Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux

By Lowery, Peter | IAJRC Journal, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux

Lowery, Peter, IAJRC Journal

JAZZ Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux Norton (2009); New York & London, 704pp US$ 39.95

This is a book that claims to cover the history of jazz from 'go' to 'whoa' - or at least to 2008! Both authors' names might be familiar to the readers; if not, then this is probably as good a place as any to start to familiarize oneself with them. The book has a simple, stark title with no sub-title - it is what it is. And there has been a need for such a tome for quite some time, now... see paragraph 3 below.

To begin, I must own up to a degree of insider knowledge (and possible bias) here, being that Gary Giddins is a long-time friend. Also, when I was in Philadelphia going to folklore school at university there, Giddins was brought down from New York City by John F. Szwed (another friend, and mentor) to take over his Folklore of Jazz course while John was department head. I was the teaching assistant for both of them at different times in different school years there. I make mention of this because Gary's approach to teaching the course is paralleled by much of the mode of organization of this book, as well as in the presentation and choice of examples therein. While co-authored, I detect Gary's hand in much of the organizational detail, and it feels familiar to me as a result of my past experiences.

Since Marshall Stearns' The Story of Jazz, in 1956, there has been a paucity of good overview books on the field; books that made you want to dash to the collection to hear what the author was writing about, even to argue over details! There have been a few duds such as Ted Gioia's The History of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1997) and James Lincoln Collier's The making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History (Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1978), and Allen Lowe's challenging That Devilin' Tune : A Jazz History, 1900-1950 (Music and Arts Programs of America, 2006), published since Stearns. But most have been more in the encyclopedia vein, including record reviews, singular biography, or specific genre or instrument histories. Not that there's nothing wrong with that!

But it's a major task to undertake from our 21st Century vantage- point, attempting the history of the music over the past hundred years or so, because it's a topic so big and varied at this point in time, and one also close in many ways. Such a book is guaranteed to not satisfy everyone, no matter what stances taken - how in the world could it? But Giddins has a great track record with his award-winning critical writings over the decades, and DeVeaux's book on bebop is a fine example of good, clear contextual and historical writing. They both have the goods.

The authors tackle the big issues from the start So what kind of music is jazz? In 1987, the US Congress passed a resolution declaring it a "valuable national American treasure," but the full text sums up the confusion sown by the music's contradictory qualities. Jazz is an art form, brought to the American people through well-funded university courses and arts programs; but it is also a "people's music" that bubbled upward from the aspirations of ordinary folk. It is an indigenous American music, but also international, having been "adopted by musicians around the world." Although jazz is a "unifying force" that erases ethnic gulfs, it is nevertheless a music that comes to us "through the African-American experience".

Three different categories situate jazz within our society... The first is jazz as an art form. At the same time, jazz is a popular music.... Finally, jazz is also a folk music. Jazz is an African-American music. (p. 44)

We usually construe African-American as an indication of race, a genetic fact to be dutifully reported on census forms. But it also tells us about ethnicity, which helps to explain how culture makes us who we are. The difference is crucial. Race can't be changed. But because it is learned behavior, ethnicity can.... To learn another's culture can be more difficult, but talented and determined people can do it through diligent effort.

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