May 24, 2013
A Study of the Worldly Art of Jazz
Posted on Sep 3, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux begin their eventually enjoyable Jazz by trying to explain some fundamentals of music theory. Why? This stuff is hard to put succinctly and well. You end up with: “The V chord - G, B, D in C major—[is] known as the dominant. ... When you add the fourth degree of the scale to it (producing a seventh chord, G7: G, B, D, F), it sounds as though the entire chord were begging to move, or resolve, to the tonic”. This makes sense to the musician who already knows it. For the average listener, it’s unnecessary. Giddins and DeVeaux themselves seem to have limited understanding of saxophone theory (try playing an alto using clarinet fingerings, with your tongue pressed “lightly against the reed”), which doesn’t prevent them from showing great sensitivity to saxophone timbres not just between players but within a given player’s development.
In their version of harmonic theory they use “Happy Birthday” as an illustrative example, which is fine, and then say that the notes E, A, or B “sound horribly dissonant when played next to an E flat chord”. In fact, the climactic note of “Happy Birthday”—the “Fred” of “Happy Birthday, dear Fred-dy”—is (in the key of B flat) an A against an E flat chord. Children do not recoil in horror. Nor does this misunderstanding prevent Giddins and DeVeaux from offering sophisticated discussions of jazz tunes that use the flat ninth, augmented eleventh, and flat thirteenth—E, A, and B against an E flat chord. “In general”, they say, “minor sounds sad, moody, angry, or even tragic” but that doesn’t stop them noting the “cheerful” quality of the (minor) “My Favourite Things”. And “A Night in Tunisia” (another cheerful minor tune) is not based on the “I Got Rhythm” chord changes. They were probably thinking of “Salt Peanuts”.
Reader, be patient. When Giddins and DeVeaux really like the music, their writing opens and blossoms. By the time they get to Louis Armstrong, the music’s energy seems to energize the text. When they talk about Coleman Hawkins and the invention of swing, the prose, too, swings. Hawkins learnt “how to soften the gruff edges of his timbre and to move from one note to another with a fluid, more gracefully commanding manner [and] with nearly rapturous power”. Ella Fitzgerald “never runs out of steam or breath, carrying the rhythm like an ocean current”. Coltrane’s “was jazz as an existential squawk, a taunting rush of unbridled release”. The flow of the narrative may not quite be rapturous, or unbridled, or strong as an ocean current, but it has enough force to carry us pleasurably along through the decades of jazz’s development.
Although the narrative flows, it is also anchored to the music itself. The book is structured around a series of detailed, though not fussy, analyses of recorded performances. (The book’s accompanying set of CDs is itself an impressive feat. Record companies are usually mean when it comes to licensing their copyrights for such compilations.) And the choice of musical examples is persuasive. The performances work to illustrate stylistic moments as well as being superlative in their own right.
A beauty of jazz as a subject is that it forces the kind of thinking that should be expected of all music history; that is, jazz is so much an art-in-the-world that it’s hard to put aside the influences of politics, race, mass media, popular culture, audiences and money, all of which the authors handle straightforwardly, as in this comment about band leader Louis Jordan: “Jordan reminded people that African Americans had a life, not just a grievance”. They’re forthright about drugs, too, although perhaps they don’t stress enough the ubiquity of hard drugs during the 1950s—the bad part of Charlie Parker’s great influence. But drugs were also a result of the sheer stress of the freelance night life, out of sync with the rest of the world (“I didn’t know there were two ten o’clocks in the day” was one musician’s reaction to being asked to attend a morning photo shoot) and the pressure of being expected to produce inspired improvisations on a nightly basis.
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