All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Serving jazz worldwide since 1995
All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Book Reviews

All-Music Guide to Jazz

By Published: March 4, 2004
Submitted on behalf of Peter Luce

All-Music Guide to Jazz, 2nd Edition
Edited by Michael Erlewine with Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Scott Yanow
Miller Freeman Books, 1996
ISBN 0-87930-407-3

No doubt about it, the "All-Music Guide to Jazz" is a reference that all jazz collectors should have. I am going to resist the temptation to say that if you are a jazz record collector that the AMG is the only reference you will ever need. The fact is that any reference has strengths and weaknesses and the collector often finds himself consulting as many references as are available to address a question at hand. So, having said that, I’ll put it this way, if you are a jazz record collector this guide is indispensable!

The book’s approximately 900 pages contain reviews and ratings of over 13,000 recordings and profiles of over 1,400 musicians. All periods and styles of jazz are included. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz group ever to record (1917), is here along with current recordings of James Carter and Joshua Redman. Listings are alphabetical by musician. Each listing begins with a brief biography and then covers major recording sessions issued under that musician’s leadership. Both vinyl and CD recordings are included which provides a completeness of recording history that is sometimes lacking in other similar guides. The editors avoid the trap of citing specific LP or CD issue numbers. This approach eliminates quick obsolesce of the information and provides the jazz collector with a very useful reference chronology of a musician’s or group’s major recording sessions. This is a tremendous aid in guiding record purchases. In addition to the listings, AMG contains additional reference material such a Brief History of Jazz and 150 Recommended Jazz Books which will be of interest to both beginners and more experienced fans. But, more about the supplemental reference material later.

Nine times out of ten, when you pick up the All-Music Guide to Jazz, you will be looking for biographical or discographical information. This is the heart and soul of the Guide and what makes it so useful as an everyday reference.

Musician Biographies
These biographies are brief, but fact-filled overviews of a musician’s life and musical career. Each entry begins with the artist’s date and place of birth and death, instrument(s) played and jazz style. Given their relative brevity, the bios are amazingly comprehensive in summarizing a musician’s place in jazz history, bands played with and recorded with and other musical activity. How often have you come across the name of a musician you had never heard about and asked yourself the question, "Who is so and so?" Richie Kamuca, for example, or Sonny Red? Well, find out in the AMG.

List of Recordings
Following each bio is a listing of the artist’s major recordings. Each recording is rated using a system of 1 to 5 diamonds (see below for more on ratings) and many, but not all of, the listings contain a brief review. Some recordings receive special recognition. Landmark Recordings are those "...singled out as landmark or career turning points for the particular artist. These are classic albums-prime stuff." Essential Collections "...should be part of any good collection of the genre...You can’t go wrong with them." First Purchase albums are "where to begin to find out if you like [a] particular artist." Like the length of the biographies, the number of included recordings is directly related to a musician’s importance in jazz history. Duke Ellington has 182 entries. Miles Davis has 106 and Sonny Rollins has 54. It’s important here to cite the Editors’ criteria in selecting recordings for inclusion. Included are "...CDs or LPs (most of which are still in print or reasonably available) that, taken as a whole, represent each artist’s most significant recordings."At a minimum, each listing contains the recording title, label, recording date, and rating. The reviews, while very brief, are gems in their ability to convey an evaluation of the recording and to place the recording within the historical context of the musician’s career and often, amazingly, within the overall historical context of the jazz tradition.

Other Reference Material
One of the reasons I like the All-Music Guide is that the Editors have gone an additional step and included considerable supplemental reference material which increases the book’s value. This material includes the following sections

Jazz Styles
Brief and clear definitions of major jazz styles with mention of the style’s major innovators. Know what Cool Jazz is? How about Mainstream or Modern Mainstream?

This is an excellent reference of jazz terms which non-musician jazz fans often see, but sometimes do not really know the meaning of. Take the term "chorus," for example or "jam session," "counterpoint," or "modal." Want to know what "original" means or "riff?" These terms are here along with many more.

Music Maps
Music Maps appear throughout the book. There are Music Maps for each instrument and in the Brief History of Jazz (see next section) there is a map showing Jazz Innovators and maps showing "significant players" within each of the major jazz styles. The instrument maps graphically display lists of musicians within specific jazz styles. The Tenor Saxophone Music Map, for example, lists musicians within categories such as the Swing Era, 1940’s Los Angeles Bop, Cool School, the 1950s and Soul Jazz to Crossover. It is worth noting that the Editors did not select a common set of categories for the Maps that would have forced some artificial distinctions. Rather they selected categories relevant to the specific instrument. These maps, by the way make it very easy for jazz newbies to start learning about jazz history.

Brief History of Jazz
Speaking of learning about jazz history, wow, this is a great summary! A Jazz Innovators Music Map follows an appropriately terse but comprehensive overview of jazz history from its early roots at the end of the 19th century right up through the 90s. This section also contains a time line of important events within each jazz style and Music Maps that list the most significant players for each style.

150 Recommended Books
Each annotated entry contains the book title, author, publisher, date of publication, number of pages and number of photos (if any) and a short overview. Venues I have never seen this information in a record guide before. Short histories are provided on the origin, significance and current status of jazz locations such as 52nd Street and LA’s Central Avenue and jazz clubs such as Birdland, Cafe Bohemia, the Five Spot and the Plugged Nickel. For some reason the Half Note is missing. Maybe it will appear in the 3rd Edition.

50 Recommended Jazz Videos
Want to add to or start your own personal jazz film collection? Don’t miss Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958 Newport Jazz Festival), Straight No Chaser (a remarkable 2 hr documentary on Thelonious Monk) or The Sound of Jazz ("...the greatest of all jazz films.").

Jazz Recordings: A Beginners Guide
300+ Recommended CDs for listeners beginning to collect jazz. (Not to mention us old guys who still don’t have all these wonderful recordings!)

This chapter is another unique feature that makes the AMG such a first class reference. There have been some exceptional producers in jazz who have put their personal stamp on a body of recordings and have had almost as much to do with the sound of a specific record label as have the musicians. I am thinking of such examples as Richard Bock (Pacific Jazz), Manfred Eicher (ECM), Nesuhi Ertegun (Atlantic), Norman Granz (Clef, Norgran, Verve, Pablo) and Alfred Lion (Blue Note). There are many others.

Look here for information on well known and not so well known jazz labels...Aladdin, Bethlehem, Blue Note, Candid, Dial, EmArcy, Savoy and 59 others!

You will also find a reference on jazz magazines, a list of mail order sources and a complete artists' index.

AMG: The Web Site
The source of the biographical and discographical information in the All-Music Guide to Jazz is a database that can be accessed directly from their Web site. The Web site contains additional data whose inclusion could not be accommodated in the printed edition. Go to the Web site for personnel listings, tune listings, reviews completed after the Guide went to press and, for some musicians, a listing of recordings on which they were sidemen under the leadership of another musician.

Nits, Pseudo-Nits and Comments
No reference is without some weaknesses and shortcomings. I’m calling this section Nits and Pseudo-Nits, however, because I really do not think the book has any major faults and because some criticism that can be raised against the book, in my opinion, misses the Guide’s essential value.

Some readers will find fault with final editing. For example, there is some redundancy of information in the reviews of recordings by some musicians. This is noticeable when reviews are read consecutively and some of the same information appears in more than one review. One’s initial reaction is to conclude final editing should have been done to eliminate the duplicate information. However, it is clear to me that this "problem" is related to the source of the reviews not the lack of editing. Remember, all of the biographies and reviews are on the All-Music Guide database. Some people will only access the reviews on-line and may only read a single review. The repetition of some key basic information may, therefore be very necessary.

The lack of definition of some of the symbols used in the Guide suggests that the printer deadline may have precluded some needed final editing. For example, a filled-in circle is one of the symbols used in the review sections. This symbol, however, is not defined in the How to Use this Book section. I e-mailed the folks at AMG to try to find out the meaning of this symbol, but received no response.

More problematic for some readers is the fact that the rating system is not defined!! While a system of 1 to 5 diamonds is used, no information is provided on what each rating means. One would assume that 4 diamonds are "better than" 3 diamonds, but what does 4 diamonds mean? What criteria or standards were used to define this level? Readers looking for ratings will clearly be troubled by the "All-Music Guide to Jazz." No only is the system not defined, but some of the recordings are rated anonymously. Without being able to adjust for the "biases" of individual reviewers, some readers will be concerned with issues of the reliability and creditability of the ratings. I understand this concern, but am of the opinion that the ratings are the least important aspect of this Guide. If the ratings were eliminated in the next edition, very little would be lost. The AMG is not a reference that the casual jazz listener will pickup. Rather it is a book that will guide more serious jazz fans as they discover more and more about jazz’s incredibly rich recorded legacy. The fan who uses the book would be the person who, for example, wants to acquire more of Sonny Rollins’ 1950's recordings. Sonny’s 50s sound is already in the listener’s head, he or she knows what to expect. Distinctions between 3 or 4 diamonds don’t matter!

Final Bar
Let me conclude where I began. In a word, if you collect jazz records, the "All-Music Guide to Jazz" is indispensable. Period!

comments powered by Disqus