Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz
John. F. Szwed
This August, a roundtable discussion at the San Jose Jazz Festival attacked a vexing problem: How to reach beyond the converted and increase jazz's audience. Writers, reviewers, and a local DJ all weighed in with opinion. Although at times the discussion grew heated, motivations were always focused: What can be done to earn the ear of the greater public? John F. Szwed's latest effort, Jazz 101, attempts to answer this call to action.
The back cover blurb promises as much as it reveals. It claims to target the jazz neophyte as well as "anyone who thinks jazz stopped developing in the 1950s." In fact, this indicates two separate readerships, as most beginners probably hold little opinion on jazz's evolutionary track. But the academic title would indicate a baedeker on the same footing as Jazz for Dummies and other moron-series books. So: Which is it?
The first chapter leaves no doubt. Szwed eschews a timid introduction, diving head-first into the fray of modern jazz debate. No cheerleading to be found here; he launches with a post-mortem, dissecting jazz's relation to popular culture today, and steamrolls from there. Neophytes looking for flowcharts, cartoon icons, and handy checklists will be disappointed. Jazz resources are delegated to some meager appendices. Hard advice on stereo equipment and finding live performances are absent entirely. (The off-the-cuff discography reviews, pointers to guides detailing "what to hear and how to listen to it," proves what Szwed's book is not.) After the introduction, Jazz 101 unfolds at a speed inappropriate for beginners. Still, gold nuggets are buried within.
Szwed is an even-handed revisionist and a contrarian at heart. He spends all of one paragraph on harmony and melody ("there is nothing especially unique about this element of the music") and rich seven pages on rhythm. He goes to lengths to emphasize Africa's role in the music's parentage. He calls for a rethinking of ragtime and boogie-woogie in jazz history. New Orleans claim to birthright is disputed. The piano, not the marching band, is presented as the original modus operandi. Organ trios and free jazz is lauded. Acid jazz is treated with dignity. His Third Stream recommendation is a concert by Stan Kenton. Call it sacrilege, call it a breath of fresh air, this is not your grandfather's jazz guide.
Although Szwed is a professor of anthropology, his prose is casual and coherent. He's obviously a jazz fanatic, one who finds virtue in every style. Thoughtful recommendations and brief listening commentary are sprinkled throughout. Again, no checklists, just sidebars ranging from workhorses (Saxophone Colossus, Modern Jazz Quartet's "Django") to curios (The Casa Loma Band, Stan Kenton's aforementioned City of Glass).
Bottom line, Szwed and his publisher have targeted separate demographics. Neophytes will shake their heads, still convinced jazz is too cerebral for daily enjoyment. Jazz 101 will find a better home with a novitiate, one with a scattershot of albums and a thirst for some direction. Even old-timers will consider Szwed's excursions worth chewing on, although hardcore beboppers and West Coasters will be pitching the book at the wallpaper. (Truth be told, Gerry Mulligan struts away a genius.) And free jazz lovers will rejoice; the form is given a much-deserved fair shake. The only mar on this otherwise complete package is a lack of focus on Latin jazz.
Szwed leaves the roundtable's dilemma unresolved. The panelists' final solution was a shrugged "We've got to get more people to listen." So, if you plan on gift-wrapping Jazz 101 this holiday season, include a CD or two. Although the combination may not win converts, it should nourish a newfound curiosity.