JJ 04/92: A Jazz Retrospect

Thirty years ago Mark Gilbert was relieved to read Max Harrison's correctives, which long predated the corrosive self-affirmation that often typifies jazz today. First published in Jazz Journal April 1992


Not before time, this is a paperback reprint of the valuable collection of essays by Max Harrison, first published by David & Charles in 1976 and reviewed by Vic Bellerby in Jazz Journal in March 1977. The 27 articles were drawn in the main from Jazz Monthly between 1956 and 1973, but there are also one or two items from Jazz Journal and Jazz Review.

Without exception, these pieces demon­strate an extraordinary degree of scholastic application. Harrison frequently makes it clear that he intends to contravene received opinion, and in view of his thoroughness and precision, the opinion had better be well-prepared. His mercilessly musicological approach means that his conclusions are always clear-headed and inevitably provocative; it also ensures that whatever position he adopts is not easily assailed. Little escapes his rigour. His exposure of the sham and carelessness of Ornette Cole­man’s assessment of his own wind quintet music (p109) has the tone of a schoolmas­ter cross-examining two cheating school­boys. (‘It is no use Coleman saying . . .’).

Harrison’s finely turned, often quietly sardonic prose thinly disguises a loathing for the personality cult style of jazz journalism. He has no time for the roman­tic mythologies that have grown up around the music. Ever mindful of the way hero worship may blind the jazz follower to actuality, he points out on several occa­sions how much the importance of jazz has been exaggerated, saying (p69) that ‘the notion that this rather simple and conser­vative art “is the music of the century” ought to generate as much amusement as the claims made regarding the “fantastic” virtuosity of its average player’.

There is a treasury of critical gems here, and a good few chuckles. Among the latter are Harrison’s retort to those who com­plain that Miles Davis’s collaborations with Gil Evans are unrhythmic – ‘it is unfortunate that some listeners cannot hear music’s pulse unless it is stated as a series of loud bangs’ (p140) – and his descrip­tion of Stan Kenton as ‘a master of unin­tentionally comic bombast’ (p168). This is the kind of book which will bear much re­reading, and a corollary of its depth is the feeling that Harrison occasionally reads into the music things which it may be unable to deliver. However, his is a model approach and he deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in jazz – especially those who presume to write about it. Mark Gilbert

A Jazz Retrospect by Max Harrison. Quartet, pb, 223pp. ISBN 07043 0144