When I was first learning about jazz in the ‘70s, I had the delicious fortune to run into an early edition of The Jazz Book by German aficionado Joachim-Ernst Berendt.To a young jazz fan like me, this was nothing less than a mineshaft filled with diamonds. Each gem was sharp-edged and clear.
Here was a book that did not get long-winded about this potentially blah-blah-blah topic. Philosophical in only small bursts, The Jazz Book was more like an interpretive encyclopedia than a history. It didn’t feature interviews or essays like most jazz books. Rather, it attempted to explain the music in almost taxonomic terms. It broke the music down by decades, style periods, instruments, meanings. It passed judgment with quick elegant strokes, just like I wanted it to, pronouncing certain players “the most important” and making clear-headed distinctions. It read like a beginner’s guide that was written by an expert, and a canny one.
That expert died in 2000 after publishing the sixth edition of The Jazz Book several years earlier. Berendt seemed to have an inimitable attack as a writer—a pleasant but insistent bluntness that served to keep his book brief and cogent, if reductive. But this year brings the seventh edition, now co-authored by Gunther Huesmann. Huesmann’s introduction makes clear that he was one of Berendt’s admirers and acolytes, and his approach to The Jazz Book is respectful toward his late co-author. “I also felt the need to retain Berendt’s tone as much as possible”, he writes in the introduction, while noting that the sections on certain older musician are, essentially, unchanged.
Huesman certainly keeps this promise. The Seventh Edition is still mainly Berendt’s book, with Huesmann adding material on contemporary musicians that seems positively Berendt-esque. Here is a classic bit from The Jazz Book‘s chapter on tenor saxophonists, which slices up of musicians into categories almost too narrow. Huesmann moves the discussion to “musicians influenced by rock and fusion”, then notes, “In the nineties, Michael Brecker was the most influential white tenorist.”
He then moves to a list of players influenced by Brecker: “Among the many tenorists inspired by Brecker, ensuring by way of the ‘Brecker bridge’ that the Coltrane legacy stays alive, the most important are…” and the list includes no fewer than 12 names, concluding with, “and, especially influential, Chris Potter.” This is the crucial, confident tone of the book, pronouncing certain players more and less important, then describing them in a quick paragraph (or sentence) for posterity.
The overriding structure of The Jazz Book, then, is a branching tree. The section from which I was quoting was not discussing saxophonists, but tenor saxophonists. And not just “tenorists” but those influenced by fusion. And then such tenorists that are white. And influenced by Michael Brecker. Berendt and Huesmann quickly take you far out on a limb.
It’s no surprise, then, that the book still contains on page three its classic branching diagram of the history of jazz in the first chapter, “The Styles of Jazz”: the standard backbone (Ragtime-New Orleans-Swing-Bebop-Cool-Hard Bop-Free-Etc). But coming from this basic chronology are myriad branches: “Tristano School”, or “AACM” or, goodness, “Imaginary Folklore”, a development from “European Jazz”. I loved this page as a kid—its clarity and seeming inevitability. Today, of course, I am painfully aware of how oversimplified it is. But that’s the niche of this book: it is more than happy to move quickly past the nuance or real criticism to produce a kind of instant judgment.
Happily, the judgments are usually accurate, fair, and savvy. So “Paul Desmond was a particularly successful figure of the Konitz line”, and vibist “Stefon Harris picked up where Bobby Hutcherson left off”, and “Joanne Brackeen was the first person to create a new image of the woman in jazz”. Anyone looking for a basic guide to the stunningly wide spectrum of musicians and bands will find in The Jazz Book‘s chapters on “The Instruments of Jazz” a kind of smartly annotated list.
In other places, however, the book is more vital. The chapter on “The Elements of Jazz” has held up well (or been revised for that purpose). Berendt and Huesmann start with “Sound and Phrasing” and hone in immediately on the truth that “in jazz, expression ranks above euphony”, and they give plain examples such as “the sorrow and lostness of Miles Davis” and “the joyful melancholy of Jan Garbarek”. They also wisely connect this question of euphony to the fact that “Africans deported as slaves to the New World were forced to speak European languages” and to play on European instruments. Here, though The Jazz Book‘s jazz history remains brief, it carries nuance.
In the section on “Improvisation”, the book provides useful illustrations in the form of transcribed music on the staff, and it also makes useful reference to previous writing and commentary on jazz. The Jazz Book has always been great about this—acting as a quick summary of the existing literature. Thus, the book is not only likely to get you to run out and listen to Kind of Blue but also likely to get you to read Andre Hodeir or Paul F. Berliner. Each section of this chapter is a gem—on blues, gospel, harmony, and groove. There’s enough subtlety here to fuel a good many debates about the chestnut, “What is jazz?”, which is a good function for any music book.
Two early chapters also fare well: one on “The Musicians of Jazz”, which profiles a small handful of giants from each era of the music (Armstrong, Hawkins and Young, Gillespie and Parker, Davis, all the way through John Zorn), and one on the relevant meanings or styles of each decade of jazz history. Here, Berendt and Huesmann deliver cogent summaries but also arguments for the kind of expansive view of the music in which they believe.
In the section on Wynton Marsalis, for example, they summarize the harsh critiques of Marsalis (that he is too much an archivist, too suspicious of the avant-garde, too likely to hire only black musicians), but they ultimately defend him with his considerable record of accomplishments. In their section on the ‘90s, they happily categorize (“nu-jazz” gets plugged, and “Drum ‘n’ bass meets jazz”, and how this is all separated from M-BASE music) but they ultimately argue that “the future of jazz lies in its intercultural potential”.
The Jazz Book digs every style it can name, and it smiles on tomorrow. It’s a Big Tent view of jazz, and it mostly succeeds in making a believer of the reader. In the books penultimate chapter, a chapter that dares to attempt a formal definition of “jazz”, they argue:
“We insist: the point is not to define standards and to test an art form again them… [I]t is above all jazz, as a music of revolt against all that is too convenient, which can demand of its listeners that they revise standards valid years ago and be prepared to discover new norms.”
Last but not least, The Jazz Book contains a spot-on discography of 65 pages that identifies critical recordings for nearly every musician mentioned in its pages. It nails the one Marty Ehrlich disc you ought to have (Line on Love, for the record), but it also weeds through the catalogs of major figures like Gillespie and dispenses sharp advice about what a novice might want or need in a collection. Well done.
While my pleasures in flipping through The Jazz Book remain, it’s best to imagine this kind-of-encyclopedia once again falling into the hands of an amateur, a mere beginner. It is that reader for whom the book can do the most good—arguing for the global view of the music but also unafraid to revel in the fun of pronouncing certain artists or recordings to be the better or more important ones. Oh, how I wish that it was reasonable to find yourself in a bar, arguing the merits of Wynton Kelly versus Red Garland. The Jazz Book makes you believe that such a debate has a home, at least in its own opinionated, well-argued pages.