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Snapshots of a great era's road trip

April 30, 2006|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

THE years 1959 and 1960 were watershed one for jazz. Miles Davis recorded "Kind of Blue," the bestselling jazz album of all time, as well as his remarkable Gil Evans collaboration, "Sketches of Spain"; Ornette Coleman made his breakthrough debut in New York City; John Coltrane recorded "Giant Steps"; Dave Brubeck recorded "Take Five"; and the first bossa nova album, Joao Gilberto's "Chega de Saudade," was released.

Despite the growing presence of rock 'n' roll, it would be three more years before Beatlemania would kick off the tsunami of British rock. The transition from the '50s to the '60s was a time, in other words, when jazz, overflowing with talent young and old, was reaching a peak of musical creativity and public interest.

Germany's Joachim Berendt -- Europe's best-known jazz journalist and author -- wanted to chronicle the moment in words and pictures. So he contacted a young but already well-regarded photographer named William Claxton, proposing a four- to five-month tour across the U.S. in search of jazz. The result of this extended automotive journey -- with its timely, Kerouac-like "On the Road" resonance -- was a book called "Jazz Life." Originally published in the early '60s, it has long been an out-of-print collectors' item.

Now Taschen, the German publisher known for its heterodoxal book projects, has revived it in spectacular fashion, again with the title "Jazz Life," by Claxton and Berendt (Taschen, $200), adding new material and a CD, and assembling it in a gallery-size book 696 pages long. Three inches thick, it weighs 17 pounds and measures nearly 13 by 19 inches. That's a handful of jazz by any standards.

Fortunately, it's also a very impressive handful -- or, more accurately, armful.

What Claxton and Berendt found in their cross-country odyssey was a music being played -- in virtually every location -- by an extraordinary array of gifted young (and photogenic) musicians.

But it is Claxton's photos -- particularly impressive in the book's large format -- that recall the era in mesmerizing fashion. Shot mostly in black and white, they take the reader through the music, the players and the places from inside and out: the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands in rehearsal; atmospheric shots of musicians -- Evans, Benny Carter, Art Pepper, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey, among hundreds of others; and a stunning array of singers -- including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson -- all captured on film in the prime of their music making.

Add to that the many pages devoted to the blues and gospel music, and "Jazz Life" becomes an extraordinarily valuable jazz document. It is being sold new on for $126, and used for less than that.


Understanding Jazz:

Ways to Listen

by Tom Piazza

(Random House, $27.95).

TOM PIAZZA has taken on a difficult task in this book, "produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center," with a forward by Wynton Marsalis.

Explaining any sort of music in words is a daunting task; explaining jazz, with its elusive elements of improvisation and rhythmic propulsion, can be a verbal conundrum. Piazza approaches the problem from a logical perspective, devoting chapters to "six ways to look at ... jazz performances -- "Foreground and Background," "Blues," "Forms," "Improvisation," "Swing, Rhythm, Time, Space" and "Telling a Story." Each chapter is supplemented with a "Further Listening" section suggesting specific recordings (some on a CD included with the book) for enhanced understanding. He searches, often successfully, for real-life metaphors to illuminate some of the music's technical aspects. In a discussion of form, for example, he suggests envisioning the repeated song structure beneath an improvisation as trips around a Monopoly game board.

Unfortunately, despite the engaging aspects of his analyses, Piazza's perspective narrows to near imperceptibility after the 1960s. There is no mention of Weather Report or Chick Corea, of Keith Jarrett, Michael Brecker, Jaco Pastorius or Latin jazz, leaving the book with a disturbingly incomplete quality. Which is a shame, since Piazza's methodology could be as effective with the last 35 years as it is with the music's first half-century.


Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)

by Stuart Nicholson

(Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, $19.95).

IT'S the perennial book title, always aimed at rousing enough controversy to help sales: "Is Poetry Dead?," "Is the Novel Dead?," "Is Classical Music Dead?" And now, not for the first time, the possible morbidity of jazz comes under scrutiny.

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