Book Reviews

‘The Oxford Companion to Jazz’,’ edited by Bill Kirchner (852 pages; Oxford University Press; $49.95)

‘Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz,’ 1954-2000, by Whitney Balliett (872 pages; St. Martin’s Press; $40)

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At first glance, the words seem like a bad juxtaposition: ‘Oxford’ and ‘jazz.’

The first is no less than medieval in origin, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the Western Hemisphere, the very emblem of Anglocentric scholarship. The second is a brash American music of the 20th century, intellectual but also gut-level, born of the minds of musical genius but also of brothels and bourbon-soaked clubs.

Yet ‘The Oxford Companion to Jazz’ hits the reader with a thump as solid and satisfying as a pedal slamming into Roy Haynes’ bass drum. Edited by saxophonist and historian Bill Kirchner and featuring 60 essays from players, writers and scholars, the book doesn’t say much about jazz that hasn’t been said before. For the first time, though, it says it all in one place.

And Kansas City’s contributions blare forth throughout, from the Prohibition-era nightspots, where jazz collided with the blues, to major figures such as Charlie Parker and Count Basie and Pat Metheny to jazz on film in Robert Altman’s ‘Kansas City.’

But ”The Oxford Companion to Jazz” is one of only two heavy jazz books hitting bookstores this season. Whitney Balliett’s ‘Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2000’ provides a counterpoint. If the Oxford volume is a suite for large ensemble, Balliett, jazz critic for The New Yorker, delivers a solo work of intense passion, not as universal but deeply felt.

Balliett’s book is less successful only because a single writer cannot hit all the notes of jazz history, even if he has written about the music from the days when Miles Davis was blowing cool trumpet lines, to modern times when sax man Branford Marsalis and other practitioners arrange shotgun marriages between jazz and hip-hop.

Taken together, though, these two books discover the scope and the soul of one of America’s greatest musics.

The big combo

What do you want to know about jazz? How and where it began, from Africa to New Orleans to Kansas City? Who its great players were and are? Why the fading of big bands and birth of bop drove a wedge between jazz and dance?

‘The Oxford Companion to Jazz’ probes every aspect of the music, from the rhythmic virtuosity of ragtime and stride piano, to the transformation of jazz from music for happy feet, to cerebral bebop for the mind. Editor Kirchner accomplished this macro-musical view by devising a list of themes and subjects, then turning them over to experts such as Samuel A. Floyd Jr., Patricia Willard and Bob Blumenthal.

The book achieves a trio of identities: It serves as a fine addition to jazz reference works; it provides a wonderful read for anyone interested in the music; and it emerges as a tool for endless browsing. Like jazz itself, ‘The Oxford Companion to Jazz’ marries form and imagination. The text is the written composition; each reader’s reaction is the improvisation of personal discovery.

Case in point: Without really thinking much about it, I’ve always revered Charlie Parker’s ‘Jam Blues,’ recorded in 1952 in Hollywood, long after the Kansas City, Kan., native had left his Midwestern cradle. Every Parker aficionado knows jam sessions were important to the alto saxophonist’s development, but for me, Vincent Pelote’s essay on ‘Jazz Clubs’ finally drove home the significance of KC jams to Parker’s sound:

‘Jam sessions and sitting in were two specialties of the Kansas City jazz scene, where the longest jam sessions in history took place almost nightly. Nowhere were jam sessions taken as seriously as in Kansas City, and for some musicians, jamming practically became a way of life. The competition was said to be so fierce that the ‘cutting contests,’ where one musician tried to outplay the other, became quite commonplace.’

Years after leaving KC, then, Parker’s hardcore lessons in the art of blowing brazen sax and yet making room for other soloists remained evident, as the sublime ‘Jam Blues’ shows.

If ‘The Oxford Companion to Jazz’ has a flaw, it is its reluctance to acknowledge modern masters. In addition to Parker, older performers such as singer Bessie Smith, trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young are given entire essays, an honor the book declines to bestow on even one contemporary artist.

That’s strange, considering the energy contributed to the genre by, say, Lee’s Summit native and guitarist Pat Metheny. At the very least, an essay should have been devoted to the Marsalises of New Orleans — pianist Ellis and his sons Wynton (trumpet), Branford (sax) and trombonist//producer Delfeayo. The family is the closest thing to royalty that modern jazz has.

Speaking of New Orleans, why does the Southern crucible of jazz rate its own essay while Kansas City does not? True, if jazz has an American birthplace, it’s probably New Orleans. But KC was the town where pianists such as Count Basie and singers like Joe Turner put blues and jazz together. We are forced to search the index for KC references. The careful reader will rediscover how KC emerged as a jazz oasis in the 20th century’s first half.

A single voice

The Oxford volume stands back from the music, the better to see its sprawling glory. Whitney Balliett lives up to his subtitle, A Journal of Jazz, with writing that personalizes musicians he has covered for 46 years.

Balliett sustains emotional resonance throughout, but some of his best work comes in his farewells to the music’s greats, such as this 1982 article:

‘The pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who died last week at the age of 64, was an utterly original man who liked to pretend he was an eccentric. Indeed, he used eccentricity as a shield to fend off a world that he frequently found alien, and even hostile. A tall, dark, bearish, inward-shining man, he wore odd hats and dark glasses with bamboo frames when he played. His body moved continuously. At the keyboard, he swayed back and forth and from side to side, his feet flapping on the floor.’

Leave it to Balliett to find endearing qualities in a man so ornery that even musicians who admired him waited till after his death to record ‘That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk.’

Balliett’s personal touch, taste and knowledge cohere to make his book a keeper, but one deficiency irks: His inability to appreciate the melting pot of innovation that has always bubbled outside New York. Reading Balliett’s account of Count Basie’s rise to greatness, one would be hard-pressed to realize the role of Kansas City’s blues-drenched bluster in transforming Basie into a major big-band leader.

Perhaps that’s inevitable, given Balliett’s long tenure as jazz critic for The New Yorker and his New York residence. But a good critic should realize — as Balliett probably does, if he’d only be more conscientious in his writing — that jazz evolution has occurred west of the Hudson River.

Big-Apple-centric he may be, but Balliett’s affection for the music can’t be denied. His book does share with ‘The Oxford Companion to Jazz’ the fault of giving short shrift to modern players, although one article from 1995, ‘The Young Guns,’ notes the talent of upstarts such as bassist Charlie McBride and pianist Jacky Terrasson.

Coda

Does jazz still matter? In some ways it’s a marginalized music now, perhaps never to be as popular as it once was.

But even pop music is suffering from fragmentation. Rock has imploded into shards of rap, metal, techno, groove and more.

Jazz, too, is a house divided, from the traditionalist neobop of Wynton Marsalis to the freer-formed postbop of his brother Branford to the electric eclecticism of Metheny.

Somehow, though, jazz always seems to discover a new vitality, as one realizes from reading Gene Santoro’s ‘Latin Jazz’ essay in ‘The Oxford Companion to Jazz’, which documents the current renaissance being carried out by young lions such as Jerry Gonzalez and his brother, percussionist//trumpeter Andy.

Jazz may always be underappreciated in this country. But books such as these remind us that lovers of the genre can always find something new surfacing, if they’ll only listen.

And read.