Befuddled by all that jazz? Read about it Beware: Books about America's premier original art form are spotty in quality -- but there are fine ones.

Instant Culture

October 12, 1997|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The first jazz records were released 90 years ago, and no sooner did they go on sale than well-bred folk promptly began complaining that they threatened the American way of life. One distinguished Baltimorean, writing in The Sun in 1934, went so far as to describe jazz as "undifferentiated musical protoplasm, dying of its own effluvia. ... Its melodies all run to a pattern, and that pattern is crude and childish." His name? H. L. Mencken.

But by then, it was already clear that jazz was here to stay. Four short years after the Sage of Baltimore set off his anti-jazz stinkbomb, Benny Goodman was swinging at Carnegie Hall. "I feel like a whore in church," Harry James said nervously as the band waited in the wings to make its entrance. He didn't need to worry: Today, the faces of great jazz musicians of the past (including Goodman) are enshrined on U.S. postage stamps, and their music is heard, played and loved throughout the world.

The significance of jazz is no longer in question. In fact, it is now widely regarded by cultural historians as the major art form of entirely American origin, and many listeners embrace it happily on first hearing. But others, like Mencken, don't get it at all. Fortunately, there are coherent, manageable ways for the new listener to get to the bottom of jazz, and - as is true in the case of almost everything of cultural importance - those ways begin and end with books.

Not surprisingly, books about jazz abound, ranging from Louis Armstrong biographies for pre-teens to the two-volume "New Grove Dictionary of Jazz." Most of the best ones are not only still in print but easy to find, and if you're a casual listener who wants to learn more about America's homegrown art music, a quick trip to the corner bookstore (or to amazon.com, if you prefer shopping by modem) will help you figure out who's who and what's what.

Warning: The literature of jazz is spotty in quality. Some books are excellent, others merely adequate, many as unreliable as a jam session in an unswept minefield. Standards in the field of jazz scholarship are surprisingly low - you can count the number of first-rate biographies on the fingers of one hand - and as for jazz criticism, it's mostly awful. Stick to this road-tested guide, and you'll be able to pick your way through the minefield and come out in one piece. And then? "Once you're inside the music," says jazz critic Nat Hentoff, "you'll want to keep going deeper and deeper, because it is impossible to get enough of it."

For the musician, jazz isn't just an art form, it's a milieu. The intensely romantic world of jazz is made up of legends, late nights and larger-than-life personalities, and the best introduction to it is Hentoff's "Jazz Is" (Limelight. 288 pages. $17.95. paper), a collection of profiles skillfully stitched together in such a way as to give the newcomer a feel for the texture of the jazz life as it's lived. "Jazz Is" will introduce you to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and a host of other artists who have left their mark on jazz, and you'll come away wanting to know more about the complex and fascinating history of their music.

For that, turn to Ted Gioia's "The History of Jazz" (Oxford University Press. 425 pages. $30). This brand-new book, written by an accomplished West Coast jazz pianist and scholar, tells the story of jazz from its African roots to the present-day scene; it's written in straightforward, untechnical language, steers clear ideological pitfalls, and lays out the facts with clarity and common sense.

First person

Some jazz musicians do their talking through their horns, but many others are impressively articulate. Louis Armstrong, for example, lugged a portable typewriter from dressing room to dressing room, pecking out a bushel of witty, down-to-earth letters (which, incredibly, have yet to be collected) and an unforgettable memoir of his hardscrabble youth, "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans" (Da Capo. 240 pages. $13.95. paper). This matchlessly vivid book - written without a ghostwriter - tells how the bastard child of a part-time prostitute lifted himself out of direst poverty to become the most influential figure in the history of American music.

Full chorus

Of comparable interest is "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It" (Dover. 429 pages. $9.95). This classic anthology, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, contains first-person accounts of the early years of jazz (up through the emergence of bebop) by virtually every key figure of the period. Drawing on autobiographies, taped interviews, as-told-to accounts and numerous other sources, Shapiro and Hentoff crafted a collection of monologues that has the force and flow of a good novel.

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