Thursday, January 23, 2020

Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

How this for a subtitle?


Welcome to the world of Richard Cook and his Jazz Encyclopedia about which the newspaper The Independent, in choosing it as one of its “Books of the Year” described it as “erudite, lively and up to date,” and asked [somewhat facetiously] “ Where else could you find Buddy Bolden and Jamie Cullum almost side by side?”

Other comments about the book went like this - 

'Slightly different and seriously useful, this is a jazz book to own'

'I take my hat off to Richard Cook ... extraordinarily comprehensive and also retains plenty of wit, personality and variety right the way through to Zurke, Zwerin and Zwingenberger'

'Reading Cook is like sitting down with someone ready to share
his extensive knowledge and to air his views... Above all, he
conveys a strong sense of the adventure of it all'

'Fascinating snippets [that] wouldn't appear in any other jazz A-Z but his ... for aficionados and newcomers alike'

“Whatever you want to know about jazz, this brilliant A to Z guide has the answers, guiding you through everything from trad to free, boogie woogie to swing, bebop to scat, and telling you the entertaining, sometimes tragic stories of the people behind the music - from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, Django Reinhardt to John Zorn, and everyone in between.”
- Penguin Books publicity annotation

Until his death in 2007 at the relative young age of 50, Richard D. Cook had been writing about music since the 1970s.

In his Obituary for The Independent, fellow and co-author Brian Cook said of Cook:

“Cook wrote with an accuracy and consistency of judgement that made him one of the most perceptive and admired commentators, not just on his beloved jazz, but on a whole range of other "sonics" (as he liked to put it), and not just in Britain but internationally. Though his fabled impatience was part of an Englishness cultivated quite without irony, it was also a measure of Cook's utter rejection – in life and music – of the sub-standard. He had an unerring nose for the ersatz and fudged, and though his opinions were strong, sometimes too strong for those who prefer a more liberal rhetoric, he was anything but a bully. He was very happy to see his few loose deliveries driven into the covers, his more controversial assertions batted straight back at him … 

In a decade that elevated style over substance and put old-fashioned musicianship at a discount, Cook always looked for substance and often found it in unexpected places. He wrote as trenchantly about Abba as he did about the improvising ensemble AMM, and his passion for singers, female singers in particular, enabled him to write perceptively about Nina Simone, Joan Armatrading and the soul diva Anita Baker …

The largest of his writing projects was The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, co-authored with Brian Morton, now in its eighth edition (and retitled The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings). Other books followed, including a "biography" of the Blue Note label in 2001, and in 2006 a study, It's About That Time, of Miles Davis. The year before, Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia, its title a reflection of his authority, was published by Penguin…….

He was endlessly curious, almost hyperactively busy and, for all the Eeyorish gloom he affected when talking about the English weather – too wet in winter, too hot in summer – the Jockey Club, Surrey's batting and bowling statistics, phenomena like Nu-Jazz, he maintained an exuberant optimism.”

In his INTRODUCTION to his Jazz Encyclopedia, Richard Cook’s suggests that: “Whether one is in search of timeless, immortal art or the high spirits of a musician simply having fun, jazz has it both ways. I might even suggest that it is unrivalled at delivering both of those extremes within the same piece of music.”

He also goes on to stress the following point:
“ … not … every musician herein receives unstinting praise. I've attempted to be as honest as I can in writing each entry. Jazz writers are often (despite what some musicians think) afraid to be critical, because of a saintly belief that the benighted jazz player has it so tough that words of dissent are somehow dishonourable. This ignores the point that a jazz writer's first responsibility is to the jazz audience - the people who buy CDs and pay for concert tickets - rather than jazz musicians.”

And this is the way Mr. Cook approaches the subject in his delightful and informative Jazz Encyclopedia, never taking the music or himself too seriously.

Here’s the rest of what he has to say in his INTRODUCTION to a book that belongs on every Jazz fan’s library shelf.

“Considering that, for a large part of its existence, jazz was the popular music of choice in Western society, it's surprising what a complicated, obscure and often plain bewildering matter it is. Like most British people under 50,1 grew up with the sounds of pop ringing helplessly in my ears, and while there was some jazz mixed in with it - my cousin had a 45 by The Temperance Seven early on - it was hardly a pressing part of the culture by the middle 6os. I had to make my own way into the music, and it was a long and difficult journey. Because I started collecting records from an early age, going to jumble sales looking for 78s,I inevitably began finding discs by musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, whose 'Dr Jazz Stomp' was one of my early favourites, and from there I embarked on a precipitous voyage of discovery. In my early teens, I didn't know anyone else who liked jazz, and I didn't know how to find out about it. The few accessible books on the subject seemed to talk in code, fascinating though it was. There was no jazz on television that I could find, and not much on the radio, although I thank Humphrey Lyttelton, Charles Fox, Brian Priestley, Peter Clayton and Steve Race for their efforts. I couldn't really understand how what Morton played had somehow turned into what musicians such as Albert Ayler were playing.

Many years later, that progression seems straightforward enough to me now. But it's not hard to understand how most find jazz a very awkward conundrum. The evangelist in me feels infuriated when I hear someone saying, if only facetiously, 'Why can't they play the tune?' The pragmatist just smiles and shrugs. Most of us just want to be entertained by music. But jazz is entertaining, whether it's Louis Armstrong scatting his way through 'Heebie Jeebies' or Charlie Parker hurtling around the curves of 'Ornithology'. As listeners, we can linger over Billie Holiday's mythopoeic pain or be drenched by Cecil Taylor's marathon improvisations, but they are just a small part of what is a jostling and superbly crowded idiom. Whether one is in search of timeless, immortal art or the high spirits of a musician simply having fun, jazz has it both ways. I might even suggest that it is unrivaled at delivering both of those extremes within the same piece of music.

Making sense of it all is a challenge for any listener, no doubt of that. Like the grand  history of Western classical music, jazz has its own genealogies, and its onward march can be studied by any willing student. But one curiosity of the music is the way its various stylistic schools have all remained current, at least since earlier approaches began to be 'revived' in the 40s: jazz is as subject to the whims of fashion as any other kind of music, yet if you live in a major city, it won't be hard to find musicians playing in the style of traditional or swing or bebop or free jazz somewhere on the same evening. Once upon a time, these various styles created warring factions of fans, but today the jazz audience is much more of a United Nations. Since the music has, since the end of the big-band era at least, prospered far away from mass audiences, there is an unspoken bond within the jazz listenership which has always tended to foster an us-and-them feeling. We treasure our elitism, while grumbling about jazz's marginalization within an increasingly unsophisticated culture.

But if you want to join in the fun, all you really need is a sympathetic pair of ears. Many popular jazz musicians - such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, David Sanborn, Billie Holiday, Herbie Hancock, George Benson - aren't even regarded as 'jazz' by many of their admirers. There's no point in pretending that jazz is simple and undemanding: it isn't. Absorbing the music of Parker or Taylor can be the greatest challenge a listener can set him- or herself. But, to return to the top of the page, jazz was, during the swing era at least, a music admired and danced to and listened to by an audience in the tens of millions. The principles which fired that music - for more detail, you might like to turn to the entry on 'Jazz', under the letter J - remain good for everything which came before it, and most of what has come after. Jazz spread around the world very quickly - there are recordings from almost every territory on earth which was able to make records and which, by the 30s and 40s at least, showed some trace of jazz in their popular music - and its stature as an international musical practice continues to evolve. American players far from home often had the complaint that, away from the US, they couldn't find a swinging rhythm section to work with; but that old sore has been largely healed. I won't perpetrate the familiar nonsense about music being a 'universal language', but, as a musical procedure at least, jazz is more universal than most.

The convenience of an A to Z format doesn't hurt in the task of trying to sift through something which has a cast of thousands and far, far more foot soldiers than generals. An enduring fascination of this music is the way it can accommodate so many individuals, even within relatively strict parameters (another cliched idea, that jazz is mainly about 'breaking down barriers', is a further nonsense. If it were, all the barriers would have disappeared long ago). Jazz has a modest genius count: you might like to use the fingers of each hand to count them, but that's probably as many as you'll need. That doesn't prevent every instrument in every style from throwing up musicians who can be identified with just a few bars of their playing. Perhaps the classical aficionado can pass a blindfold test and spot different interpreters of Beethoven's Appassionato. They surely cannot have the jazz fan's legerdemain in hearing and enjoying the dramatic differences between Earl Hines, Hampton Hawes, Andre Previn, Tommy Flanagan, Willie 'The Lion' Smith, Diana Krall and Oscar Peterson, all of whom recorded piano versions of 'Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea', and all of whom (well, Previn might give a few problems, and Diana sings too, so that's a slight cheat) are easily identified.

This book celebrates as many of these players as I felt it was sensible to include. Inevitably, some will ask why X was included when Y is absent. It is entirely my choice, and I am sure there have been unfair and neglectful omissions. American musicians necessarily dominate, and since I have grown up in the environment of British jazz, there are probably more UK musicians included than are justified by their overall eminence. There should probably be more from Italy, France, Australia, Denmark and other jazz-loving countries with healthy communities of players. But I drew the line where I did, and there it is for now. It is, perhaps, the individuality discussed above which has largely been the deciding factor in including a musician or not.

Which is not to say that every musician herein receives unstinting praise. I've attempted to be as honest as I can in writing each entry. Jazz writers are often (despite what some musicians think) afraid to be critical, because of a saintly belief that the benighted jazz player has it so tough that words of dissent are somehow dishonourable. This ignores the point that a jazz writer's first responsibility is to the jazz audience - the people who buy CDs and pay for concert tickets - rather than jazz musicians. To read some reference works on the music, you'd think that jazz is stuffed with godlike figures who never played a bad gig or made a dull record in their lives. I've done my level best to avoid both that starting point, and what I would call the one-of-the-finest school of jazz writing. This is where so-and-so is 'one of the finest bassists/trumpeters/bandleaders/composers in Britain/ the world/Dixieland/jazz' (delete as applicable), and can recur so frequently that the reader starts wondering just who isn't one-of-the-finest. Whoever they are, good for them: jazz is and should be full of vulnerable, inconsistent and unpredictable human beings, and that's another thing that makes it fascinating.

Along with the artist entries are those which cover musical terminology, jazz jargon, venues, festivals, writers, record labels, and whatever other matters seemed appropriate in an A to Z of jazz. I've often discussed a musician's career on record, because jazz has been documented by gramophone recordings for almost its entire history, to an amazingly comprehensive degree, and we can only guess at the abilities of those musicians who, through their own choice or the intercession of fate, chose not to make records. Most of the artist entries conclude with the listing of a single CD (in a few rare instances, a vinyl LP) which seems to me to be especially characteristic of the artist in question - although that doesn't necessarily mean it's either their very finest work or, in some cases, even a good record. If you wish for more information, I would point you in the direction of the rather useful Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD.

I've tried to avoid making the artist entries slavishly biographical, since such an approach is rarely fun to read: if you must know exactly who played with whom and for how long, consult The New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz, a peerless factual resource which I am happy to acknowledge. Instead, I've attempted either a lightning sketch or a more detailed and considered portrait. At the same time, please excuse me if there are any errors of fact.

Finally, I hope that the contents herein will also raise an occasional smile as well as offering some measure of enlightenment. For a music which is so full of laughter and sheer joy, it's surprising how so many jazz reference works aspire to being solemn, worthy and unswinging.”
R. D. Cook

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