Saturday, October 4, 2014

Visions of Jazz - Gary Giddins - A Review [Revisited]

While at work recently on a review of Gary Giddins' Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation [New York: DaCapo edition, 2000], I was reminded of two earlier reviews of Gary writings that appeared on JazzProfiles, the first of which is re-posted here.

If you've not had the opportunity to read Visions of Jazz: The First Century, you owe it to yourself to do so as Gary writes about Jazz with a passion and an energy that leave you with a sense of deep satisfaction, much like what you experienced when you first fell in love with the music and sat around talking about it for hours-on-end with like-minded friends.

When you read Giddins-on-Jazz, the music is not an idle pursuit. His writings on the subject are engrossing, full of insights and contain a great deal of original thought.

No one looks at Jazz quite like Gary Giddins.

A re-posted review of Gary's recently revised book on Charlie Parker will be featured on the blog tomorrow.

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

“Giddins is one of our best writers, and if the balance he strikes between the measured, thoughtful prose of Martin Williams and the poetic imagery of Whitney Balliett prompts the rereading of a few of his phrases or sentences for sheer pleasure, then the many years he has spent in honor of his love have been well spent.”
- Jack Sohmer

“This massive volume is a history of sorts of the first century of jazz....Unlike too many others inside the little world of jazz, Giddins has an expansive, welcoming view of it....It may not have been intended as such, but Visions of Jazz is a celebration and reaffirmation of precisely that.
 - Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post”

 “...Giddins is our best jazz critic....Visions of Jazz is the finest unconventional history of jazz every written...brilliant, indispensable...comprehensive enough given the certainty that a total history of jazz at this point...invites a shallow inclusiveness.”
- New York Times Book Review.

 “[Giddins'] writing, like the music he loves, is joyously polyphonic, with history, legend, musicology, biography, and performance all rising out of the mix.
- Alfred Appel Jr., New Yorker”

“Giddins has become a master of the lightning insight, the unexpected connection (his use of literary analogies is particularly apt).”
- Kirkus Reviews

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

It has been a while since the JazzProfiles editorial staff has written an extended book review so please bear with us as we regain our stride.

What better place to begin anew than with a work by Gary Giddins who, as the introductory accolades underscore, has long been considered one of the best writers on Jazz. He has also been one of our preferred Jazz authors. His 1988 book on the life of Louis Armstrong entitled Satchmo is a particular favorite. Its photographs of “Pops” alone are worth the price of a copy of the book.

Recently, after we became aware that a loaned copy of Gary’s seminal work – Visions of Jazz: The First Century – had never been returned, we went on-line and found a “very good,” used hardbound copy for a nominal fee.

When it arrived, we noted that the inside title page was marked: “Apache Junction [AZ] Public Library – Withdrawn.”


For goodness sake, why?

This book should be on the corner of every student’s desk as a testimony to American creative genius in the Twentieth [20th] Century – not to mention the literary genius of Gary Giddins.

The book’s seventy-nine [79] chapters are one of the best personal retrospectives on Jazz and its makers ever written.

By way of example, here’s a snippet from the chapter on Ella Fitzgerald:

“When Ella Fitzgerald was singing at her peak – in good voice, with good song, arrangement and accompaniment – nothing in life was more resplendent.”

Or how about this opening sentence from Gary’s Chapter on Bobby Hackett:

“Bobby Hackett was known primarily by two fringe audiences that otherwise barely recognized each other’s existence: one actively pursued Dixieland [also known as Traditional Jazz], the other passively approved elevator music [i.e.: Muzak; Hackett appeared on a slew of Jackie Gleason’s Capitol albums in the 1950’s, all of which eventually found their way into the world of “canned music”]. Such was the absolute individuality of his approach to the cornet that you could immediately recognize his playing in either context.”

Here’s how he thematically sets the stage for his take on John Coltrane:

“By the time … [Coltrane] arrived at The Village Vanguard in November 1961, …, he was a true Jazz celebrity,  basking in the afterglow of a huge and improbable hit, ‘My Favorite Things,’ and buoyed by an auspicious contract with an unfledged record label called Impulse. A few weeks later, Down Beat caught up with him in Hollywood. Coltrane, it reported, had plunged into ‘musical nonsense’ and ‘anti-Jazz.’ A chasm opened between the Coltrane available on records and the one appearing down the street, and it never really closed during his few remaining years [Coltrane died in 1967].”

Gary’s treatments of musicians from all eras of Jazz abound with chunks of his very personal observations, knowledge and opinions. One simply cannot approach his writing casually, its much too dense and rich for that.  It has to be savored slowly and with much reflection.

The following video contains a fairly sizeable sampling of the musicians and groups that Gary writes about in Visions of Jazz: The First Century. The music is by the Clayton Brothers from their Brother-to-Brother ArtistShare CD [AS0085]. Joining Jeffrey on alto sax and John on bass are Terell Stafford on trumpet, John’s son Gerald on piano and Obed Calvaire on drums. “Strap-in” for Jeffrey’s solo which begins at 1:22 minutes. Whew!

As its titled delineates, the book’s scope affords the reader a look at Jazz’s growth and development from its rarely considered “Precursors” such as the minstrelsy of Bert Williams and Al Jolson, to the “New Music” of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, then on to the “Popular Music” of Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

The middle chapters offer studied considerations of the “Modern Music” of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Stan Kenton; “Mainstream Music” Gerry Mulligan, Nat King Cole and Sonny Rollins; the “Alternative Music” of Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill.

The closing chapters are grouped under the heading of “Struggling Music” which includes profiles of Jimmy Rowles, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Abbey Lincoln and “A Traditional Music”  with features on Rosemary Clooney, Joshua Redman and Cassandra Wilson, among others.

The diversity of Gary’s offerings is simply amazing: he has listened broadly and writes with a deep understanding of how the music has grown and developed over its first century of existence.

As this partial listing indicates, not all of the artist that Gary selects are subjects for treatment in the more typical Jazz anthologies. Few authors bring to the subject this range and depth of understanding; the man simply knows what he’s talking about and it is a pleasure to share in his wisdom.

Here are a few more examples of Gary’s thoughtful reflections and discerning opinions.

Chick Webb [King of the Savoy]

“The story of William Henry Webb, nicknamed Chick for his small size, seems to cry out for novelistic scope and nuance. His musical accom­plishments were diverse: he was the first great drummer of the swing era, the leader of a fiercely competitive and innovative orchestra, a pace­setter for dancers during the golden age of ballroom dancing, and a nurturer of talent whose fabled generosity was rewarded when he discovered and groomed Ella Fitzgerald. But the nearly unconquerable King of the Savoy Ballroom was also a dwarfed hunchback, mangled by spinal tuberculosis, who lived most of his short life in pain and died within a year of his first major commercial success. He overcame staggering ob­stacles with a tenacity that awed other musicians, and he did it with √©lan, never asking for or requiring handicap points. He was as much adored by dancers as by musicians, and no one dared patronize him.”

Frank Sinatra [The Ultimate in Theater]

“That Frank Sinatra was a towering figure in the music of his century few would care to dispute. He overhauled the interpretation of popular song, revising its rhythms and instrumentation, burnishing its lyrics, establish­ing the postwar code in phrasing. As a radio and television entertainer, movie actor, and concert artist of matchless grace (and occasional dis­temper), he enjoyed a momentous career—even a dangerous career. Per­haps no one since Francois Villon played the troubadour with more bra­vado. Though he may have been, at his much documented worst, a foul-mouthed misogynist, unthinking lout, violent drunk, friend to crim­inals, sore loser, and political hypocrite, he was first and last The Voice. When he recovered from a professional crisis that left him for dead, he remade himself so completely that he remade his generation in the pro­cess. This most fastidious of singers was never exclusively a performing artist. He was also a presence.”

Charlie Parker [Flying Home]

“In 1945, just twenty years after Louis Armstrong jolted and essentially redefined jazz with his initial recordings as a bandleader, Charlie Parker made his recording debut as a leader and redefined jazz once again. A virtuoso alto saxophonist, Parker was the only musician after Armstrong to influence all of jazz and almost every aspect of American music—its instrumentalists and singers, composers and arrangers. By 1955, his in­novations could be heard everywhere: in jazz, of course, but also in rock and roll, country music, film and television scores, and symphonic works. Parker altered the rhythmic and harmonic currents of music, and he produced a body of melodies—or more to the point, a way of melodic thinking—that became closely identified with the idea of jazz as a per­sonal and intellectual modern music.”

Miles Davis [Kinds of Blues]

“In 1949, Davis demonstrated for the first time his powers as a vision­ary and persistent organizer. He assembled some of the finest writers and players in New York to put into practice the ideas they'd been dis­cussing and that Gil Evans—at thirty-seven, the senior conspirator—had been developing in his arrangements for Claude Thornhill's dance band. They met at Gil's pad, a cellar room on West Fifty-fifth Street, to consider new methods of instrumentation, improvisation, and orchestration that would offset the steeplechase rigors of bebop. Evans, a phenomenal au-todidact whom Thornhill discovered writing charts for Skinnay Ennis on Bob Hope's radio show, venerated Armstrong, Ellington, and Parker and found inspiration everywhere. Combining swing, bop, and classical tech­niques, he was known for cloudlike chords in which the harmonies slipped seamlessly one to the next and breathlessly long phrases. The prolific Gerry Mulligan did most of the writing, but Miles was in charge. He formulated the nine-piece combination (heavy on brass), secured an isolated gig (two weeks in a club, the only time the group performed for an audience), and contracted for three record dates, producing twelve sides eventually collected as Birth of the Cool.”

Nat King Cole [The Comeback King]

“A few aspects of Cole's musicianship are immediately evident: the astonishing independence of voice and piano, for one—he rarely settles for mere pacing chords, preferring octaves and chromatic bass lines and subtly configured harmonies that complement and deepen the vocal in­terpretation. Then there is his wit and speed, lightning reflexes that hard­ly ever call attention to his technique but constantly spice his solos, in­terludes, intros, and codas. Then there is his lucidity and swing: on practically every one of those relatively rare occasions in which he per­formed with major jazz soloists, he stole the limelight. His solos are me-lodically sure, often sounding through-composed. His famous quote-heavy version of "Body and Soul," of which there are several versions, is a spectacle of compression and relaxation.”

Henry Threadgill [The Big Top]

“In the fallow years of 1970 to 1975, the hunger for genuine jazz ensem­bles—as opposed to leaders with rhythm sections—was met largely by groups from Chicago: the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, and Don Moye), the Rev­olutionary Ensemble (Leroy Jenkins, Sirone, and Jerome Cooper), and Air, the most accessible and elusive of the three. At first Air recorded for a poorly distributed Japanese label (Whynot) and was not widely heard. But in New York, where it made an instant splash, Air had an irresistible quality. Part of its appeal was its driving rhythm section, but, inevitably, the axis of the group was [Henry] Threadgill, who played baritone, alto, tenor, flute, and a percussion instrument of his own invention called a hubkaphone (two tiers of hubcaps). His saxophone playing had a gritty edge that at times recalled Earl Bostic, and his compositions were at once smart and funny, elemental and sophisticated, direct and askew.”

Joe Lovano [The Long Apprenticeship]

“How to place him: my first thought is to suggest Hank Mobley coming of age in the era of Ornette Coleman, but that might lead one to conjure Dewey Redman. Well, fine; now imagine Redman with an inclination less to Coleman than to Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. Lovano is a bop player with a predilection for free jazz. Because he shares with Redman a warm and woolly sound, a throaty timbre that negotiates the tenor's entire range and often subsumes quicksilver phrases in a generously whirring vibrato, one can safely locate Ben Webster in his ancestry as well. One benefit of a big band apprenticeship is that you learn to make the most of every bar; another is that you are encouraged to feed on several generations of stylists.”

Although Hamilton Basso is by now a largely forgotten mid-twentieth [20th] century writer of fiction, one aspect of his writing has remained with me: I have always been intrigued by the title of his most “famous” book – The View from Pompey’s Head.

Given the lasting impression this obscure book title made on me, perhaps I might be allowed to revive it and to ascribe it to the writings of Gary Giddins in the form of the following paraphrase – “The View from Giddins’ Head.”

For fans of Jazz, such a view is a splendidly knowledgeable and informed one and, as such, one which he has thankfully decided to share often and at length in Visions of Jazz.

It is a view of Jazz and its makers unlike any other.

Treat yourself to a copy before they are all “withdrawn” [perish the thought!] from circulation.

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