Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, September 15, 2017

Recent Jazz Reading

Jazz In the Movies reflects a staggering amount of viewing and reviewing by author-film archivist David Meeker. It was published in 1981, but an updated version called Jazz on The Screen was published in 2017. It's an oversize paperback, well-formatted, with short blurbs about the films and lots of photos. For the jazz/film/television obsessed, a definitive resource.

That Devlin' Tune is one small part of the enormous output of author-archivist-musician Allen Lowe. What to say about this guy and his work? He's a genre polymath, who explores all kinds of indigenous American music and burrows deeply into what connects and separates the various strains. The combination of related materials that Lowe puts together-musical recordings on CD, print descriptions and discographies-is something one doesn't find anywhere else. Satisfying whether you're a newbie or as a grizzled veteran of the music.
Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce is a stellar biography, written by Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald. Gryce occupies an interesting place in the jazz world. He's not generally put in the highest tier as an alto sax player, but his playing is widely respected, as are his compositions and arrangements. He is also known as something of a mystery man; perfect subject for a biography. Cohen and Fitzgerald have done a thorough job, spoken to many of his peers, listened carefully to his music and put the threads together nicely. There are unknown factors in Gryce's life and some reasoned speculation is offered, but nothing that seems far-fetched. An excellent read.
Art of Jazz: Form/Performance/Notes is a large format, high-end, attractive paperback; catalogue of a three part exhibition at Harvard University museums. This is the blurb: 

The installation ranges from art historical presentations on jazz figures and the "jazz" strategies of fine artists to "jazz" ephemera: posters, album and photography and concludes with 21st century contemporary artists engaging with jazz in multiple ways. The exhibition is filled with several sound installations.

The writing style comes from the "art academy," which may not be that familiar to many jazz people. There is a straightforward introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and short essays of various degrees of accessibility by a number of people on artists influenced by jazz-Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, Matisse and others. The book contains a number of high quality reproductions of art and photographs and these are, to me, the strong point of the book.
Saved the most difficult for last. Epistrophies, written by Brent Hayes Edwards is an ambitious book that demands an ambitious reader. 

Some of the chapter headings of the book are: "Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat," "The Race for Space: Sun Ra's Poetry," "Zoning Mary Lou Williams Zoning." The issue is not that many of these areas might not be familiar, at least in part, to readers of books about jazz. It's that a general audience might wrestle, as I did, with how Edwards, coming from the Academy, addresses them. 

One part of this is the language. Terms like "alterity," "semiotic," "historiography," "aleatory," "etrange voisonage" tend to slow down the general reader. Reading also becomes more difficult when Edwards references other authors unlikely to be known to a non-academic, general audience. 

The book is most accessible when the author is providing historical data, and his extensive research indeed provides much that is new. 

I found the writing to fall largely between accessible and extremely challenging. There is no part of the book that does not require concentration and, often, re-reading. Take this excerpt, from the chapter on Louis Armstrong: "In vocal expression in music, scat falls where language rustles with alterity, where the foreign runs in jive and the inside jargon goes in the garb of the outsider. But as the examples above demonstrate, the performance of difference in scat is by no means innocent; it is the very point at which the music polices the edges of its territory." (p 36)

The edges of this book's territory are clear enough, but venturing into the interior takes time and concentration. The rewards are there for the intrepid.

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