by Jack Sohmer
What with the world of jazz attracting more and more new listeners, including both college and university students as well as upwardly mobile, rock-weaned young adults, there is now a greater need than ever for a relatively comprehensive, non-technical introduction to the history of this music. The last book to attempt to chronicle the many varieties of jazz from its beginnings to the present was published 20 years ago, and that, James Lincoln Collier's The Making of Jazz, stopped the presses at John Coltrane, who himself had died more than a decade earlier. However, since that time, many excellent histories have been written on discrete subjects pertaining to the overall picture. Thus, we have had detailed examinations of the ragtime period, jazz in early New Orleans, jazz during the 1920s heyday of Chicago and Harlem, the Swing Era, bebop, and the various approaches to avant-garde and free jazz. It may be difficult to believe, but Stuart Nicholson has even written a lucid and analytical treatment of jazz-rock, from its struggling and confused origins to its present day status as a serious commercial force in the industry. And this is not to mention all of the individual artist biographies, which to one degree or another also deal with their subjects' times and milieus. Taken as a whole, all of these books are unquestionably important to jazz literature, but without an overview of the entire landscape the newcomer is at a loss to understand the significance of each contributing factor. He will see many trees, but not the forest.
Enter Ted Gioia, a critic and historian whose broad spectrum of taste and understanding of the musical reasons for changing trends is further enhanced by his practical experience as a pianist and composer. However, given the limitations of space imposed by a single-volume format, Gioia largely opts to sacrifice the "Great Artist" approach in favor of one that seeks to find continuity and light in the overcrowded, serpentine passage of time. Thus, with almost judicial objectivity, he casts his sight on the many faces that jazz has worn, from its earliest, most homogeneous days in New Orleans to the bewildering supermarket of often contradictory approaches that prevail today. Eminently fair in his judgments, he is equally impartial in his accordance of space to each specific style or period of time.
Apart from the Notes, lists of Further Reading and Recommended Recording, and Indexes of Names, Song Titles, and Albums cited, there are approximately 400 pages of text, which find their median point exactly at the juncture between swing and bop, or roughly about the mid-1940s. This historical balances in itself rather remarkable, for, as anyone who has glanced at college-geared classroom texts on the subject will know, the earlier period is usually given only fleeting lip service so that the greater time and space can be devoted to more contemporary matters, such as post-bop and fusion. Obviously, Gioia has no such agenda. Recognizing that just as much of importance took place in the first 50 years of jazz history as others find in the second, he devotes the first half of the book to sections entitled The Prehistory of Jazz, New Orleans Jazz, The Jazz Age, Harlem, and The Swing Era. Although in essence a 200-page history of classic jazz, this section would amply fill the needs of those who otherwise might never encounter this much insightful explanation elsewhere. Of course, all of the indisputably important soloists,bands, and composer/arrangers are discussed in detail, and even some less influential artists are touched upon when relevant. But Gioia's main purpose is not to reiterate historical facts as such, for these are widely available in extant biographies, biographical dictionaries, discographies, and earlier general histories. Rather, he focuses on the musical and sociological reasons for the shift from one style to other contrasting but related styles.
In a like manner, Gioia treats the second half of his subject, which is divided into three major sections: Modern Jazz, The Fragmentation of Jazz, and Freedom and Beyond. Understandably, each of these also contains many sub- sections, which deal with just as many artists and bands of import as are found in the preceding section on classic jazz. Judiciousness is once again at the center of Gioia's sensibility, and it is pleasing to note that he is not afraid to go against conventional thinking when discussing the less praiseworthy aspects of some icons of our time. Because of his own experiential knowledge, he is just as helpful in his analyses of such modern pianists as Monk, Powell, Silver, Evans, and Taylor as he was when discussing the paragons of classic jazz piano Morton, Johnson, Waller, Hines, Wilson, Basie, and Tatum.
Whether it serves as a much-needed key to the baffling mysteries confronting the newcomer to jazz's ever growling history, or as a level-headed source of revealing insights for the longtime student, Ted Gioia's History deserves a prominent place on everyone's bookshelf. The only requirement for this course is an open mind.