Friday, January 14, 2011

The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner [editor]



"Putting together this book must have been like being the contractor for the Ellington band."
- Composer-arranger Johnny Mandel to editor Bill Kirchner

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

No extended book reviews in quite a while, and now the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has written two in one week!

There’s no book on Jazz, however, that’s more deserving of further comment and greater exposure than The Oxford Companion to Jazz, developed under the editorial guidance of Bill Kirchner.

For a number of years, our previous stomping grounds was the arcane world of reinsurance in which we earned a living helping to transfer and manage the risk of insurance companies.

As my former boss so eloquently put it: “We are the bookie’s bookie.”

Given the huge sums involved in many reinsurance transactions, he maintained that we as consultants always needed to “… give our clients the best advice or know where to go to get it.”

Enter Bill Kirchner who imposed a similar challenge of best-in-quality on himself when he took on the assignment of editor for The Oxford Companion to Jazz.


As Bill explains: “[In taking on the assignment at the request of the legendary book editor, Sheldon Mayer,] deciding on whom to ask to write the essays, I’ve been involved in Jazz most of my life, and if I might flatter myself, I have a pretty good idea of who the movers and shakers in the field are: musicians, writers, producers, educators, broadcasters, record-industry people and others. And when I don’t know something, I generally know somebody who can tell me what I need to learn. [Italics mine]”

The result of Bill’s knowledge and experience at the “editorial controls” is best summed up in the following description of The Oxford Companion to Jazz by George Avakian, who for years served as a record-producer and impresario of all things Jazz:

“No book on Jazz has ever attempted the scope of this monumental collection of 60 studies by 59 writers.  Commissioned and organized by editor Bill Kirchner into an interlocking mosaic, its 800 pages examine and evaluate every aspect f the origins, ongoing development, and offshoots of Jazz – and its myriad personalities – to a degree which makes this the one indispensable publication in the field.  The Oxford Companion to Jazz is both a reference work for the serious scholar and a rewarding book to be dipped into by the casual reader.”

The operative terms to focus on in George Avakian’s excellent assessment of Bill’s book are “every aspect” and “indispensable.”  But it is the manner in which “every aspect” is treated that makes it “indispensable” primarily because, as Benny Carter asserts, “… this compilation of articles on all phases of the music [is put together] by musicians and professional writers who speak for the art firsthand.”

Bill has assembled an All-Star team; musicians and writers who are the very best at describing and discussing Jazz from a narrative standpoint and in terms of how it works both artistically and technically.

Given the various familial and professional demands on our time over the years, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has always been partial to anthologies. Anthologies are a perfect format for those who have little discretionary time to read or prefer to do their reading in measured amounts.

There are many good collections on the subject of Jazz, but few have the scope and authoritative writing that are the hallmarks of The Oxford Companion to Jazz.

In his Introduction, Bill sets his own tone for how he approached the book’s development as well as how his work should be perceived. Of particular importance is his explanation of “who” this book is intended for which appears in the last paragraph of the intro.

“I think there are only three things that America will be known for two thousand years from now: the Constitution, Jazz music, and baseball, the three most beautifully designed things this country ever produced.”
- Gerald Early, author and cultural historian

“Jazz is not a ‘what.’ It is a ‘how,’ and if you do things according to the ‘how’ of Jazz, it’s Jazz.”
- Bill Evans, pianist and composer

“The word ‘Jazz’ means ‘no category.’
- Wayne Shorter, saxophonist and composer

“The above quotations – the first from one of this volume’s fifty-nine contributors, and the others from two of the most important Jazz musicians of the past half century – tell us a great deal about why this book exists, and what makes Jazz the unique and vitally important music that it is.

Throughout the—roughly speaking—century-old history of jazz, there have been numerous attempts to "define" what the music is or isn't. None of these has ever proven successful or widely accepted, and invariably they tell us much more about the tastes, prejudices, and limitations of the formulators than they do about the music. You'll find no such attempts here.

Jazz has also been called "America's classical music"—a description that I disagree with. America's classical music is classical music: the works of Ives, Copland, Barber, Schuman, et al. Western classical music comes from an aesthetic with its own set of ground rules, and America's contributions to it have, for the most part, been created within that framework. One of the glories of jazz is that it has become an art music with its own rules and aesthetic, and as Wayne Shorter implies, even those rules are meant to be challenged, and often bro­ken, rather than reverently adhered to. As is typical of the black American culture from which it emerged, jazz is a music of healthy defiance.

Jazz is also a music of inclusion, rather than exclusion. From its inception, jazz has been a melting pot of influences and techniques that have come from an immense variety of sources. Multicultural long before that term became fashionable, it has never been more so than now, played and listened to in most parts of the world. Though some might argue with Gerald Early's contention that jazz, the Con­stitution, and baseball are the only things for which America ulti­mately will be remembered, he does have an indisputable point about the vast influence of the three. Moreover, one could make a case that jazz has had a stronger worldwide impact than either the Constitution or baseball. Jazz is a force in numerous parts of the world where baseball is ignored, and as Mike Zwerin points out in his essay on European jazz, it often has endured in defiance—that term, once again—of totalitarian governments that were anything but sympa­thetic to the ideals of the U.S. Constitution.

If, as Bill Evans asserted, jazz is a ‘how’ rather than a ‘what,’ then perhaps this book can be best described as a ‘book of hows.’ Specifically, how the music came into being, how it grew by leaps and bounds, how its greatest practitioners have made it what it is today, how it flourishes in a multiplicity of styles, how it has had a vital impact on other aspects of twentieth-century culture, how it continues to evolve, and more. That isn't to say that our contributors always agree on all of these issues. For example, you need examine only the first two essays to discover that two eminent scholars, Samuel A. Floyd Jr. and William H. Youngren, have often differing view­points on the roots of the music. For me, such differences are part of the stimulation of this book.

About the contributors. As I mentioned, there are fifty-nine of them, and they are among the finest musicians, scholars, and critics in jazz at the end of the twentieth century. Fully half are musicians who are currently (or in a few cases, formerly) working professionals. Without in the least intending to slight the expertise of the non-musicians among our contributors, I view the high percentage of musician-authors here as a definite coup. It gives a "view from the inside" that makes this book all the more valuable. In fact, four of the essayists—Bill Crow, Dick Katz, Max Morath, and Randy Sandke—deserve to be mentioned in the pieces they wrote.

When I commissioned these essays, many of the writers asked, ‘Who is the intended audience for this book?’ ‘Anyone,’ I replied, ‘from novices just coming to the music for the first time to seasoned listeners who know a great deal.’ This provided the authors with an additional challenge—aside from that of severely disciplining them­selves in order to fit as much information as comfortably possible into a short format. A number complained mightily, and I was not un­sympathetic, but I believe that all of our contributors have emerged triumphant from their ordeals. You, the reader, are the beneficiary. Whether you know a little or a lot about jazz, you'll know a great deal more after reading The Oxford Companion to Jazz. Read it from beginning to end, or dip into it at any point. But most of all, enjoy it. And the music.

The Oxford Companion to Jazz’s comprehensive and commanding authorship make it very difficult to review. Where does one begins and what does one leave out?

And here are some selections from the book’s various entries which may serve as examples of the wonderful qualities on display in this compendium:


The Bass in Jazz – Bill Crow

“The string bass has been called the "heartbeat of jazz" for good reason. It provides a deep pulse, sometimes felt as much as it is heard, giving the music both a harmonic and a rhythmic foundation. As in many other forms of music, the role of the bass in jazz is mainly supportive. Bass players certainly have developed marvelous techniques for so­loing, especially in recent years. But a bassist doesn't have to be a great soloist to be in demand. The main thing other jazz musicians want from a bass player is  "good notes," bass notes that thread through the harmony in an interesting way, and "good time," a steady rhythmic feeling that helps bring the music to life.
Bass notes are stepping-stones for the rest of the band. They form a path that provides support and direction. To be able to consistently select good notes and drop them into exactly the right places in the music, a bass player needs a strong sense of harmony and rhythm and an empathetic connection with the other members of the rhythm section. In small groups, the bassist chooses his line as the music goes along. Even when playing written music in larger ensembles, jazz bass players usually recompose their lines, using what the arranger has written as a guide but relying on their experience and their "sixth sense" to choose the particular notes and figures to be played.” [p. 668]


Big Bands and Jazz Composing and Arranging After World War II
– Doug Ramsey

“Just as often as Stan Kenton's jazz instincts were overridden by his dedication to weight and volume, his importance is underestimated. Beginning in 1945, when he made Pete Rugolo his chief arranger, Kenton's band provided a workshop and outlet for some of the music's most inventive writers and best players. Anita O'Day, Art Pepper, Conte Candoli, Lee Konitz, Shelly Manne, Maynard Ferguson, Kai Winding, and Zoot Sims were among the soloists who developed or were featured with Kenton. Although Rugolo was capable of bombast that met Kenton's specifications, he also produced arrangements of sensitivity and complexity that reflected his apprenticeship with Da­rius Milhaud. Kenton encouraged Bob Graettinger, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, and Johnny Richards, among others. The broad range represented by those composer-arrangers—from Holman's and Mulligan's centrism to Graettinger's monumental density—resulted over the years in a repertoire whose richness was exceeded only by Ellington's. The band's Capitol re­cordings include Graettinger's City of Glass, Richards's Cuban Fire, and the influential Contemporary Concepts album. Many of the best works of the Kenton band of the fifties are reissued in Stan Kenton: The Holman and Russo Charts (Mosaic).” [P. 412]


… “The Thad Jones—Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was a part-time band that developed into an institution and a pervasive influence because it had great players, a spirited collective personality, and writing by Jones. He was a trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn artist with an ear for harmony that led him to distinctiveness as a soloist and a composer-arranger. Almost from the moment it debuted at New York's Village Vanguard on a Monday night in February 1966, the Jones-Lewis band was the talk of the jazz world. A generation of aspiring jazz writers found new heights to try for when they heard Jones arrangements like "Cherry Juice" (A&M Horizon), "A Child Is Born," and "A-That's Freedom" and Brookmeyer's arrangements on "ABC Blues" and Fats Waller's "Willow Tree" (all Solid State, reis­sued on Mosaic). Many of the big bands that followed after the deaths of the leaders (Jones in 1986, Lewis in 1990) emulated Jones-Lewis and used its aesthetic for their own departures. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra continues to this day.” [PP. 415-16]


The Advent of BeBop – Scott DeVeaux

“‘Bebop’ was a label that certain journalists later gave it, but we never labeled the music. It was just modern music, we would call it. We wouldn't call it anything, really, just music.”
••• Kenny Clarke, quoted in Dizzy Gillespie, To Be or Not to Bop (1979)


“The word bebop (or rebop) first surfaced in musicians' argot some time during the last two years of the Second World War. Originally, it was a scat syllable, an onomatopoeic shorthand for a certain kind of off-balance rhythmic ges­ture favored by musicians like drummer Kenny Clarke. Within a few years, however, it had become synonymous with a revolutionary new way of playing jazz associated with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Bebop was a brief, explosive moment in American culture, greeted in the mid- to late 1940s by as much controversy and misunderstanding as genuine acceptance. Only much later would it be clear how profoundly and irrevocably bebop had transformed the art of jazz improvisation. Indeed, it is safe to say that jazz as we know it today is shaped in bebop's image.” [p. 292]



Hot Music in the 1920’s: The “Jazz Age,” Appearances and Realities
- Richard M. Sudhalter

“Perhaps the most difficult white ensemble of the time to evaluate is that of Paul Whiteman. From 1920, the year of its first successes, this large group, as outsized as its leader, dominated the public face of the "Jazz Age"; its early records, if well arranged and played, sel­dom approached any hot music ideal. But Whiteman, a man of shrewd instincts, came to realize that a significant part of his "King of Jazz" image sooner or later would have to include the real thing. He made his first move in early 1927, attempting to sign up Red Nichols's Five Pennies entire; though Nichols, Jimmy Dorsey, and percussionist Vic Berton came aboard, only Dorsey was still present by autumn. Whiteman, undeterred, watched the Jean Goldkette Or­chestra collapse, then snapped up Trumbauer, Beiderbecke, Brown, trombonist Bill Rank, and arranger Bill Challis.”


Jazz in Europe: The Real World Music … Or The Full Circle – Mike Zwerin

“The saying goes, ‘There is only one inch of difference between New York and Paris, but it's the inch I live in.’ Paris functions; public transportation works, you don't need a car, and you can still walk for hours and not see anything seriously ugly. The intercity trains are fast, clean, inexpensive, and on time in Europe in general, and the cities are closer together; touring is more efficient and comfortable. Europeans consider jazz musicians to be artists, and even poor artists earn respect over here if they are honest and happy. That's good for at least half an inch right there.”


Jazz Singing Since the 1940s – Will Friedwald

“Singing is the key area in which jazz interacts with the bigger, broader world of popular culture just beyond its boundaries. Although not a hyphenated term, jazz singing is in fact a hyphenated concept. In its narrowest definition, the phrase refers only to vocalists who do exactly what musicians do: improvise choruses of wordless melody on top of chord changes. At its broadest, the term stretches to the furthest reaches of classic American pop. This was particularly true in the '30s and '40s, when the swing era was so embedded in the collective mindset that even pop stars like Perry Como and Dinah Shore recorded credible jazz performances. Similarly, without exception, all of the major fig­ures of jazz singing, from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Dinah Washington, and Mel Torme, also have at least one foot in pop. Even Betty Carter, who was as "pure" a jazz singer as it's possible to be, had a firm footing in standard song form and the popular repertory.”

By way of conclusion, the following video tribute offers a visual overview of more of the book’s subjects.

The audio track is Bill Holman’s big band arrangement of Just Friends. We have always thought of this chart as Bill’s extended solo on the tune scored in unison and in harmony for the band’s various sections with the trumpets primarily on display[Carl Saunders, Frank Szabo, Don Rader and Bob Summers].

Bruce Lett’s excellent bass solo is interspersed around the middle of the piece to give the trumpet players a chance to rest their “chops” before he turns them loose again in the second half of his 5.51 minute arrangement.

Given the fact that both Kirchner and Holman have “Bill” as a first name in common, are both saxophonists and the titles of the book and the big band arrangement have a  “friends” and “companion” relationship … I know, I’m pushing it a bit, here … .

So let’s have Bill conclude this piece for us with his explanation of what it was like to have the editorial responsibility for bringing such a Magnus Opus to fruition:

“So, you may be wondering, what's it like to deal with fifty-nine experts with fifty-nine sets of work habits? Most interesting and var­ied, I reply diplomatically. Suffice it to say that I didn't, to the best of my knowledge, lose any friends in the course of this work, and I made quite a few new ones. My job encompassed a variety of roles: editor, friend, cheerleader, psychologist, and occasionally, pain-in-the-derriere. There were times when I internalized the late cartoonist-pundit Al Capp's self-description: an expert on nothing with opinions on everything. But I persevered.” 

Thank you for “persevering,” Bill, but you did a great deal more than that in bringing into existence The Oxford Companion to Jazz – you’ve created something for which there is no equal in the Jazz world.