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ALL THAT JAZZ

Getting a Better Read on New Jazz Books

March 20, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jazz literature is dominated by collected profiles and reviews, biographies, encyclopedias and discographical guides. Much of it is interesting, some of it is useful. But it is the rare work--Andre Hodeir's pioneering theoretical essay "Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence," Gunther Schuller's "Early Jazz," the seminal "Blues People" by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Gary Giddins' books on Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker--that illuminate the music from a perspective of broad historical insight.

But things have been looking up lately. In the past few months, a sequence of well-conceived, thoughtfully written jazz-related tomes have arrived in bookstores.

* "The Birth of Bebop" (University of California Press, $35) by Scott DeVeaux takes a penetrating look at the '40s musical revolution that transformed jazz and eventually had a powerful impact upon popular music, as well. DeVeaux wisely reaches beyond bebop's innovative technical qualities to place it in a cultural, historical and commercial context.

* "Blues Legacies and Black Feminism" (Pantheon, $27.50) is by Angela Y. Davis, a woman whose early political activism has tended to overshadow her less dramatic, but equally impacting work against political repression and police violence, and in support of prisoners' rights. Her book looks at three African American singers--Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday--and unveils Davis' view of their work as an expression of anger, defiance and social consciousness, of the blues as an assertive voice of independence rather than a cry of empty loneliness.

* "Blue: The Murder of Jazz" (St. Martin's Press, $22.95) by Eric Nisenson takes a pessimistic view of the music's future. Nisenson's thesis finds any number of reasons for his doubts about the survival of jazz into the 21st century--from the commercial attitudes of record companies to the social detachment generated by computers, television and the Internet. But his enthusiasm for the music is too strong to abandon all hope, and he concludes with a brief, but tentatively optimistic tally of the elements that might once again make him a believer.

* "Singing Jazz: The Singers and Their Styles" (Miller Freeman, $17.95 paperback) by Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold surveys jazz singing from the '20s to the present. The authors' English perspective leads them to include some unfamiliar British artists, but their overview also embraces lesser-known American singers, as well. The text is enriched with extensive anecdotal material and an encyclopedic-styled biographical section.

* "Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles" (University of California Press, $29.95) is an utterly fascinating collection of reminiscences from material originally recorded by the UCLA Oral History Program. It was edited by a committee that included seven musicians represented in the book: trumpeter Clora Bryant, saxophonists Buddy Collette, William Green and Jack Kelson, pianists Horace Tapscott and Marl Young, and composer-bandleader Gerald Wilson. Researcher and saxophonist Steven Isoardi organized the project. Central Avenue, too little acknowledged as a fertile center of African American creativity, comes alive in the participants' recollections, which result in their unaffected, constantly compelling tales.

Cyber Jazz: Pianist Marian McPartland will celebrate her 80th birthday Saturday at New York City's Town Hall with a fund-raiser for her long-running NPR program, "Piano Jazz." Participants include Joe Williams, Kenny Burrell and Christian McBride, and the concert will be available on the Internet at radio station WBGO's Web site at 5 p.m. Pacific time: http://www.wbgo.org Two trumpeters who had some differences of opinion about each other's skills--Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis--will soon have dueling Web sites. Both are being developed by N2K Incorporated's Jazz Central Station. The Marsalis site, still in preparation, will include a discography, sound samples, chat sessions and exclusive live performances: http://www.wyntonmarsalis.com

The Davis site, also featuring sound samples and extensive biographical materials, is currently available on a small-scale basis, but will be officially launched in its full-fledged form on May 26, which would have been Davis' 72nd birthday: http://www.milesdavis.com/

The easiest way to get a quick update on jazz events around town is to log onto Jazznet. The Web site, which is administered by Lee M. Cohen, provides addresses and phone numbers for Southern California jazz clubs, as well as calendar listings for the Jazz Bakery, Catalina Bar & Grill, Steamers and other venues. There are bios and photos of the week's headliners, and books and CDs can be purchased: http://jazznet.com/

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