Gary Giddins,
Visions of Jazz:
The First Century

(Oxford University Press, 1998)

When I was approached to write this review in early summer, I asked Our Esteemed Editor if three weeks was a reasonable turn-around time for the review (this tome comprising some 650-plus pages); he allowed as how he thought it was.

Here we are, some nine weeks beyond that, and only now am I at a point where I feel ready to grapple with Gary Giddens' Visions of Jazz. The wrestling metaphor is chosen advisedly, as I have gone wildly back and forth on this book since I first cracked the cover all those weeks ago. The problem really begins with the title as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa smile ... there it sits, Visions of Jazz, promising everything, promising nothing, promising ... WHAT??? To compound matters, the subtitle The First Century holds forth a promise of a comprehensive sweep of the musicologist's catalogue. The title alone loomed as the height of arrogance, or folly, or authority.

Once inside, the promise and the mystery became more dendritic, as the contents pages suggested a menu both audacious in its sweep and curious in its omissions. As will most folks when faced with an encyclopedic volume on a much-loved subject, I plowed through with gimlet eye fixed this way and that, nodding approval upon discovering that a favorite artist would get a rightful place in the Pantheon (Louis Armstrong is central in the narrative, as well he should be) and raining scorn down upon the Philistine who could not deign even lip service to another personal musical deity. (What? No mention of the fusion experiments of Carlos Santana and Tim Weisberg? Visigoth!!!)

Thence to the text itself. In a reference volume of this ilk, there are generally two tests which I apply to what is written: 1) is the exposition well-researched, and 2) is it readable. Scarcely three-score pages into the body, I had to fall back and regroup. When reading for a review, I don't generally start with an introduction, preferring to make my own mind up about what the author is/was trying to accomplish. In Visions of Jazz, however, the introduction held one of the two keys to getting the most out of the book. This key was to understand that this is, first and foremost, a critical history of jazz, not overly dedicated to detached pedantics, and making no claims of being the only book you'll ever need on your shelf as Jazz Reference Alpha and Omega.

So what to make of this book? The evolutionary presentation of jazz is the key; Giddins' section titles carry the themes: Precursers, A New Music, A Popular Music, A Modern Music, A Mainstream Music, An Alternative Music, A Struggling Music, A Traditional Music. In these seven sections, the life-cycle of the form is explored not only via the familiar names most casual jazz fans would recognize (Ellington, Vaughn, Parker, Davis), but perhaps even more tellingly in the whirls and eddies of those less well-known (Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor, Dee Dee Bridgewater, et al). Giddins does the telling in style. This is the work not so much of the academic (though there is certainly scholarly rigor to be found here) but rather more of the afficianado. It is, in short, a labor of love, with all of the passion and selective focus implied is such a work. Is it flawed? Almost certainly readers will find assessments with which they disagree, but this makes the book stronger, for it draws you into the debate over the place this music and its practitioners occupy/should occupy in popular culture. And that is (to quote the Redoubtable Ms. Stewart) a Good Thing.

Earlier, I alluded to two keys to understanding this book. The second is to be found in a couple of quotes which preface even the contents:

"Jazz opposes to our classical conception of music a strange and subversive chaos of sounds ... it is a fashion and, as such, destined some day to disappear." (Igor Stravinsky)

"Jazz is only what you are." (Louis Armstrong)

In these two phrases, Giddins establishes that he knows well what jazz is. Etched in jello, elusive as smoke, defying rigor and constraint, jazz resists analysis and classification. Giddins has captured some of the stuff of jazz in the bell jar that is this worthy book. If you love the music, and those who make it, this volume should find a place on your shelf.

[ by Gilbert Head ]
Rambles: 3 November 2001

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