Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New History of Jazz

WEST Coast culture vultures know the name Ted Gioia for his fabulous West Coast Jazz, which looked at the scenes in LA and San Francisco starting with Dexter Gordon on Central Avenue and moving through the cool school and Dave Brubeck. Not only is the book a great read, it provoked a reconsideration of what was then a criminally overlooked time and place.

Gioia -- who has since written a very lucid book on the Delta blues and started blogs on science fiction and the detective novel -- comes out later this month with the second edition of Oxford University Press's History of Jazz. It lacks some of the rowdy, contrarian energy of James Lincoln Collier's The Story of Jazz, but it's a masterful and fair-minded work of compression and brings the art form right up to the present day.

The Misread City spoke to Gioia -- who grew up on the edge of Los Angeles and spent most of his life in California before somehow being fooled into moving to Texas -- about his latest project.

What were the existing jazz histories like when you launched on the your original History of Jazz for Oxford in the ‘90s? What did you think you could add?

When I took on the task of writing the first edition of The History of Jazz, the most recent general jazz history book in Oxford University Press’s catalog was Marshall Stearns's The Story of Jazz—which had been published before I was born.   That book had been fine it is day, but a lot had happened in the jazz world since it first appeared. 
And even Stearns’s book, for all its virtues, was quirky.  He started his survey by looking at African music, and a third of the way into his book he is still stuck in Africa, trying to find a way to link up with American jazz.  He seemed intent on explaining jazz in terms of other styles rather than on its own merits.  It was in deliberate response to his approach that I began my book with a description of African music played in the New World—literally within the city limits of New Orleans back in the early 19th century.  No leap was necessary because I started out at ground zero, at the birthplace for jazz, and drew the connections from that nexus point.

Needless to say, I had paid close attention to the other jazz surveys—by James Lincoln Collier, Mark Gridley, Joachim Berendt and the like.   But I also carefully studied the works of critics and scholars, such as Martin Williams, Gary Giddins, Whitney Balliett, Gunther Schuller and others.  I learned from all these sources, but also had my own perspectives to add.  In fact, as I progressed in my writing, I was surprising myself by how fully formed many of my ideas were—almost as if I had been preparing subconsciously to write this book for many years.  I suspect that my work as a musician played a key role in shaping my thoughts on various aspects of the jazz idiom—perhaps even more than the research I undertook as a jazz historian.

How do you put together a moderate-length history of something  as sprawling and -- after the death of Charlie Parker, at least -- multi-headed as jazz?

I had already written a book on West Coast jazz at the time, and had learned some skills in how to pull together a coherent story when writing a genre survey.  The biggest difficulty in writing this kind of book is in maintaining the narrative flow.  You need to bring together all the individual stories and biographies and contributions into a coherent story.  It can’t just be a compendium, but needs a broader sweep.  You must control the subject, or it will control you.   My ideal is to write non-fiction that moves ahead as deftly as a novel—perhaps an unrealizable goal, but always my desired end point.  I’m probably different from other music writers in that regard. 
In any event, I suspect that it was my success with West Coast Jazz that gave my editor at Oxford, Sheldon Meyer, the confidence to assign me a general jazz history.  I was originally planning to write a biography of Stan Getz, when Sheldon asked me to write a jazz history survey instead.  He realized that the Stearns book needed a replacement, and thought I could deliver it.  I was amazed that he turned to me, especially given my comparative youth and the many other fine jazz writers on the Oxford roster at the time.   This was the first—and only—time I my life that I wrote a book on assignment.   But it didn’t feel like an assignment.  As I mentioned, it seemed like I had been prepping for just this project.

I tried to apply what I had learned in writing West Coast Jazz in the context of the new project.  In particular, I paid great attention to the quality and pacing of the writing.  I've always felt that the prose style and panache of my books are as important as the informational content.  So I worked hard on the writing.   And I listened to lots and lots of music—but that part of work is always a pleasure.  Writing, in contrast, can be hard work. 

So, in an odd way, the key issues for me in addressing this complex subject had little to do with music.  They related to controlling the pacing of the story and writing strong sentences and paragraphs. 

How is this second edition different from the 1997 edition?

I knew I needed to update the book to deal with all the new developments in the music.  A lot has happened in jazz during the last 15 years—indeed, a lot has happened to the whole music industry!  But I also used this opportunity to revise the entire text.  I went sentence by sentence through the original edition, and made countless changes.  Sometimes these were based on new information that had come to light or on my own personal research.  In other instances, I just wanted to improve the writing.  Or I had new ideas I wanted to share with the readers.   The end result is much different and—I hope—much better book than the 1997 edition.

Did any period or artist become more intriguing to you the second time around?

Some artists didn't get sufficient attention in the earlier edition of my book.  There is more in the new edition on women in jazz.  More on drummers, such as Chick Webb and Elvin Jones.   More on some musicians whose influence has expanded posthumously, such as Andrew Hill.  The section on the blues is much improved—due to the research I undertook for my recent Delta Blues book.  But the casual reader may not notice many of these shifts.  Sometimes the simple change of a word or phrase indicates the culmination of a long process of reevaluation on my part.

When you take the long view – from the ring dances in slave-era New Orleans, to, say, Miles from India in 2008 – what is the role of the West Coast in the music’s evolution?

Generally the West Coast is written about as a small sidebar in the history of jazz.  But you can make the case that the West Coast played a much bigger role than most jazz fans realize.  The very word "jazz" apparently comes from California, and the music itself arrived on the West Coast very soon after it appeared in New Orleans.  Many significant events in the evolution and commercialization of jazz took place out West, for example the birth of the Swing Era.  Many of the best bebop recordings were made in California—those Charlie Parker Dial sides may be the most important jazz recordings of the mid-1940s.  I also tend to believe that hard bop—seen by most critics as the quintessential East Coast style—was deeply shaped by the residency of Max Roach and Clifford Brown in the LA area.   They brought elements of West Coast jazz into their music that eventually were imitated by the Blue Note artists.  Add to this the many great artists associated with West Coast jazz, and you can make a convincing case for the centrality of jazz from this part of the country.  Or at least as something more than a footnote to jazz history. 

It must have been especially tricky to compress the present and future of jazz into a 20-page chapter, here called “Jazz in the New Millennium.”

Well, I do cheat a little.  I slip in quite a bit of new millennium jazz into the other chapters —when the subject fit into the narrative flow-- so I didn't need to cover all of it in that one section.   By the time I deal with the current century, I have already addressed free jazz, postmodern jazz, the ECM sound, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, modern big bands, etc.—and you can't do that and stop the story at 1999.  So that final chapter looks more at some over-arching themes, with much of the foundation for it set earlier in the book.  That said, the author of a book of this sort needs to constantly squeeze and compress.  This is especially challenging when dealing with the last decade, and I needed to make judgment calls about many artists still in the early stages of their careers, such as Darcy James Argue or Miguel Zenon or Jason Moran.  Time will tell how well I have assessed the current scene.

How bright does that future seem?

The music is in great shape.  Every week I hear outstanding new jazz recordings.  The audience is a different story.  The biggest challenge the jazz world faces right now is to develop the next generation of jazz fans.   There are more fine jazz musicians than ever before—contrary to what you may have heard—but fewer listeners. 

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