“What’s jazz? Fats Waller declared that if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” That little pull quote seems like an odd choice for the first page of Bob Blumenthal’s Jazz: an Introduction to the History and Legends behind Americas Music, a book whose ostensible goal is to answer that question for the heretofore uninitiated. Waller’s quote, while playful, is also a dose of the hipster Calvinism that divides those who “get it” from those who don’t, inexorably, for all time.
Blumenthal, a long-time jazz critic who has written for the Boston Globe and garnered quite a few accolades in his 39-year career, admits that the jazz question is a thorny one, “an elusive enterprise”, complicated by the wide spectrum of music that lays claim to the title, everything from the archaic croons of Louis Armstrong, to the calculated cool of Miles Davis, and the saccharine smooth sounds of Kenneth Gorelick.
Blumenthal’s Jazz is an elementary, nuts and bolts survey of the genre, aimed at a reader who has only a glancing knowledge of the music and would like to become familiar with the names and faces that populate its long history. This book is so concerned with fundamentals it uses the dictionary definition of jazz, from the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, as a jumping off point. Blumenthal divides the history of jazz into five sections, each encompassing roughly 20 years and giving attention to just about every conceivable variety and flavor of the music there is.
The book is a colorful affair, with a thematic design that resembles a magazine or, in some ways, a textbook. The margins are adorned with photographs and little asides containing brief facts and bits of trivia about each chapter’s content. The various sections are even color coded, making Jazz something of a quick reference. Should you want to leap back into free jazz the fuchsia tabs will guide you to Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, while green tabs are indicative of blues and roots music.
Those who are more than a little familiar with jazz music will find the formatting rather blunt, and Blumenthal’s treatment of the subject is extremely slight. Jazz rounds up all the usual suspects and organizes them into a tidy receiving line, allowing the reader to meet and greet the legends and then briskly move on to the next musician, without really getting a solid feel for who they are or what they were about.
Django Reinhardt, the master of the gypsy jazz guitar is rightly cited as towering figure in the early days of the music, yet is afforded less than a paragraph. Kind of Blue gets two. A list of contemporary jazz albums that Blumenthal suggests to readers as further listening sees Harry Connick Jr.’s big band mash note Come by Me alongside John Zorn’s epic Morricone tribute/deconstruction The Big Gundown, without any attempt to differentiate between them.
But Jazz isn’t meant to be a scalpel, deftly cutting through the question of “What is Jazz?” It’s meant to be a shotgun blast, peppering the uninitiated with information as broadly and deeply as possible, and as a crash course in the genre. No one will read this book and feel satisfied, as if they finally have a grasp on jazz music. Jazz isn’t the big show; it’s the directions to the venue. Blumenthal is plotting out a slick and easily navigable timeline from which novices can piece together the lay of the land and subsequently indulge in more specific, more finely detailed resources like Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: the Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).
For that, Blumenthal deserves some degree of credit. He does a good job of cramming it all into the 192 pages of Jazz, providing just enough information to let readers feel like they’re getting the idea. His treatment of all styles is fair and balanced. He avoids getting bogged down by the traditionalist vs. innovator infighting with only passing references, although he does take a few easy shots at smooth jazz (not that anyone other than Mr. G will protest).
Jazz won’t help you find out what jazz is, but that’s the wrong question to begin with. What’s important is not what the music is but who the music is—the people whose creativity and effort helped to make the genre so potent and powerful. If you want to know who jazz is, then Blumenthal’s book is a great place to start.