include a chapter on singers in the book. One might argue that Marian McPartland, Shirley Scott, Mary Lou Williams, Shirley Horn, and other female instrumentalists never achieved the stature of an Armstrong or a Coltrane, but then the text includes hundreds of secondary male instrumentalists who never made it big either. But nobody in their right mind would argue that Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan should not deserve serious treatment in a book on jazz styles. Jazz Styles badly needs a chapter on jazz singers to correct the record. And Gridley needs his gender consciousness tweaked.
Even given these significant qualms, Jazz Styles is a major contribution to jazz studies. Gridley's writings on the elements of music in the appendix, his on-target advice about recorded jazz purchases (beware compilations and The Best Of), the measure-by-measure analysis of major recordings (his selections on the Jazz Classics cassette are impeccable), the chapter notes, and the annotated bibliography; all of these mentoring devices reveal an intellect that is passionately enthusiastic and knowledgeable about this elusive music.