Payback Press, 1999
With his book about the emergence of bebop, writer Kenny Mathieson has performed a necessary service for the casual jazz fan, along with enough solid information to please the fastidious and musically aware devotee.
"Giant Steps: Bebop and the Creators of Modern Jazz 1945-65" (Payback Press) provides a huge amount of history in just 339 pages. The 11 chapters consist of biographies of perhaps the best jazz musicians, from John Coltrane to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk. The beginning of each chapter includes a photo of one of the artists.
Mathieson organized the book by musical styles, not chronologically. While there may be some groans and gripes over the plan, Mathieson's easy-to-absorb writing style and his depth of knowledge should assuage even the most devoted members of the jazz fraternity.
The book begins with Dizzy Gillespie, whose musical talents weren't always recognized, being overshadowed by his rollicking, devil-may-care personality. Gillespie came into prominence at a time when jazz stars burst like a rocket, then fizzled out, often being consumed by drugs and booze, two of the challenges that had to be faced by so many. Gillespie remains one of the most beloved personalities of the age. His musical talents seemed almost a bonus. And, as Mathieson states, Diz had talent almost in excess.
The book has a terrific chapter on Charlie Parker, who continues to be one of the most admired musicians of the 20th century. As Mathieson writes, "The music could never be the same again, not simply for saxophone players but for players on any instrument. . . As an improviser, he was the supreme creative figure of his era and his example remained the major influence on a generation of jazz playing, a stylistic pre-eminence which would only be challenged with the emergence of modal and free jazz in the late 1950s."
"Giant Steps" tells of the talented trumpet man, Fats Navarro, who Mathieson believed to be on par with Diz and Miles Davis in the early days of bebop. Navarro's death, at just 27, removed one of the legends. His music continues to flourish on discs a full half-century since his demise.
Another sad story is that of Bud Powell, one of the pure geniuses of the time, also dying at an early date. Plagued by drug addiction and mental illness, Powell still managed to be one of the leading lights of the bebop era. His magic moments preserved on recordings were those times from 1947 to 1951, when he made what Mathieson calls "imperishable" contributions to music, saying that "no amount of bad nights at the office" can take away his distinction as the quintessential bebop pianist and one of the unquestionable giants in jazz piano."
While Thelonious Monk continues to be a major figure in jazz years after his death, it's important to realize how he managed to survive and create such an major influence while battling mental illness.
Mathieson writes of Monk touring Europe in the mid-60s, "including his child-like habit of slowly spinning around and around in public places like airport lounges. He suffered from serious bouts of depression and psychosis throughout his life and required periodic hospitalization." Had today's often effective anti-depression drugs been available to Monk, his already impressive contribution to jazz could have been even greater.
Others profiled in "Giant Steps" include Herbie Nichols, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus and Sonny Rollins.
Reading this truly magnificent book will educate you on little known tidbits of jazz history, will impress you with Mathieson's empathy for his subjects, and will become an oft-thumbed reference source for years to come.