[25 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Last year was DownBeat‘s 75th Anniversary, and the magazine celebrated by compiling some of the best features and interviews it has published over the years. DownBeat: The Great Jazz Interviews, A 75th Anniversary Anthology is a weighty, 340 page collection of conversations with some of jazz’s greatest innovators, both obvious and obscure. Edited and compiled by Frank Alkyer and Ed Enright, the book is organized chronologically by decade, and also features many of the covers and photos that originally ran with the articles.
Opening with a short piece from June of 1935 on Louie Armstrong and his newly formed orchestra, and immediately following that with an in-depth 1936 interview with Duke Ellington, it’s clear from the outset that The Great Jazz Interviews is not just hyperbole. All of the greats are here, including Ellington, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Lester Young, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and many more.
In addition to the bigger names, there are many articles about lesser known, but no less important, artists like and Willie “The Lion” Smith, Woody Herman and Oscar Peterson. There are also some great pieces on people such as Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Les Paul, Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits and Brian Eno, who although usually considered to be outside the genre of jazz, are obviously featured for their free-form, fearless approaches to music.
Along with all of the fascinating interview subjects, DownBeat: The Great Jazz Interviews boasts some famous names in the bylines. Articles appear that were written by Armstrong, Goodman, Cannonball Adderly, Wayne Shorter, Chet Baker and Gene Krupa. Two of the most interesting address the contention between Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy over which of the two men invented jazz. Morton wrote, in August 1938, after hearing Handy credited as “the originator of jazz, stomps and blues” on Ripley’s Believe It or Not radio program, which he said did him “a great injustice” and “misled many fans”. He goes on to detail his career and back up his claim, as well as to brag that he “may be the only perfect specimen in jazz today that’s living . It may be because of my contributions that gives me the authority to know what is correct or incorrect. I guess I am one hundred years ahead of my time.”
In September of the same year, Handy responded that Jelly Roll’s article was “the act of a crazy man” and went on to attack Morton, and then the magazine itself for “circulating lies” that he said were doing him “not only an injustice, but an injury that is irreparable.” This exchange is a great example of what makes The Great Jazz Interviews so intriguing, and Downbeat so enduring. That is that the features do more than explore the evolution of the music of jazz, but also give readers a look into the revolutionary personalities that create it.
DownBeat: The Great Jazz Interviews, A 75th Anniversary Anthology is a gorgeous document of an impressive seven-and-a-half decades of publication, and an informal, but thoroughly informative history of jazz.