Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide


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What was the first jazz record? Are jazz solos really improvised? How did jazz lay the groundwork for rock and country music? In Why Jazz? , author and NPR jazz critic Kevin Whitehead provides lively, insightful answers to these and many other fascinating questions, offering an entertaining guide for both novice listeners and long-time fans. Organized chronologically in a convenient question and answer format, this terrific resource makes jazz accessible to a broad audience, and especially to readers who've found the ...

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Jun 10, 2019

Jazz On The Fourth Of July

In addition to parades and fireworks, I thought it would be valuable to celebrate Independence Day by revisiting a unique product of American freedom: the music of jazz. Over the years, I have listened to a fair amount of jazz, while my main interest in music is classical.

Kevin Whitehead's recent book, "Why Jazz? a concise guide" (2011) appeared to be a good way to get reacquainted with this American muse. The book is part of a series of short works published by Oxford University Press with the aim of giving readers workable background knowledge of an important, interesting subject in brief scope. Whitehead brings both knowledge and love to jazz. He is a longtime jazz critic for National Public Radio and has written extensively about the music.

The book consists of roughly 140 pages of text. It begins with an introductory chapter on the basics of jazz which discusses some relatively sophisticated musical concepts. The remainder of the book is arranged chronologically and covers early jazz through 1940, beebop, cool, and hard bop from 1940--1960, the Avant-Garde period of jazz and its aftermath from 1960 -- 1980, and a final chapter on the "postmodern" period of jazz from 1980 to the present. The book includes a good glossary of musical terms, a perfunctory list of important jazz recordings, and a better bibliography of books for further reading.

Much is covered in a small space as Whitehead offers discussions of musical theory, including such matters as chromatic scales, bitonality, the circle of fifths, polyrhythms,syncopation,modal jazz, and musical form. He gives the reader a sense of the difference between, say, bop, cool, and hard bop. The book also emphasizes the interrelationships among musical forms and the dangers of too rigid categorization. There are short, valuable discussions of important musicians, including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and others. The discussion of Rollins stood out for me, especially of his early recording of "Way out West." I have this album in my collection and was moved to rehear it several times after Whitehead reminded me about it. The lengthy final chapter on current developments in jazz includes a great deal of detail. The book can be read straight through, as I did, or slowly in individual chapters to help explore a particular type of jazz.

Early in the book, Whitehead discusses "swinging" which he describes as "one of the most alluring and elusive of jazz concepts." (p.10) Whitehead's book, unfortunately, fails to swing. It is full of information but reads, for the most part, flatly and pedantically. Although the book might appeal to readers familiar with jazz as a brief overview and refresher, the book probably would not inspire newcomers with a strong desire to jump into the music. The major problem with the book is in its organization. The discussion is not presented as a narrative. Rather, Whitehead presents his materials in a series of questions and answers. This results in a disjointed, strained presentation which, unfortunately, reads more like a catechism than a short history and story of music. I also thought that the book was top heavy towards current developments in jazz for a reader seeking a short introduction to the genre as a whole.

Whitehead's book gave me the welcome opportunity to think about jazz as part of a celebration of America's birthday. As he points out (p. 10), not all jazz has to "swing" to be valuable. Even so, this short book would have benefited greatly from dropping the question and answer format and particularly from more verve and lilt.

Robin Friedman

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