Jazzing Up an Old Age

The Jazz Makers: Essays on the Greats of Jazz Edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff A Da Capo Paperback, $6.95

WRITING ABOUT JAZZ is a perverse activity. It's like killing a mockingbird--you learn little by the autopsy of music whose essence is life. The terms of Western classical music are stodgily inadequate when it comes to jazz, but scholars continually try to dissect it, and the resulting musicological babble about "flatted fifths" and "characteristic negro rhythms" is typically boring and insensitive to the music.

The Jazz Makers, at least, does not try to assess the contributions of famous musicians within a single contrived framework. Nine writers worked independently to produce 21 profiles; the editors stress the absence of a predetermined formula. Appropriately, most of the writers chose to place much emphasis on the extra-musical lives of the musicians. A few well-chosen biographical details can often shed more light on the highly personal art of jazz creation than pages of technical dissection. For instance, A.B. Spellman's Black Music: Four Lives, a classic in the field of jazz literature, was conceived largely as a work of sociology. Unfortunately, The Jazz Makers is not so varied, informative, or readable as its alluring format. While it is impossible to capture a great creative spirit in a short essay, most of the writers involved in this project did not even limit their subjects effectively. Only George Avakian and John S. Wilson focus their works sufficiently. Avakian details the cultural process that changed Louis Armstrong from jazz's first great improviser to a grinning but unartistic national hero, then muses briefly on the corrupting influence that so often accompanies success in the arts. And Wilson has produced, in only nine pages, the gem of the collection: a bittersweet portrait of Fats Waller, an obliging soul who sacrificed his love and talent for serious (jazz and classical) music to appease the pop taste for stylized treatments of trite show tunes.

The other writers lapse into a bland, shopping list prose style which may be suitable for album liner notes but waxes tedious after 30 lines. Even Nat Hentoff, a normally fine writer, gets bogged down by his habit of quoting extensively from the artists themselves. A few anecdotes are enough to establish the parallel between Lester Young's personal eccentricities and the relaxed intensity of his playing--the rest add only bulk.

FOR ALL ITS STYLISTIC weaknesses, The Jazz Makers would still be a sound if unexciting introduction to jazz were it not for another set of limitations. The Da Capo edition of The Jazz Makers is actually a reprint of a book published by Rinehart in 1957. Although Da Capo reveals this significant bit of information only in the copyright, the text proclaims its age on nearly every page. It is difficult to imagine a contemporary anthology of jazz personalities without Davis, Monk, Mingus, and Coltrane but the only modernists in The Jazz Makers are Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whose innovations were widespread by 1950. Equally dated are the trite explications of black American "customs." Charles Edward Smith's profile of Billie Holiday contains a lenghty footnote that explains the properties of a mysterious substance called marijuana and then gives a sophomoric ("no escape solves problesm") exhortation against its use. You don't see this kind of writing much anymore.

The re-publication of this 22-year-old book is justified by the current renaissance of interest in classic jazz, and the decision to package the book as new and thus capitalize on Hentoff's now-respected name can be written off as good marketing, but the publishers have made one unforgivable blunder. Each profile in The Jazz Makers ends with a selected discography of five to ten records that represent an artist's most significant work. These discographies were compiled from records readily available in 1957. Now they're all out of print, and many of the recording companies have gone out of business; you could waste a lifetime trying to track down these records today. A minimal effort at updating would have restored the helpfulness of these discographies. Without this effort The Jazz Makers is useless in at least one important respect.


You can find much better books about jazz. For literary merit, read LeRoi Jones's uneven but occasionally brilliant Black Music. For biography and oral history, read Spellman's Four Lives. For comprehensive approach and an up-to-date discography Frank Tirro's Jazz: A History is among one of the best. But if you know nothing about jazz and want to learn, spend your money on records instead.