John Robert Brown,
A Concise History of Jazz
(Mel Bay, 2004)

John Robert Brown knows his stuff. For 22 years he was a senior member of the teaching staff at the Leeds College of Music, Britain's largest conservatory, and jazz history is one of his specialties. He also has extensive knowledge of music theory and clarinet and saxophone performance.

Dan Morgenstern, an exceptional jazz critic and historian, was one of several people Brown consulted while writing A Concise History of Jazz. All of the elements were in place for an interesting and educational book -- but Brown has attempted to be concise without leaving anything out. While the result is at times useful and intriguing, it's unlikely to appeal to a general audience.

The book hits jazz history fundamentals starting as usual with the musical melting-pot of New Orleans. Crescent City musicians had a chance to hear and play all of jazz's antecedents from African chant to European classical music. As if that wasn't enough of a catalyst, when soldiers mustered-out after the Spanish-American War, ex-members of military bands swamped New Orleans pawnshops with the favorite instruments of early jazz combos. Brown provides a brief and thoughtful discussion of this period and the music's origins.

His major stops after New Orleans are Chicago, New York, the West Coast and Europe. Along the way he covers major and minor styles from dixieland to free jazz, some of the technical aspects of improvisation, every musician you are likely to have heard of, and hundreds you haven't, and jazz issues such as education and globalization. It's an overly ambitious, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.

The index makes the point. The book is indeed concise at 200 pages of text, yet the index is 18 pages long with more than 1,500 entries. More than half of these are the names of musicians. That means there's an average of a quarter of a page to discuss each player's life, importance, style and recordings. Many of the giants -- Parker, Monk, Ellington, Mingus, Armstrong and others -- do get a page or more, but that leaves the others even less space. A joyous, open-mouthed picture of Lionel Hampton is captured on the frontispiece. In scattered references to him in the text we learn only his dates (1908-2002), that he played vibes with Benny Goodman and that Charles Mingus played with him when Hamp had his own band.

Although much of the book is a sort of checklist of musicians and topics, several subjects, including the early days mentioned above, are treated in more interesting depth. Brown, for instance, has a comprehensive view of jazz outside the U.S. He mentions many talented players unknown here and suggests that the future of jazz is unlikely to be dominated by American musicians. That rings true based on my recent listening. As the U.S. enshrines the past at Lincoln Center or half-listens to Kenny G while doing the dishes, Europeans, Asians and Africans are often more supportive of new players and sounds.

Brown also gives big bands more emphasis than usual, mentioning obscure European and American bands from the Swing Era and fine modern groups such as the WDR Big Band of Cologne and Maria Schneider's Orchestra. I found myself in full agreement during much of this discussion -- Artie Shaw was a terrific musician; Glenn Miller deserves more respect; big bands produce a richer, more complex sound than is possible with a smaller group. They are no longer popular, but most colleges have a performing big band and musicians such as Dave Holland, Maria Schneider and Joe Elefante (one of the few players not mentioned) are creating exciting new sounds.

Brown does a good job of covering (briefly) free jazz as well. With his background in theory he understands what the further-out players are doing and provides insight into the music's harmonic and rhythmic techniques. It's not just noise.

The book follows a roughly chronological order, but the flow is sometimes a bit random, as though the author had a list of subjects to cover but didn't always know where to put them. This would have been a stronger outing if some of these, and many lists of names, had been dropped in favor of more anecdotes and discussion of important and recommended recordings.

In spite of its weaknesses I enjoyed the book and Brown's obvious enthusiasm and love for jazz come through. I also like the 11 pages of photographs.

Recommended for slightly fanatical fans, this book is probably not for casual listeners.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 9 April 2005

Buy it from