Visions of Jazz
Oxford Univ Press, 1998
As Gary Giddins makes clear in his introduction to Visions of Jazz (The First Century), he's not attempting to draw a canonical line in the sand: "Everyone has his or her vision of jazz, and this is mine." Modesty aside, though, it's hard to imagine a critic with a more encyclopedic grasp of detail, or a more lucid, funny, and appropriately musical style. Weighing in at almost 700 pages, the magnificent Visions of Jazz consists of 70 profiles, beginning with a dual portrait of blackface pioneers Bert Williams and Al Jolson and concluding with the klezmer-infatuated clarinetist Don Byron. These sketches mingle musical, biographical, and cultural insightsindeed, one of Giddins's great gifts is to break down the very distinction between such categories. Yet Giddins is hardly an unhinged generalizer, and he loves to zero in on a particular chorus and disclose its charms on a bar-by-bar basis. The pinnacle of this musical microscopy occurs in his Dizzy Gillespie essay, with an almost biblical exegesis of 64 measures from the 1989 version of "Salt Peanuts." But even in these nuts-and-bolts passages, Giddins is always accessible, combining precisely the right proportions of edification and old-fashioned entertainment. The only problem with Visions of Jazz, in fact, is that it makes you so itchy and impatient to hear the music. Fortunately, Giddins has taken care of the problem by curating a companion disc called (you guessed it) Visions of Jazz. This isn't, it should be said, a predictable journey from one jazz milestone to the next. Instead he's assembled a delightfully idiosyncratic anthology, which testifies to the music's irresistible pulse and all-American parentage.
The New York Times Book Review, Alfred Appel Jr. As it turns out, "Visions of Jazz" is the finest unconventional history of jazz ever writtena brilliant, indispensable book, comprehensive enough given the certainty that a total history of jazz at this point, the century mark, invites a shallow inclusiveness.
The Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley Visions of Jazz is not a reference book; rather, it is (to date, at least) the definitive compendium by the most interesting jazz critic now at work.... He knows his subject, his prose is interesting and graceful, his judgments are measured and fair, and the only camp of which he is a member is his own.
The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Grover Sales ...Giddins is that rarity, a jazz writer with a genuinely engaging literary style who ranks with other masters of this elusive craft.... a landmark destined to occupy a permanent niche on the shelf of essential jazz literature.