A New History of Jazz
A New History of Jazz
by Alyn Shipton

(Continuum, New York and London, 965 pages, US $35, UK 29.99, 2001)
ISBN: 0826447546

by W. Royal Stokes

copyright © 2002 W. Royal Stokes

This hefty volume is truly the "mother of all jazz histories." It is unlikely to be superseded until the art form has five or so more years of development under its belt. Indeed, the compiling of a replacement will be a daunting challenge for some scholar of, one hopes, equal breadth and depth to undertake. Notwithstanding a few quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the past two months with it as a daily companion and I much profited both in eras and areas that are not my greatest strengths and in those for which I can claim, in all modesty, a certain degree of authority. I can see it being widely used as a high school and university text in jazz history courses. And no jazz writer, scholar, teacher, musician, or fan should be without it on his or her desk. Yes, it really is that good. And for such a hefty tome the price is quite reasonable.

Shipton has covered an immense amount of ground. The Index of Titles lists 350 or so tunes that he refers to, the Bibliography about 300 volumes, and the Notes more than 1200 citations, virtually every one citing an article, a book, or an interview conducted by the author. The Preface and Acknowledgement alludes to the author's various broadcast and research activities, some of which provided him access to musicians and other important sources. He names about 150 individuals whom he received assistance from as he gathered the massive body of information from which he drew in writing the book. I could find no reference to how long it took him to finish it. Presumably it remained a work in progress for a few years as he completed other projects. Shipton has also this past decade published a biography of Dizzy Gillespie, co-authored one of Bud Powell, and edited Danny Barker's reminiscences. In his spare time he plays bass. I have seen him perform at overseas festivals and, believe me, the cat can drive a band!

While hardly a controversialist, Shipton does express some views that will rankle some, cheer others. Count this reader among the latter for his spirited defense of the artistry and importance of pioneer New Orleans trumpeter and leader Bunk Johnson, whom he devotes a half-dozen pages to. He alludes at the outset to his discussion of Johnson as an example of "Rethinking Jazz History," the title he bestows upon his Introduction.

Acknowledging that "African-American musicians created most of the framework in which jazz could develop" and spread throughout the U.S. and the world, Shipton nevertheless gives expression to a significant truth, that Chicago's post-WW1 "cosmopolitan character encompassed over 40 languages" and "contained strong musical traditions," resulting in "a number of the most talented instrumentalists in jazz [coming from] immigrant backgrounds." He earlier in these opening chapters had cited a like phenomenon in pre-WW1 New Orleans, pointing out both the multi-ethnic cast of that city as well as the European orientation of its Creole society. In both locales, he sums up, "There was a cross-fertilization of European concepts of instrumental excellence with African-American rhythms and pitches." In this manner does Shipton honor the African-American cultural roots of the music, yet at the same time correct the distorted view so prevalent today that jazz -- too often erroneously accorded the appellation "black music" -- is wholly and exclusively an African-American contribution to the arts. Cross-fertilization is the key word here. And melting pot is the appropriate metaphor.

In the main, the accepted chronology and map of the art form's development are followed and the principal movers and shakers given their due. The volume's four sections, "Origins," "From Swing to Bop," "Consolidation of Bop," and "New Jazz," are appropriately sub-divided into chapters according to periods, styles, musicians, instrumentation, and so forth and so on. The innovators and other luminaries are fleshed out via in-depth biographies and closely argued analyses, Duke Ellington heading the roster with 33 pages, Miles Davis following with 23, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane each getting 22. What's gratifying is to see important figures like Bix Beiderbecke, Lennie Tristano, and James P. Johnson also given sigificant space, these three filling, respectively, five, four, and three pages apiece.

Rejecting political motivation as having a meaningful role as an inspiration for bebop, Shipton points instead to the musical experiences of the bop pioneers in terms of their previous and on-going membership in mainstream jazz orchestras, swing combos, and territory bands as the incubus of the new style. In defense of this view he adds, "Just the same way as there is more to the early story of jazz than a simple migration from New Orleans to Chicago, so , too, is the story of bebop more complex than one of afterhours jamming leading to a widespread revolution." A few pages later he declares himself "skeptical about the degree to which the jamming at Minton's and Monroe's genuinely moved jazz forward, beyond consolidating the changes to the role of the rhythm section." And not leaving it there with such obiter dicta from on high, he goes on to document his position with historical background, analyses of recorded examples, and statements from some of the players themselves.

Good examples of Shipton's thoroughness and all-inclusive approach are: the already mentioned account of Bunk Johnson; the three-page discussion of the San Francisco-based Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which virtually kicked off the New Orleans Revival in 1939; an admiring, if brief, assessment of Dodo Marmorosa, who is all too seldom recognized for his substantial contributions to the evolution of bebop piano; and a couple of pages devoted to an account of Horace Tapscott's Los Angeles-based Pan-African Peoples Arkestra and its supporting political arm the Underground Musicians' Association (UGMA), the inception of which were independent from, although contemporaneous with, the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

There is a splendid discussion of the differences between the approaches of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. The influence of the John Kirby band's ensemble voicings on the next (bebop) generation of players is explored. Django Reinhardt's impact upon John Lewis is discussed. A 40-plus-page chapter is devoted to "International Jazz" up to WW2. The hostile reaction of England and Europe to the avant-garde sounds of the 1960s is recounted. My notes allude to dozens more such serendipities and revelations.

I would have welcomed some discussion of the surfacing, in the face of (still-existing) gender discrimination, of hundreds of women instrumentalists the past quarter century, and it would have been rewarding to see some of these, in addition to the lone one mentioned, world-class trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, named. Surely space could have been found for a slim representative honor role of, say, trumpeters Stacy Rowles and Rebecca Coupé Franks, saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom, Virginia Mayhew, Jane Bunnett, Claire Daly, Sue Terry, Carol Sudhalter, Lisa Parrott, and Fostina Dixon, trombonists Janice Robinson, Sarah Morrow, Deborah Weisz, and Lolly Bienenfeld, flutist Jamie Baum, multi-reed and woodwind player and percussionist Zusaan Kali Fasteau, violinist Regina Carter, pianists Renee Rosnes, Rachel Z., and Roberta Piket, guitarist Sheryl Bailey, banjoist Cynthia Sayer, bassists Nicki Parrott and Miriam Sullivan, drummers Sherrie Maricle, Allison Miller, Cyndy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Susie Ibarra, composer and orchestra leader Maria Schneider, and the orchestras Diva, Maiden Voyage, and Kit McClure's Big Band.

As for MIAs, where are Don Byas, Donald Lambert, Edmond Hall, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Mildred Bailey, Vic Dickenson, Allan Jaffe, Dick Wellstood, Joanne Brackeen, Evan Parker, Don Byron, Uri Caine, James Carter, and Cyrus Chestnut? No doubt readers of A New History of Jazz will notice other absences.

The bibliography, for all its 300 titles, is glaringly deficient in that it includes only one item each by Martin Williams, Leonard Feather, and Stanley Dance, and none by Nat Hentoff or Whitney Balliett (an index entry of 25 "jazz critics" omits all of the above plus Dan Morgenstern). Yet there are nine books by British author John Chilton listed. Nor do any of Leslie Gourse's or Linda Dahl's books find a place therein. Particularly disturbing is the absence of these two authors' books on female musicians and the latter's biography of Mary Lou Williams. Nor does the Bibliography cite any photography collections, several of which are instructive by reason of their accompanying texts that constitute historical background to the visual documentation, e.g., the volumes compiled by Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer, Jr., William Gottlieb, Frank Driggs, and this reviewer.

Notwithstanding the very occasional Britishism (e.g., "cocking a snook", page 618), Shipton's prose flows. His writing is overall very readable, and carefully precise when called for. In addition to the indices mentioned above there is a handsome selection of 31 photographs nicely reproduced and covering a wide spectrum of the music's history, dating from one of a 1916 posed Clef Club Orchestra to a dramatically open-mouthed in-performance shot of Cassandra Wilson.

Jazz: The Definitive Performances (Columbia/Epic/Legacy J2K 65807), a two-CD set of 33 selections spanning 1917 to the late '90s, can be purchased separately. Dan Morgenstern contributes a liner note to the 64-page booklet, Phil Schaap penned the annotation.

One stylistic trait of Shipton's that I find annoying is his convention-defying placing of nicknames in quotation marks. All of the nicknames that he disfigures in this fashion are so well established that it is jarring to see, in some cases, the given name followed by the sobriquet in quotes, for example, Clarence "Pinetop" Smith and George "Pops" Foster, in others simply the nickname in quotes with the surname, as in Meade "Lux" Lewis and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Puhleeze! Delete the given names and the quotation marks! Else, why not Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington and "Dizzy" Gillespie? The only nickname that I can recall as requiring quotation marks is that of Henry "Red" Allen, perhaps to clearly distinguish him from his also trumpet-playing father Henry Allen, Sr.. So, you see, the exception proves the rule.

Shipton's contribution to musical scholarship is that of a seasoned and perceptive observer of the jazz scene. He has done his homework, going to the sources, both primary (the musicians) and secondary (the scholarship), sifted the data that he amassed, and produced what will stand for a long time as the definitive one-volume survey of the now century-long history of jazz. That he is from the United Kingdom rather than the United States is of no consequence, in view of the now worldwide performance, evolution, appreciation, and study of jazz in all of its forms. Were notoriously acerbic Eddie Condon still with us, he would wisely decline to voice the sort of objection he made to Hughes Panassie coming to New York in 1938 to produce recording sessions, foregoing the observation (to paraphrase the guitarist's "dry martini" wit), "Why is this Englishman telling us about jazz? We don't go over there and tell them how to make a cup of tea."


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

W.Royal Stokes on Alyn Shipton 1 of 3
Carol Sudhalter April 17, 04

Beautiful review, loved it, many good points!

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