The Story Of Jazz
“ For me, reading this book a full fifty years after its first publication was like turning on a light in a room. Suddenly, I knew where everything in the room was located. ”
The Story Of Jazz
Marshall W. Stearns
Paperback; 380 pages
Oxford University Press
2006 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of this classic of jazz scholarship.
Recently, as I departed from Philadelphia to Europe, a friend gave me a book to read on the plane, a paperback which evidently had been on her bookshelves for a long time. It had enough wear and tear to suggest it had been read all the way through by my friend, a teacher and singer with a taste for jazz.
On the overnight flight from Philadelphia to Paris, I opened the book with some doubt and hesitation, since what I had read in the way of jazz criticism and scholarship in the past had varied in quality, and was sometimes out and out boring, or, when interesting, had been egotistical, overly casual, factually inaccurate and/or tendentious. (There are notable exceptions, of course, including Count Basie's fascinating autobiography, Good Morning Blues, written with Albert Murray, and Lewis Porter's meticulous and powerful biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music).
However, after reading a few pages of the book my friend gave to me, Marshall Stearns' The Story Of Jazz, I recognised a document of historical significance. First published by Oxford University Press in 1956, its excellent scholarship is combined with articulate prose that, like jazz itself, tells a deep, rich and absorbing story. The book also offers a snapshot of what jazz looked like and felt like to an avid listener reflecting on its developments up to the early post-bop and cool jazz era of the mid-1950s.
As Stearns' story progresses from the sixteenth century (yes, back that far) to the twentieth, names like Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Lester Young pop up, and then Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Lennie Tristano. But, alas, no John Coltrane, no Ornette Coleman, no Bill Evans, no Herbie Hancock. In other words, the book was written shortly before these musicians reached the limelight. Yet the writing is so insightful that the author anticipated many developments to come.
For me, reading this book a full fifty years after its first publication was like turning the light on in a room. Suddenly, I knew where everything was located. I've been listening to jazz since my college days in the early 1960s, and have written about it for the past six or seven years. My interest is profound. Jazz excites me, and I listen to it all the time. I think about it a lot. What is jazz about? What does it all mean, musically and in terms of the human spirit? How did Lester Young influence Dexter Gordon? And all that.
But until I read this book, I had no idea how it all fit together. Of course, I knew the clichés: that jazz originated in New Orleans with Creole funerals, marching bands, and the hot trumpet of Buddy Bolden. That it migrated to the north, the southwest, and the east and west coasts. That it went through the so-called jazz age, Kansas City style, the swing era, be-bop, cool and so on.
But this didn't explain how jazz, a unique product of Afro-American history and modern society, truly evolved at its deeper levels of musical expression. Marshall Stearns, an avid listener who collected research data, recordings, and interviews with musicians of all periods, puts together an illuminating picture that involves historical facts and musical analysis, in a common sense style, yet with great attention to detail.
The most important part of this book, in my opinion, is the first half, where Stearns traces the origins of jazz back to the rhythms, inflections, and rituals of West Africa, from whence the slaves of the Americas were mercilessly captured, dehumanized and bewitched through the dissemination of these influences in South America, the West Indies and the American South.
Stearns shows how the diverse musical styles that evolved gradually combined with European music, especially its harmonies, leading to gospel music, marching bands and work chants and songs. Voodoo dancing, called vodon, based on spirit possession of the dancer, was a very important influence. (In the most intense and expressive jazz performances and recordings of any time period, one can still feel this sense of being possessed. It also influenced the feeling behind the blues, that singular combination of joy and sorrow that almost in itself defines jazz.)