Learn How

We need your help in 2018

Support All About Jazz All About Jazz is looking for 1,000 backers to help fund our 2018 projects that directly support jazz. You can make this happen by purchasing ad space or by making a donation to our fund drive. In addition to completing every project (listed here), we'll also hide all Google ads and present exclusive content for a full year!


Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz


Sign in to view read count
Jazz 101 : A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz Jazz 101 : A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz
John. F. Szwed
ISBN: 0786884967

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.


comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The Politics Of Improvisation Book Reviews Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 10, 2017
Read All That's Jazz Book Reviews All That's Jazz
by Phil Barnes
Published: December 6, 2017
Read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine Book Reviews Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and...
by Doug Collette
Published: November 18, 2017
Read Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend Book Reviews Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend
by David A. Orthmann
Published: November 15, 2017
Read Softly, With Feeling Book Reviews Softly, With Feeling
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: October 24, 2017
Read Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz Book Reviews Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz
by Mark Corroto
Published: September 13, 2017
Read "Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend" Book Reviews Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend
by David A. Orthmann
Published: November 15, 2017
Read "Go Slow: The Life of Julie London" Book Reviews Go Slow: The Life of Julie London
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: June 30, 2017
Read "The Blues: Why It Still Hurts So Good" Book Reviews The Blues: Why It Still Hurts So Good
by Doug Collette
Published: February 20, 2017
Read "David Bowie: Behind the Curtain" Book Reviews David Bowie: Behind the Curtain
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: August 20, 2017

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!