Sketches of Pain

Article excerpt


Max Harrison, Eric Thacker and Stuart Nicholson Mansell 889pp, [pounds]25

[pounds]20 at (+15% p&p)

Jazz writing is an essayist's art, an ideal medium for the cameo writer, with endless possibilities for the character sketch and the anecdotal remembrance. Big, galumphing narratives seldom tally with a culture that raced impetuously through its history and resources, to the point where a century of music seems like a babble of conflicting voices and developments.

Whitney Balliett, whose witty and urbane portraits have graced the pages of the New Yorker for decades, is the most famous exponent of this essayist style. But he has recently been eclipsed by Gary Giddins, in the Village Voice, one of the shrewdest journalist-critics of his day. Giddins's superlative Visions Of Jazz: the first century (Oxford, 1998) is a compelling journey through the music, combining musical insights with a canny placing of each figure within their, and our, world.

European writers, obliged to consider so much of jazz history at a geographical distance, have mostly taken a theoretician's view. While there have always been glimpses of visiting giants, most of us have had to experience American jazz through records, which has nurtured a school of armchair critics who often deal in absolutes, judging complex musical lives on the basis of what might only have been one day in a recording studio. If it had been an off day, too bad. This dense book is untroubled by such issues, although it does acknowledge that "recordings are simply what chanced to be preserved".

The book is defined largely by its senior author, Max Harrison. (The first volume, covering the pre-bebop era, was published in 1984 and compiled by Harrison, Charles Fox and Eric Thacker. The latter two have since died, although Thacker also contributed many of the entries in volume two). A baleful and somewhat frightening man, Harrison remains among the finest of all jazz critics. He brings a classical scholar's insight to music that has all too often been subject to either sensationalist reporting or bland approval. …