Commentary Magazine


A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton

A New History of Jazz
by Alyn Shipton
Continuum. 965 pp. $35.00

Writing a synoptic history of jazz these days has become an ever more daunting task as both the music and its audience continue their fragmentation into ever-tinier stylistic categories and segments. Beyond a handful of indisputably significant figures and ensembles, how is one to decide what is important and lasting within a form that has compressed centuries of variety and development into a single hundred-year span?

Perhaps the greatest risk in any such undertaking is the lure of subjectivity, the temptation to let personal taste govern the choice of subjects. The authors of the seminal pre-World War II work Jazzmen, for example, clearly believed that authentic jazz could be played only by small groups, and therefore pointedly ignored the big swing bands then dominating American popular music. In The Making of Jazz (1978), James Lincoln Collier struck the stance of an essayist rather than that of a chronicler or observer, while in The History of Jazz (1997), the pianist-composer Ted Gioia occasionally sacrificed depth in the interests of succinctness.

Probably the most effective historical panorama to date has been the massive Oxford Companion to Jazz (2000), a compilation of essays by 59 musicians and historians, cannily organized by the editor, Bill Kirchner, to allow points of both concordance and disagreement to emerge. But that was a collective effort. Alyn Shipton’s huge A New History of Jazz, almost 100 pages longer than the Kirchner book, shoulders the task by itself. Its choices are, by turns, welcome and puzzling.

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Shipton comes well qualified to the job. As a presenter of jazz programs for the BBC, an occasional reviewer for the Times of London, and the author of several previous books on jazz, including an acclaimed biography of the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, he knows his field, and knows how to explore it. Better still, he is a part-time musician, having served as a bassist in various British “trad”-style bands. In this book he works chronologically, and ranges widely.

Thus, Shipton takes time for a full discussion of 19th-century Creole culture and other features of New Orleans life that predate but were central to the origins of jazz. He traces, for example, the “string bands” heard regularly at the homes and social events of the city’s well-to-do; using research available since the 1970′s, he also successfully humanizes the legend-encrusted New Orleans cornetist, Charles “Buddy” Bolden. But his partiality for early New Orleans music does not overwhelm his judgment: as he usefully reminds us, “many of the elements which went to make up jazz were also present in many urban areas of the United States, and a significant number of musicians, both black and white, adopted what they believed to be ‘jazz’ with little or no first-hand exposure to New Orleans musicians.”

Shipton also delves into currents neglected in standard histories, among them the “Black Broadway” tradition of musical revues composed by such figures as Will Marion Cook and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, which enjoyed great popularity with turn-of-the-century white New York audiences. Elsewhere, taking on a controversial subject, he challenges the notion—a mantra today for the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and others—that jazz is primarily an outgrowth of the blues, “and that the two genres are joined at the hip like Siamese twins.” Although they may have intersected and overlapped, the evidence, Shipton shows, is that the two forms developed independently, and that the styles of more than a few major jazzmen reached maturity without noticeable blues content or affinity.

Shipton’s thumbnail portraits of the pianists Earl “Fatha” Hines and Teddy Wilson (a chorus by the latter sounds to him “like a [Fats] Waller solo that has been on a slimming diet”) are as vivid as anything in the literature, striking a useful balance between musician-speak and the language of lay readers. He is also informative in assessing such disparate early figures as the tenor saxophonist Prince Robinson and the widely admired trumpeters Johnny Dunn and Jabbo Smith; he astutely honors the vocal prowess of Cab Calloway; and he restores the bandleader, pianist, and songwriter Eubie Blake to deserved preeminence as a bridge between ragtime and jazz.

And yet, despite his breadth of vision, Shipton too often seems either a less than fully informed observer or a less than disinterested one. How else to explain, under the former heading, his omission of such crucial figures as the xylophonist-vibraphonist Red Norvo; the Casa Loma Orchestra, with its well-documented influence on the riff-based, big-band arrangements of the Swing Era; such singers as Mildred Bailey and the innovative Boswell Sisters; or the forward-looking drummer Dave Tough and the unconventional clarinetist Pee Wee Russell? How else to explain the book’s countless small but telling factual errors?

Here are a few, noted at random: the landmark Frank Trumbauer-Bix Beiderbecke recording of “Singin’ the Blues” was an extemporaneous performance, not an arrangement; Joseph “Fud” Livingston did not write the pop song, “Singapore Sorrows,” but merely arranged it for Ben Pollack’s orchestra; the pianist Lee Sims, far from obscure, was a nationally known radio performer; the Ramblers’ Inn, home base for the California Ramblers, was not on Long Island, but in Pelham, Westchester County; the bassist Slam Stewart sang his bowed solos in octaves with his instrument, not in unison; “The Dixieland Band” was not “a piece written by [the arranger] Deane Kincaide” but a Johnny Mercer pop song, a hit of 1935; a vibraharp is not “a larger-scale version of the vibraphone” but the selfsame instrument, its name copyrighted by another company.

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In the matter of critical disinterestedness, it happens that most of the musicians slighted by Shipton are white. This might lead one to think him guilty of the sort of reverse-racism typical of Marsalis and several other collaborators and on-screen presences in Ken Burns’s acclaimed PBS series, Jazz.1 If this is Shipton’s bias, he does seem able to hold it in check long enough to deal equitably with Paul Whiteman, a musically aware and fair-minded man unjustly depreciated these days, and to give their due to the pioneer New Orleans bassist Steve Brown and other respected white figures. These include Artie Shaw, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Woody Herman’s bands, and the circle of Los Angeles-area musicians, largely alumni of the Herman and Stan Kenton orchestras, who during the 1950′s played regularly around a Hermosa Beach club called the Lighthouse. But here, as elsewhere, one detects a pervasive sense of obligation dutifully but equivocally met.

As I have already suggested, many of Shipton’s critical evaluations are sound, and some are refreshing. It is good to read a keen appreciation of the John Kirby Sextet, a tightly-organized unit popular on 52nd Street in the late 1930′s whose precise and imaginative arrangements deeply affected Dizzy Gillespie and other 1940′s pioneers of bebop. Shipton rightly credits the composer George Russell as an all-important “catalyst for ideas in the United States and Europe,” and pays just homage to Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra and the imaginative, powerful arranging of Gerald Wilson and Sy Oliver. He is also right to praise Bill Evans as one of jazz piano’s “greatest innovators” (though in this connection he unaccountably ignores Nat “King” Cole and Erroll Garner).

Elsewhere, however, Shipton leaps too easily from well-defended opinion to oracularity. If the saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman really does rank alongside Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane as a key innovator, as Shipton asserts, it would be helpful to have been informed that a body of responsible opinion holds otherwise, and that the judgment of time is not yet in. Similarly, though Shipton is certainly entitled to tout some latter-day stylistic currents at the expense of others, he is inexplicably cavalier in dealing with those he finds wanting, for instance when he dismisses as “young fogey-ism” the dedication of many musicians in their twenties and thirties to prebop styles. This, coming from a writer-musician active in, and obviously loyal to, an even older, “trad” (for “traditional”) style, is a strange view.

I have not mentioned Shipton’s prose, which often recalls the German adjective sachlich—“matter-of-fact”—but with a distinct implication of pedantry. His headlong flow of ideas can produce epic run-on sentences, obscuring the very points they are meant to clarify, and his tendency to slip into the first-person pontifical lends his narrative an air of ex-cathedra self-importance. Other writers on jazz, notably the accomplished Gene Lees, also regularly insert themselves “into the frame,” but Lees is a prominent lyricist who has often enjoyed close friendships with his subjects, whereas Shipton can claim no such authority.

But enough: no single writer on jazz should be expected to achieve an olympian breadth of appreciation, or to avoid fully the pitfalls of selectivity and prejudice. A New History of Jazz has its merits; unfortunately, it also has its distinctive and all too plentiful flaws.

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Footnotes

1 For a discussion, see Terry Teachout, “Jazz and its Explainers,” in COMMENTARY, February 2001—Ed.

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