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All That Jazz

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO JAZZ Edited by Bill Kirchner; Oxford University Press: 812 pp., $49.95

SWING SHIFT All-Girl Bands of the 1940s By Sherrie Tucker; Duke University Press: 384 pp., $29.95

November 19, 2000|NAT HENTOFF | Nat Hentoff is the author of numerous books on jazz, most recently, "Listen to the Stories: Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music." He writes on jazz for the Wall Street Journal and Jazz Times

Jazz musicians regard most writers on jazz as incompetent and therefore irrelevant--except as the criticism affects their careers. As the imperturbable alto saxophonist Benny Carter, a legend among his peers, once said of critics: "They sing not, neither do they play, hence forget them or forgive them."

Lay listeners, however, are less discriminating and eagerly consume anything written about jazz--if only, at times, to echo the musicians' derision of the critics. Interest in reading about jazz is becoming more evident with more high school and college courses focusing on the music's roots. Wynton Marsalis--the Leonard Bernstein of contemporary jazz educators--has persistently argued for immersion in the music's history among young players as well as its listeners.

"The Oxford Companion to Jazz" should attract both camps. Edited by Bill Kirchner, the 59 essays commissioned for this volume present an ambitious panorama of genres, biographies and analyses of the infusion of jazz into the already protean cultures of other countries. As someone who has imperiled friendships with various jazz musicians by writing on the music for more than 50 years, I opened this book and first compared Kirchner's selection of specialists with those I would have chosen. And I quickly decided that even Carter might find this book of interest because some of the writers included in the anthology are jazz players. And at least one, Gene Lees, has worked clubs as a singer while also working as a skillful professional lyricist. Bassist Bill Crow writes about his instrument; composer-historian Gunther Schuller focuses on the masters of the trombone; and among others, a premier musician-arranger-critic, Loren Schoenberg, illuminates the continually inventive Lester ("I am not a repeater pencil") Young.

Years ago, I was co-editor of the Jazz Review, the first magazine for which only jazz musicians were allowed to write. One of the motivations was to break the stereotype that jazz players were practically illiterate, except on their instruments.

Among the writers for the Jazz Review was pianist Dick Katz, who remains a singularly lyrical and un-categorizable as well as a nonpareil analyst of the infinite varieties of jazz improvisation on that instrument. His solo here is his illuminating "Pianists of the 1940s and 1950s."

Carter would appreciate the fact that Kirchner is a multi-reed player, a composer-arranger who teaches jazz history and composition at the New School University in New York. (I used to play clarinet and soprano saxophone very unprofessionally and only fantasized being on the road. The closest I came was when Benny Goodman startled me by asking me to recommend a tenor saxophonist for his band.)

By my criteria, Kirchner has chosen among the best-qualified enthusiasts in these various domains, and Kirchner himself was the choice of Sheldon Meyer, whom I regard as the editor-in-chief of jazz, for since 1951 he has published, at Oxford University Press, more essential books on jazz than have appeared on the collected jazz lists of all other publishers. "The Oxford Companion to Jazz" was Meyer's idea and project.

Of the writers in this collection from whom I have learned a great deal over the years, I would especially cite Mark Tucker, the compiler of "The Duke Ellington Reader," the quintessential book on Duke. Max Morath had a lot to do, as a pianist and scholar, with the revival of interest in ragtime. Dan Morgenstern, whose Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University is the archive of jazz, writes with personal knowledge about Louis Armstrong.

My other first choices, as were Kirchner's, would have been Lewis Porter on John Coltrane, Gerald Early on jazz and American literature, Will Friedwald on jazz singing since the 1940s, and Samuel A. Floyd on "African Roots of Jazz," among other writers.

There is, however, one major omission in this companion. Though women are included in this volume as singers, pianists and composer-arrangers, there are no essays on women instrumentalists or on all-female jazz bands. It's true that there is a long-held myth among many jazz aficionados, and not a few musicians, that women don't have "the chops" to swing as vigorously and deeply as men.

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