Getting the story

Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux sing jazz's many strains
By JON GARELICK  |  December 1, 2009

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MODERNISTIC: For Giddins and DeVeaux, Jason Moran's broad reach contains jazz's multitudes, from James P. Johnson to Afrika Bambaataa.

Full-length written histories of jazz can be a slog. Especially since "the story of jazz" (as critic Marshall Stearns titled his 1956 tome) only gets longer and more complicated. Personally, on these prose-narrative trips along the New Orleans–New York axis of musical development, I usually bog down somewhere outside Chicago. With a few exceptions, I'd rather get my written jazz history in volumes of essays and profiles, or from biographies, books on a single topic, or liner notes.

But now comes Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux's Jazz (Norton). Despite its intimidating heft (620 pages, not counting appendices and notes) and textbook mien, it reads like a shot. Or, at least as much of a shot as you could expect from a brick like this.

In part, they achieve this velocity through admirable compression. The project was indeed first published as a textbook — in a larger format, with greater focus on musicology. But Norton's trade edition is the one that will become classic. Giddins and DeVeaux split duties: DeVeaux provides blow-by-blow, laymen-friendly listening guides to musical examples (there's an accompanying four-CD set, though you have to buy that separately) and Giddins writes the historical narrative.

In a season that also includes two major new jazz biographies — Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press) — here, in no particular order, are five other jazz titles worth reading.

1. Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings | Ben Ratliff [Times Books, 2002] | The New York Times critic, equally at home writing about Monk or Mastodon, stretches out with essays more speculative than his normal fare for the paper of record.

2. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development | Gunther Schuller [Oxford, 1968] | Despite its forbidding title, this is for fans and musicians alike. After Schuller deconstructs Louis Armstrong's sound and puts it back together, you'll never hear it the same way again.

3. Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address) | Stuart Nicholson [Routledge, 2002] | What begins as a rehash of the culture wars becomes one of the most provocative essays yet on jazz as a global style, and its economics, post–Lincoln Center.

4. American Musicians II | Whitney Balliett [Oxford, 1986] | The New Yorker's late jazz critic was also one of the music's finest prose stylists — some would say at the expense of his subjects. But criticism as literature doesn't get any better than Balliett describing what it's like to sit in Bobby Hackett's back yard on Cape Cod.

5. Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday | Donald Clarke [Penguin, 1994] | At once demythologizing and compassionate, and a superb example of biography as history.

The jazz critic at the Village Voice from 1973 to 2003, Giddins restrains his natural literary exuberance but not his flair. There's a pointed introductory chapter, "Musical Orientation," that covers things like instrumentation and form — just enough to sustainmeaningful, demystifying discussions on how particular pieces of music work. But ultimately, the book also provides the key to how these pieces of music mean.

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