Music that won't stay in its box

The Oxford Companion to Jazz
November 2, 2001

Jazz. Sprawling, patchy, inconsistent, generically indefinable, unchronological and unfailingly exciting and entertaining. The book is all those things as well, but rarely has a reference work so thoroughly reflected the ambiguities, historical slippages and uncertain ancestry of its subject matter. A companion is not a history, not a recording guide and not a theoretical analysis. Newcomers will find this companion a reliable navigator through what is now a bewilderingly diverse music. More experienced listeners will be moved to pause and rethink some unquestioned assumptions about, say, the origins of bebop or the exact nature of Third Stream music.

These are exciting times for jazz, not so much because jazz itself can be said to be in anything like a golden age, but because the music has rarely been the object of so much media attention. The screening of Ken Burns's documentary history made more of a dramatic impact in the United States than here, perhaps because its innate conservatism and seeming indifference to the ever-growing jazz diaspora more suited home tastes. Burns uncritically repackaged a rather tired consensus: that jazz is the definitive art form of African-Americans, initially in the Mississippi delta, subsequently in Chicago and New York, and that it expresses freedom in some amorphous way. It more or less ignored recent thinking - best expressed in Alyn Shipton's new history of jazz - which emphasises the music's Francophone roots, the importance of larger ensembles over the iconic small group, and the role of (mostly unrecorded) "territory bands", which were a major crucible of talent.

Editor Bill Kirchner and his authors offer a more measured and balanced view, equally conservative in tone, but with due attention to recent stylistic developments and the spread of jazz outwith the US. There are good articles on jazz in Japan (Kiyoshi Koyama) and in the former dominions (Terry Martin), but apart from Mike Zwerin's rather mannered representation of jazz as the new-world music, there is little on the music's troubled contact with National Socialism and communism. If an article on jazz in Canada and Australia was deemed necessary, how much more illuminating might pieces on jazz in the USSR and Poland, both well-researched areas, have been.

The first third of the companion is roughly chronological and biographical, with special sections devoted to Bessie Smith, the great triumvirate of Oliver, Morton and Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and Coleman Hawkins, right through to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis (an insightful account by producer Bob Belden) and John Coltrane. The geographically based articles follow, and then a sequence of thematic pieces that resemble nothing so much as an offers document for a Radio 3 jazz series: "The saxophone in jazz", "Miscellaneous instruments in jazz" (step forward the kazoo and accordion, but not, alas, the contrabass sarrusophone or the hot fountain pen), "Jazz and American literature" (an opportunity largely wasted by Gerald Early) and, all too briefly, Dan Morgenstern on "Recorded jazz". Given that most of these areas are already heavily trodden, it might have been worthwhile exploring some neglected aspects of the music.

Morgenstern's typically intelligent essay points in a number of fruitful directions. What, for instance, of those frequently overlooked figures who created the actual sound of jazz on record, not performers but producers and engineers? Much is now known about Teo Macero's role in sampling and splicing together the innovative records of Davis's controversial electronic period, but what of the role of legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder or the influential Orrin Keepnews, inspiration for Bill Evans's anagrammatic "Re: Person I Knew", or the partnership between producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who between them created the "ECM sound" that has made the German-based label one of the signature imprints of the past 20 years? And what of other important labels, such as Blue Note (whose forthcoming historian is Richard Cook), Columbia and Atlantic, the latter one of the few that attempted to fuse jazz and pop in the 1960s?

It is, however, unfair to judge such a valuable book on the basis of a few perceived omissions. Where it succeeds, it is a model of its kind. All it lacks is what jazz criticism and jazz history now signally lack: a touch of imaginative re-engagement with one of the most significant creative endeavours of the past century. Burns ended his series with a low-key variation on a now-familiar death-of-jazz scenario, premised on the belief that unless jazz could continue as an African-American form grounded in the blues, based largely on controlled improvisation, and performed on a relatively conventional array of instruments, it would no longer be jazz. This, though, is a self-limiting and narrow future for a music that has refused all limitations, all orthodoxies and that has always managed to look backwards and forwards with only occasional stumbles and blind alleys.

Brian Morton is co-author of The Penguin Guide to Jazz .

The Oxford Companion to Jazz

Editor - Bill Kirchner
ISBN - 0 19 512510 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 852

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