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Jazz for Dummies Dirk Sutro Paperback; 384 pages ISBN: 0-471-76844-8 Wiley 2006
First, please understand that Jazz for Dummies mostly isn't. Sure, Dirk Sutro's approach is partially for total newcomers, but he also provides advice for aspiring musicians and even jazz fanatics in search of new information.
Jazz is not an easy thing to explain, yet Sutro does a good job defining improvisation, individual voices, swing, syncopation, measures, beats, spaces and song structures. Familiar songs are used to explain the blues form, accents, swing and syncopation. Sutro's on target when he describes jazz as a language with a huge vocabulary, rules of grammar, punctuation and dictionary full of slang. He provides useful tips for newcomers: listening to the same songs six times in a row and listening to different versions of the same standard song by various artists (with specific CD's recommended). He intriguingly follows David Letterman's gimmick of lists of 10, including a guide to jazz in ten cities and ten tips to building a jazz collection. The resources Sutro provides are great, including over 100 recommended album titles, plus movies about jazz.
I have some problems with Sutro's "facts" and omissions. He states that jazz has "never been music for the masses." I get the point, but what about the Swing Era, and the many periods in which jazz has been popular among the African-American masses? He states that "swing and syncopation can't be captured in notation." Not true. "Saxophones have six keys." In fact they have many more, keeping all eight fingers quite busy. "A few sax players prefer metal mouthpieces." No, it's far more. It's not "Dave Brubeck's "Take Five". Remember Paul Desmond? Where, in the discussion of bossa nova, is Charlie Byrd? Sutro's "Advice to Aspiring Players" should have included play-along records, software such as Band in a Box, high school jazz bands, jazz on the radio and jam sessions.
Sutro's work here is impressive in breadth, detail and creativity. However, there's no substitute for aural example. This book cries out for an accompanying CD.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.