Jazz by Bob Blumenthal

Michael Patrick Brady

This book serves as a shotgun blast, peppering the uninitiated with information as broadly and deeply as possible, and as a crash course in the genre.


Publisher: Collins
Subtitle: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America's Music
Author: Bob Blumenthal
Price: $16.95
Length: 192
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0061241792
US publication date: 2007-12

“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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.