JJ 02/62: The Book Of Jazz

Sixty years ago, Max Harrison hoped (vainly, as it turns out) that eventually all jazz critics would have the ability to analyse a solo in strictly musical terms. First published in Jazz Journal January 1962

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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)