Years ago jazz tomes always brought us up the river from New Orleans, but the passage of time decays even the most venerable traditions and, if bigotry and deafness remain, they now cast themselves in a greater variety of forms.
Leonard Feather – who can often be relied upon to notice when times have changed – makes a frontal attack on the theory of New Orleans origin and quotes a number of thought-provoking remarks by musicians. Alas, it is all presented as a journalistic ‘sensation’ (Feather exposes the theorists), which, I suppose, is all a busy man like the author has time for. A pity, for honest and scholarly research on this question would be welcomed by us all. Feather also claims that white and coloured races played an equal part in the creation of jazz, yet almost all the early musicians he mentions are Negroes.
As expected, most of the older men are dealt with harshly, with scarcely even the pretence of fairness or historical and aesthetic perspective. Severest censure is reserved, of course, for the ‘survivalists’ – Bunk Johnson, George Lewis et al – and on their kind of jazz Feather expresses views almost identical with those of Hugues Panassié. One would have to be singularly blind to irony not to be amused at the spectacle of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum agreeing so well . . .
Feather knows as well as any man the journalistic value of a strongly held position, but it is a revealing indication of his reporter’s sense of tactics that in the case of popular but still controversial figures – e.g. Brubeck on pp. 68-69 – he quotes the opinions of others rather than take up a definite position himself. This way he can’t be caught out with a ‘wrong’ – i.e. unfashionable – opinion later. Similarly, the chapter ‘Jazz In 1984’ is valueless. No one has any idea where the music will be then, neither Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong nor anyone else. The ‘predictions’ herein have the mumbo-jumbo prestige of astrological forecasts, but – again – their journalistic value was probably a considerable factor in the book’s commercial success.
The bulk is made up of trite, superficial chapters on exponents of each instrument and on large and small band recordings, rather in the form of Panassié’s The Real Jazz. Mention of the latter book is not accidental for, if they set out different opinions, the seemingly innate penchant for historical distortion is much the same. For instance, Feather says that Kai Winding played a part equal to that of J. J. Johnson in the formation of modern trombone practice – a view emphatically not confirmed by their recordings of the 1946-49 period.
Yet when he turns from journalistic opportunism and historical distortion Feather is quite capable of producing something of value. The Anatomy Of Improvisation chapter is probably the best thing he has ever written. He takes 15 solos – 14 of them very fine ones – and analyses them in a concise but genuinely illuminating manner. It can safely be said that the book is worth obtaining solely for this chapter. A number of rather anxious attempts have been made recently to discredit analysis. There is no point in making exaggerated claims for it, but it is a simple fact that analysis can tell us certain things about jazz which it is impossible to learn by any other method. It will never be the beginning and end of jazz writing, but the ability to analyse a solo in strictly musical terms will, one hopes, eventually be a normal part of every jazz critic’s equipment. Meanwhile, one would be less cynical of attacks on analysis if they were not invariably made by writers known to be incapable of this kind of work.
The Book Of Jazz, by Leonard Feather (Jazz Book Club edition)