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‘You Gotta Get the First Beat Right’

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment

The Jazz Book

By Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Gunther Huesmann
Lawrence Hill Books, 2009

To the longtime jazz fanatic, just the knowledge that a new edition of The Jazz Book is available will be enough to trigger a very small, very determined stampede to the local bookstore. If you are one of those devoted reading this review to see if I’ll say something to halt that stampede, please thunder on so that you can be reading your copy by nightfall.

If you are part of the rest of humanity unfamiliar with The Jazz Book, please sit back and enjoy this pocket history of that niche–among-niches – the Jazz Tome.

The Jazz Tome began (and still exists in its purist form) as the simple Discography of a recording label, musician, or style. These were library staples for collectors only. The vinyl LP of the 1950’s inspired discographies banded together into books for collectors, audio hounds, or just people who liked to browse while leafing through large books.

British critic/composer Leonard Feather’s New Encyclopedia of Jazz (1960), an updated version of a similar book assembled by jazz critic Ira Gitler, was the first American publication to supply biographical essays on jazz musicians from all the active styles in jazz at the time. Almost every bio included the prime influences on each musician, so it was possible to follow the styles of your favorite players back to their source, picking up new favorites along the way. This father of modern Jazz Tomes also included a compact history of jazz, and several other features to make the whole effort feel like many books in one.

The other major Jazz Tomes continued to apply the basic discographical approach, and as commercial recordings evolved from shellac to vinyl to cassette to CD, what was once the simply bulky Penguin Guide to Jazz Records bloated to the currently obese Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, now available in its ninth edition. How many jazz fans suffered premature curvature of the spine lugging a copy of the Penguin Guide from one record store to another, only to find that the version of the Armstrong Hot Fives The Guide recommended was available only overseas (the book was a British publication, we kept forgetting)? It’s quite sad to read the book’s researcher/writer Brian Morton’s tribute to his longtime partner Richard Cook, who passed away from cancer in 2007. These two men shaped the tastes of countless jazz fans, and the consistency of their viewpoint allowed all styles of jazz free rein. Hopefully, Morton can find worthy allies to keep this particular Jazz Tome in circulation.

The Jazz Book passes the Tome test, not just by its physical size (although the new offering is a most impressively weighty trade paperback) but by what it manages to include between the covers:

1. A history of jazz broken into decades from 1890, describing its evolution from New Orleans, to Swing, to Bop, to Free, to Fusion.
2. Essays on key figures, in this edition running from Louis Armstrong to John Zorn. Through some unusual combinations (David Murray writing about Wynton Marsalis), fifteen contributors present eleven essays.
3. Individual pieces on the individual elements of jazz including harmony, melody and how jazz “swings.”
4. From Trumpet to Mixing Board, the histories of thirty instruments in jazz; the innovators and their influences. This section of the book alone is over 300 pages.
5. The vocalists of jazz, male and female.
6. The Big Bands; from Fletcher Henderson to all those records your father wouldn’t put away.
7. The Small Bands; from Swing to World Jazz to Free Funk; all the small groups that have made an impact.

Of course the word “new” as it applies to The Jazz Book is relative. A glance at the back of the title page shows that the U.S. 2009 date is actually the 2005 German edition. Indeed, American jazz fans never saw the 1953, 1959, or 1968 editions at all. We did get a shot at the next three editions, typically several years after the German version. But after the last U.S. edition of in 1992, there was nothing. In 2000, Berendt, a writer of books on sound (The Third Ear), and an organizer of jazz festivals (Berlin Jazzstage), died in a traffic accident while walking to a book signing. This event seemed to signal the end of the series, but Berendt’s colleague Gunther Huesmann, who collaborated on the 1992 edition, took up the considerable task of revising and updating most of the book.

One of the first noticeable changes is the addition of a little chapter tucked way in the back, before the discography. It is called “Toward a Definition of Jazz.” It is a little six page credo that attempts to mold its previous 652 pages into a compressed description of all that jazz has been or will be. Previously this section was dropped in at the end of section 3 mentioned above on the elements of jazz. The material quoted below constitutes Joachim Berendt’s definition of jazz:

Jazz is a form of art music that originated in the United States through the confrontation of African Americans with European music. The instrumentation, melody, and harmony of jazz are in the main derived from Western musical tradition. Rhythm, phrasing, and production of sound, and the elements of blues harmony are derived from African music and from the conception of African Americans. Jazz differs from European music in three basic elements, which all serve to increase intensity:

1. A special relationship to time, defined as “swing”
2. A spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation pays a role.
3. A sonority and manner of phrasing that mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician.

These three basic characteristics, whose essentials have been – and will continue to be—passed on orally from one generation to the next, create a novel climate of tension. In this climate, the emphasis is no longer on great arcs of tension, as in European music, but on a wealth of tension-creating elements, which continuously rise and fall.

A history of jazz could certainly be written from the point of view of the three jazz characteristics—swing, improvisation, and sound/phrasing—and their relation to each other. All these characteristics are important, to be sure, but their relationships change, and theses changing relationships are a part of jazz evolution.

Berendt and Huesmann proceed to offer an alternative line of reasoning bolstered by Robert Pirsig’s (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) contention that

Definitions are “square”, because quality is defined “entirely outside the analytic process”. Thus the aspect of quality, necessarily, is excluded from any attempt at definition. Pirsig: “When you subtract quality you get squareness.”

This wrestling match with a definition is a first for The Jazz Book. Prior editions shared an approach in common with that other Jazz Tome, the British Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings: This group (or artist) plays ‘jazz’ because we say that it’s ‘jazz’. Indeed, the attitude shared by these two staples of the jazz publishing scene defined a “European” outlook that was more inclusive and freer than the purely “American” view. This American view of jazz was chronicled in detail in John Gennari’s fascinating book Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (2006). Gennari indicates that the struggle to define jazz lies at the center of America’s relationship with its own native art form. It covered everything from the works of ‘name’ critics like John Hammond, Ralph Gleason, and Nat Hentoff, to the current word wars between the Wynton Marsalis/Albert Murray/Stanley Crouch axis and what at times feels like everybody else; American writers are constantly trying to work out what’s “jazz” and what’s not. So The Jazz Book finally weighs in on this never-ending squabble. The fact that it’s at the very end of the book indicates perhaps how pertinent Huesmann feels this debate is.

Equally important is what Gunther Huesmann has decided not to change. The section on the elements of jazz-melody, harmony, etc., receives only minimal changes. The following passage deals with one of the most elusive components of jazz: swing. It is pure Berendt:

It must be clear by now: swing is not the task of a drummer who has to “swing” the soloists. A jazz musician who does not swing – all alone and without any rhythm section—is no jazz musician. Thus the considered opinion of many modern musicians that it is almost as possible to swing without a drummer as with one: “The drive that creates the pulsation has to be within yourself. I don’t understand why it should be necessary to have someone drive you,” said Jimmy Giuffre. Nat Hentoff remarked, “the ability to swing must first be contained within each musician. If he is dependent on a rhythm section…he is in the position of the rejected suitor who can’t understand that one must be capable of giving love if one wishes to receive it.”

Huesmann’s contribution to this material is to extend the idea of ‘swing’ to include the concept of ‘groove’. These ideas feel somewhat tacked on to Berndt’s original concept, as in this passage:

Groove is a more general, more comprehensive concept than swing. Anyone who swings necessarily grooves, but not everyone who grooves also has swing. Almost all pop music grooves. Many of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach groove as well, as does the music of the Balkans, Balinese ketchak dance, or South Indian mridanga music, even though the explicit concept of groove certainly did not exist during the Baroque period, or in many traditional non-Western cultures today.

Well, there you have it. Huesmann has “Americanized” his thinking to expand the concept of swing to include the concept of ‘groove.’ Ultimately, he ends the discussion with a telling anecdote. Freddie Greene, who played rhythm guitar with the Count Basie Band for more than fifty years, in a rhythm section that defined the concept of swing more consistently than any jazz has known, was asked by bassist Red Mitchell:

“Can you verbalize how you do what you do?”
“Well, you gotta get the first beat right.”
Mitchell wasn’t sure what that meant. “You mean one of each bar?”
“No, the very first beat of the whole tune. If you get that right, you got a good crack at the second. If you don’t forget it.”

Huesmann’s major task in bringing The Jazz Book up to date was extending the histories of the various instruments of jazz. The incursion of world music and electronics into jazz has expanded the original fourteen instruments into thirty. For the first time, tuba and harmonica and accordion escape from the ‘miscellaneous ‘category, complete with lineages and influential players. This section is the core of the book. It is difficult to imagine a guitarist not getting sucked into the 26 pages that deal with the distinguished history of this instrument in jazz; from its acoustic contributions to the blues that lie at the center of all jazz to the electronic wizardry that continues to change both the instrument and the people that play it. Here’s how it starts:

The history of the modern jazz guitar begins with Charlie Christian, who joined Benny Goodman in 1939, and began to play in the Minton circles shortly thereafter. He died in 1942. During his two years on the main jazz scene, he revolutionized guitar playing. To be sure, there were guitarists before him; along with the banjo, the guitar has a longer history than any other jazz instrument. But it almost seems as if there are two different guitars: as played before Charlie Christian and as played after.

Berendt/Huesmann skillfully uses these hooks to pull you into each instrumental biography; before you know it, you are reading about instruments you barely knew existed in a jazz context. Even reading about something like jazz singers, you encounter concepts engagingly presented:

The dilemma of jazz singing can be expressed as a paradox: all jazz derives from vocal music, but all jazz singing is derived from instrumental music. Significantly, some of the best jazz singers (at least among the males) are also players—above all, Louis Armstrong.

And while this edition does at least deal with male and female vocalists separately, what I was hoping for was a separate section on women in jazz. Years ago, working at the giant Tower Records on Mass. Avenue in Boston, a stone’s throw from the Berklee School of Music, we got laughs at one of our section cards that read “Woman in Jazz.” It was supposed to mark the section for women’s jazz anthologies, but the typo seemed to be making a comment on it[s] own about the status of women in the field. While The Jazz Book does well with the Mary Lou Williamses and the Terry Lynne Carringtons in the contexts of their individual instruments (piano and drums respectively), it’s time for a whole separate chronology dealing with women’s achievements within the larger struggle of jazz’s acceptance.
Mary Lou Williams

But, based simply on what we’ve got, it is indeed wonderful to have a new edition of The Jazz Book to devour. As someone who’s spent a sizeable chunk of his life pouring sounds out of a variety of different saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, C-Melody – and before them the clarinet), I thought I had run out of chances to turn to the section on tenor sax and read a passage like this:

Before turning to John Coltrane and the musicians of his school, we have first to mention a number of tenor players who are more or less independent of both the Rollins and the Coltrane schools—even though some of them may, in the course of their careers, have received impulses particularly from John Coltrane. They are Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Yusef Lateef, Charlie Rouse, Stanley Turrentine, Booker Ervin, Teddy Edwards, Roland Kirk, and Clifford Jordan.

The ensuing nine paragraphs summarize and compare the sounds, careers, and influences of those players like no other book on jazz. Huesmann also manages to tackle innovators in fields just starting to make an impact: samplers and laptop computers laden with software to open up new sounds for jazz.

Should this be your first book about jazz? Yes, but you must start with small portions and use the Internet to sample freely as you proceed. The sheer amount of information on offer here makes this most decidedly a Jazz Tome, but one that can be dipped into freely, any time, for any reason.
Let the tiny stampede begin.

Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.

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