The Jazz Book of the Year

The jazz book of the year is called, simply,Jazz. Written by Gary Giddins, the best living jazz critic, and Scott DeVeaux, one of the most astute jazz historians, it’s a vital reference for those well versed in the subject and an essential guide for those who get lost in its thickets and want to know how to listen to the music so that it at least makes sense.

There are plenty of jazz encyclopedias and histories out there. What’s distinctive about this book is that it takes you through the century’s sweep of jazz—its soloists, singers, and sidemen, its innovators and embellishers, its evolution and movements—in a manner that lets you hear the music in the same way the musicians do.

It’s nearly 700 pages, it’s structured like a textbook, and the first chapter is a glossary of musical terminology. But don’t let any of that throw you. This is a brisk read with a colorful cast of characters and a propulsive narrative drive.

Giddins and DeVeaux explain clearly how one musician’s style led to another musician’s style; how that intersected with key transitions in American political, racial, and economic history to produce a new kind of music still; how this union fused with other musical developments; and where the next generation took things next.

Scattered throughout the book are 78 “listening guides”—second-by-second descriptions of seminal jazz recordings, from Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” to Jason Moran’s “Planet Rock” and 75 years of music-making in between—which, as the authors put it, really do “provide a musician’s-eye view of what happens on the bandstand” and “enable the listener to participate more knowingly in the now of jazz creativity.”

One caveat: For these listening guides to make any sense, you need to be listening to the music while reading them; and if you don’t have all (or most) of the records, you’ll have to buy the companion 4-CD The Norton Jazz Recordings (Norton being the book’s publisher), available separately. (They form a terrific compilation anyway, with good sound, in some cases remastered from the original CD issues.

So, $40 for the book, $60 for the CDs—pretty soon, you’re talking real money. But you’ll learn more than you would from just about any college-level course on jazz studies, which would cost a lot more. I learned quite a lot myself, and I didn’t have to take midterms.

One criticism: A list of "selected musicians" in the back of the book is guilty of several grievous omissions, especially among contemporary jazz players (eg, bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and drummer Matt Wilson, three true masters of their instruments).

I should also note that I've known Giddins for about 20 years, but he was a big influence on me before he was a friend. If you feel like dismissing my endorsement as a conflict of interest, your loss. (I've never met DeVeaux.)

Scott Atkinson's picture

Fred - Couldn't agree more. I've been listening seriously for more than 20 years, and am still surprised and delighted by what the book teaches. I do wish they'd bundle the cds and text though...Best,Scott AtkinsonWatertown NY

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