A jazz encyclopedia for both novice and connoisseur

by Abraham Mahshie | 5/24/01 5:00am

"The Oxford Companion to Jazz," edited by Bill Kirchner gives a panorama of the uniquely American music with a selection of articles that span from its inception at the turn of the twentieth century to the form it takes today. Jeff Taylor describes Jazz best in his article "The Early Origins of Jazz": "[Jazz] arose not from a single place or time but from a people, a country, and an era."

'The Companion," nearly eight hundred pages of text, features 60 articles that chronologically recount major personalities, trends, critiques and eras that highlight the development of the music. Portrayals of artists like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaugh, Billie Holiday and others fit neatly in the historical development in delightful and easily readable doses.

Articles also appear which feature major trends in jazz and its development such as Floyd's "African Roots in Jazz", Porter's "The Blues in Jazz," Harrison's "Swing Era Big Bands", DeVeaux's "The Advent of Bebop", Seymour's "Hard Bop," and Milkowski's "Fusion," serving to break down the expansive history of jazz for the reader, identifying traits, figures, and influences in the major jazz styles.

More academic or scholarly articles pinpointing specific niches in jazz's history or parallel developments are also discussed. Examples are Sudhalter's "The 'Jazz Age,' Appearances and Realities," Gioia's "Cool Jazz and West Coast Jazz," and Kart's "The Avant-Garde, 1949-1967." Although these articles are not overly technical and thus do not exclude the casual jazz listener, these articles at times tend to list a slew of lesser known artists, closed clubs, and eras past.

"The Companion" is a good foundation for the reader who wants to gain a firm background on jazz as portrays a broad scope of influences and understanding of the art, delving into international developments and cross-cultural interplay. This is done, for instance, with Santoro's "Latin Jazz," Stein Crease's "Jazz and Brazilian Music," and even in as far off places as Koyama's "Jazz in Japan," and Martin's "Jazz in Canada and Australia." A number of articles also discuss the roles of individual jazz instruments and a portion of the Companion is devoted to jazz in television and movie, in clubs, dance, American literature and jazz criticism. Thus, enlightening the reader in regard to the ramifications and influences the music has had in other realms.

Although best enjoyed with a selection of jazz albums at hand to listen to suggested titles or artists, the less trained jazz ear can still appreciate this book. The Companion shows the historical and cultural roles jazz has played, shedding light on the cities, people, and cultural trends jazz affected. Crosses into cultural developments like the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Era and the adverse effects of the Rock Revolution, for example, are discussed. Cities like New Orleans, "a city where music was regarded as a necessity rather than a luxury," according to Raeburn, is discussed extensively. New York City's role as a host to the world's best jazz artists and most famous clubs is also allotted due attention. The clubs that made Django Rheinardt, Charlie Parker and Count Basie famous in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Kansas City, London, Paris and Tokyo are also mentioned.

Jazz's effects on race relations and its influence on desegregation are also given serious attention. Jazz, having evolved from African roots and blending with French and Spanish cultures in New Orleans at a time of musical fervor, would see African-Americans becoming its most celebrated artists. A "white jazz" developed alongside this in the early twentieth century with a more refined and conservative nature for appeal to the upper classes. Jazz clubs of exclusively white clientele soon hosted black artists who either played their taste or the refined version for their white audience.

Thanks to artists who attained celebrity status and worldwide recognition, like Louis Armstrong, black entertainers began to receive the attention and recognition they deserved leading to the incorporation of African-Americans in other art forms and their inclusion in more racially mixed settings. A crossing over of the white and black "hot music" became more and more commonplace as racial barriers began to break down in the interest of musical advancement.

The events of the roaring twenties and events like the stock market crash in 1929 also played roles in jazz's inception. Speakeasies were breeding grounds for early jazz artists, and the extravagance of the twenties added large orchestras to the music. Big bands began to taper off after the Second World War, but New York's 52nd street jazz clubs and the beginning of jazz jam sessions in clubs in the 1950's began a musical interaction that brought a wide variety of talented musicians together. Miles Davis alone played with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and others during his career.

The history of jazz is dynamic and pervasive, encompassing historical influences, personalities, cities, and a melting pot of cultures that evolved the one truly American musical form. "The Oxford Companion to Jazz" highlights this development with a selection of articles that describe the artists, music, clubs, and numerous other aspects of jazz's development with analysis and firsthand accounts. Unlike other works which neglect aspects of jazz, such as its international appeal and influences, or concentrate on a particular artist or era, "The Oxford Companion to jazz" is a reference book for nearly every aspect of Jazz, and is a must-have guide to both the jazz connoisseur or newcomer to the genre.

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