Getting the story

By JON GARELICK  |  December 1, 2009

Jazz history for Giddins and DeVeaux isn't a matter of exposition so much as argument, and those arguments — never strident or agenda-driven, but arguments nonetheless — are what provide the "plot" of this story and carry it through the music's many disparate, colorful characters, styles, and transformations. From almost the very beginning, jazz is animated by the tensions in its identity. Is it art music or popular entertainment? And what is its meaning as an African-American art form?

Early on, Giddins revives an argument he first posited in his 2000 collection Visions of Jazz, that Duke Ellington's 1927 composition "Black and Tan Fantasy" is not simply a bravura display of style and formal invention but a statement about African-American life, and about jazz itself. Giddins fills in the piece's backstory and its satirical content — how it's about the "black and tan" clubs of New York's racially segregated speakeasy era that welcomed both blacks and whites. "Ellington's piece works as a response to the idea that these small, overlooked speakeasies absolved a racially divided society," he writes. The piece juxtaposes trumpeter Bubber Miley's "black" 12-bar blues (based on a spiritual he learned from his mother) with Ellington's "tan" 16-bar ragtime theme, the two strains merging in a quotation of the funeral march from Chopin's B-flat-minor piano sonata as the piece "buries the illusions of an era." Here we see jazz very much engaged in the present tense, a New York cosmopolitan sound, "glittery, independent, and motivated . . . ready to take on everything the entertainment business and the world can throw at it."

This is a jazz history full of "facts" and rife with portraits of the greats — you won't read a better four-page biography of Miles Davis. But formal invention is always wedded to social truth — bebop is seen, in part, as a reaction to racism, and Wynton Marsalis and the "Young Lions" phenomenon are put in the context of the Reagan era. Giddins and DeVeaux tease out the closely twined strains of jazz as art music and jazz as market commodity through its entire history, from those "black and tan" clubs through the commercialized "swing era" to '60s avant-garde to jazz rock. They show the "fusion" impulse — a desire to take part in the broader popular culture — as something that's been part of jazz since well before Weather Report.

But the excitement of the music ("glittery, independent, and motivated") is always in the forefront. And the concluding mini-chapter on pianist Jason Moran resolves the book's themes as he reinvents stride pianist and composer James P. Johnson's "You've Got To Be Modernistic" and Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock." My only caveat is that sometimes DeVeaux's explications are too exhaustive, as if he had to point out everything we're hearing. (The best way to use his listening guides is on-line at the book's Web site, wwnorton.com/studyspace, where the text prompts you in time with the music.)

Still, Giddins and DeVeaux make you want to listen. Ken Burns's Jazz (in which Giddins is a featured talking head) ran out of steam when the music was no longer a dominant cultural force. Focused tightly on the place of jazz in our society, Giddins and DeVeaux are also asking, "What is the place of art in our society?" For them, jazz is an ongoing argument — one that is still vital.

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