Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"Experiencing Big Band Jazz" by Jeffrey Sultanof

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

“Hi Jeffrey: Just wondering, you mention George Simon's Big Band Jazz in your Introduction, but you do not include it in the Suggested Reading section. Any particular reason for this omission?”
- Editorial Staff at JazzProfiles

“Excellent question: [see below]

1) It is out of date; it's last revision was in 1980 (?).
2) Some important bands get little to no coverage
3) It has some factual inaccuracies
4) It is extremely opinionated; George T. Simon wrote it as someone who was on the scene and had his likes and dislikes. To be fair, there were no big band scholars at that point, and his was a pioneering effort from someone who got paid to write about bands for an important music magazine.
5) He describes some people in an unflattering way (he has no problem repeating that Charlie Spivak was called 'chubby') that is definitely non-PC.

I mentioned it because it was the first book written by someone who was part of the scene when many of the leaders were still alive, and those of us who loved big band music back then probably bought it. There has been so much scholarship since then that the book is more about his own feelings that factual information, but it had more than enough information to get us started (and probably created new collectors; many recordings he discussed were difficult to get then). I also thought that since I mentioned it in the text, if someone wanted to search it out, he/she could do that, but it is not a book I would recommend to the reader new to big bands, the audience my publisher asked me to write for.

I am tremendously flattered that musicians and scholars have embraced the book the way they have. I may have mentioned elsewhere that it has been selected as a text for a required course in the Jazz Studies program at the University of North Texas, which is amazing!!!! I tried to find ways to include a lot of information about the music, leaders, arrangers, etc. so that the reader would look upon this music as played by real people.”
- All the best, Jeff

Some of the reasons why this book is important are summed up in the above response from its author to my question about the non-inclusion of George T. Simon’s The Big Band: 4th Ed. which was last revised in 1981.

As the title states, the operative word when reading Jeffrey Sultanof’s timely and engaging new book on Big Band Jazz is “experiencing.”

And Jeffrey makes the process of experiencing Big Band Jazz possible in a variety of ways because of how he structured the contents of his work.

First of all, his approach to the topic is tailored to serve as a Listener’s Companion

Gregg Akkerman, the Listener’s Companion series editor for Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, explains:

“The goal of the Listener's Companion series is to give readers a deeper understanding of pivotal musical genres and the creative work of" their iconic composers and performers. This is accomplished in an inclusive manner that does not necessitate extensive music training or elitist shoulder rubbing. Authors of the series place the reader in specific listening experiences in which the music is examined in its historical context with regard to both compositional and societal parameters. By positioning the reader in the real or supposed environment of the music's creation, the author provides for a deeper enjoyment and appreciation of the art form. Series authors, often drawing on their own expertise as both performers and scholars, deliver to readers a broad understanding of major musical genres and the achievements of artists within those genres as lived listening experiences.”

Given this explanation of the format for Experiencing Big Band Jazz: A Listener’s Companion, Mr. Akkerman goes on to caution:

"Big band jazz" is an enormous and difficult topic to present in the Listener's Companion series.”

But Mr. Akkerman goes on to reassures us that in Jeffrey Sultanof, our navigational pilot for this journey, is superbly qualified to lead us through the challenging topic:

“Fortunately, the Listener's Companion series has Jeff Sultanof to walk us through the century-long history of big band jazz with the emphasis always being the experience of how the music sounded in the context of its time and how it sounds today. Sultanof combines his extensive background as an editor, arranger, composer, and educator to present a highly engaging narrative that walks the reader through the origins of the big band genre right up to the latest forays of contemporary jazz ensembles, and he does so in a conversational style that appeals to both the studied musician and nonperforming enthusiast. As series editor, I am overjoyed to see one of America's great twentieth -century genres represented so eloquently by Jeff Sultanof.”

And we as Jazz fans should be “overjoyed,” too, because in addition to the absolutely required abilities as an “ … editor, arranger, composer, and educator,” Jeffrey has also organized the subject cogently and coherently and he has written about it in a style that is clear and concise.

What’s In The Book?

In order to achieve his goal of preparing a Listener’s Companion for Big Band Jazz, Jeffrey organized his book into nine chapters that guide the reader through the major periods in the growth and development of Big Band Jazz:

1    The Earliest Days: 1800s-1919
2    The First Era: 1920-1930
3    Interlude: 1930-1935
4    The Explosion of the Swing Era: 1936-1942
5    The War and the Recording Ban: 1942-1946
6    The Singers Take over the Popular Music Scene: 1947-1949
7    Rebirth and Diversity: 1950-1959
8    Toward a Concert Ensemble: 1960-1979
9    Limitless Possibilities: 1980 and Beyond

In his “Introduction,” Jeffrey “... uses the newspaper reporter format” to provide the reader with a quick who-what-when-where-why breakdown about the evolution of Big Band Jazz as well as a brief annotation of what’s contained in each chapter.

Also, in the Introduction Jeffrey reveals how from an audio standpoint: “... you don't have to spend one penny to listen to the examples cited in this book; all but one of them discussed in this book are on the Web via YouTube or Spotify. At one time hard to obtain, now even the rarest of recordings are in circulation and relatively easy to hear.”

In terms of the initial source material from which the book developed, Jeffrey explains:

“I discovered big bands from original copies of recordings and read George T. Simon's important 1966 book on the subject, which was the starting point for most music historians, arrangers, and big band enthusiasts born after 1950. I sought out the written music to study it and have examined thousands of pages of original scores and parts that the musicians actually played so that this music could be properly edited and published. I humbly state that I am a pioneer in this field and am gratified that much of the music you read about here can now be performed, studied, and treasured by musicians and fans all over the globe. A place to find this music may be found at the end of this book in ‘Recorded Sources and Further Listening.’”

Before launching into his episodic chapters on Big Band Jazz, Jeffrey provides a “Timeline” which offers a chronological overview of the subject followed by a series of definitions of technical terms that are indispensable for an understanding of how Jazz big bands function.

Following the nine chapters that comprise the body of his work, Jeff has compiled a brief bibliography of suggested readings and personal interviews and a listing of recorded sources and further listening.

What is unique about these recorded sources/further listenings is that they “... have been assembled into special playlists accessible at the Rowman & Littlefield Music Channel. The youtube address and recording numbers that correspond to the playlists are included in the book.

Jeffrey’s bona fides as well as a full name and song index conclude the book.

Why This Book?

The reasons to add Jeffrey’s Experiencing Big Band Jazz: A Listener’s Companion to your Jazz library are best summed up in the following quotations from the book’s back cover:

"Experiencing Big Band Jazz fills an important gap in the literature of this rich, wonderful, and unsinkable musical idiom with a thoughtful tour through nearly a century of influential recordings. And here's the big payoff: with the musical examples readily available online, you can follow along without having to amass a huge record collection!"                     
 —RAY HOFFMAN, CEO Radio. WCBS Newsradio 880, New York

"Jeff Sultanof's mastery of the history, techniques, and challenges of big band composing and arranging makes this book invaluable to musicians, students, and listeners. He's a storyteller. This is a fascinating read."
—DOUG RAMSEY, proprietor of the Rifftides blog and author of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond

In a previous posting about Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, the fine Canadian Jazz Big Band that he formed in 1968 and led until his death in 2010, I wrote:

“At one time or another many, if not most, Jazz musicians want to try their hand at playing in a big band.

When you are in one that clicks, there’s nothing in the world like it.

The surge of energy and rhythmic propulsion generated by a powerful big band leaves you giddy with excitement.

Navigating your way through a big band arrangement with fifteen or so companion musicians creates a sense of deep satisfaction that comes from successfully meeting a difficult challenge.

The art of individualism, which is so much a part of Jazz, gets put aside and is replaced by the teamwork and shared cooperation of playing in an ensemble setting.

When it all comes together you feel like you’re in love; overwhelmed by something bigger than you that you don’t understand.

You gotta pay attention; you gotta concentrate and you gotta do your best, otherwise it’s a train wreck.

So much goes into it:

- great charts [arrangements]
- great section leaders
- great soloists
- a great rhythm section
- and most of all, a great leader who melds it all together.”

From a musician’s perspective, Jeffrey’s new book is the closest thing I have ever encountered in written form that depicts and explains what the Jazz big band experience “feels like” and he does it in such a way as to make it possible for the Jazz fan, as well, to go along for the ride.

After reading Jeff’s book, you’ll listen to Jazz big bands with an informed ear. You’ll be able to place yourself in the music and vicariously experience the excitement that is Big Band Jazz.

Experiencing Big Band Jazz: A Listener’s Companion by Jeffrey Sultanof will be the seminal work on the subject for years to come.
It is available in hardback and ebook directly from the publisher via this link.

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