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On Jazz: A Personal Journey


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On Jazz:A Personal Journey
Alyn Shipton
300 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-108-83423-0
Cambridge University Press

Alyn Shipton is a distinguished jazz journalist, bassist, BBC radio presenter and biographer who may be best known for his A New History of Jazz (Continuum, 2001). In some ways, the present volume is a companion piece, because if you are inclined to wonder how anyone could have ever learned enough to write a 900 page volume, you may find the answer here. The subtitle, "a personal journey" is an indication of what is to be found: How Shipton, an Englishman, made the journey from New Orleans to Theo Croker, steeped himself in some of the nuances of African American culture, and met, jammed, and hung with a whole lot of people on the way.

The index runs to 19 pages, and probably has 60 to 80 names per page. Do the math. So perhaps 1,600 musicians appear over the course of 260 or so pages. Thus, you can probably figure on meeting 6 people a page. That's quite an assembly. Depending on your tastes and preferences in the music, some are going to be very well known, not to mention iconic. And, inevitably, some are going to be obscure. Bassist Ray Brown gets a well-deserved 8 percent of the coverage. Count Basie, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and Louis Armstrong each get a chapter to themselves, by no means an idiosyncratic series of choices. On the other hand, Arvell Shaw gets six pages, Woody Shaw shows up once, and Artie Shaw never appears. Shipton makes no bones about the fact that he is a white Englishman writing about the Black experience in America. Shipton explains, "we have helped Black voices to be heard," and that is fair enough. It might seem churlish to point out that there is an emerging school of thought that connects Mexico to New Orleans and even a Mexican military orchestra visiting there as a major influence on clarinetist Lorenzo Tio, Jr., but this is ultimately going to end up in the academic arena as aspiring musicologists make their bones. It is, in all probability, not a major point, but it is a commentary on what happens when identity enters the arena of culture.

By and large, if you are looking for a larger point in Shipton's journey, it is probably something like the divisions that we seem so enamored of, stylistic, racial, or otherwise are probably less important to working jazz musicians than to people intent on constructing pigeonholes. Different species frequently play peacefully together, some trad types evolved into bop players, some instrumentalists are really chameleons, and it is, in the final analysis, all music anyway. For Shipton, lessons were where he found them, and age, ethnicity, or nationality did not seem to matter a great deal. Since Shipton himself has been known to play classical bass, the idea that a modern musician is limited by anything other than choice or temperament to one genre or another is, after all, not a great discovery. There are now plenty of players—cats of all colors, genders, and such—who can do both, or who even experiment with the outer edges of what some might regard the exotic or avant-garde. If you do not get this point after following Shipton's most interesting and crowded journey through a jazz life, then you are probably resistant to getting it at all.

If it seems as if the take-away here is that the story is in the telling, then that is a proper conclusion. It is hard to believe that anyone who picks up this volume with an open mind is not going to find something new, interesting, informative, or enjoyable. It may well be that a reader may want to make some stops along the way to hear the music that Shipton has spent a lifetime in assimilating because if playing beats listening, listening certainly beats nothing, and Shipton makes a wealth of suggestions without every quite saying, "Go out and listen to this." So, instead, I will say read this very interesting book in whatever fashion you choose, and then use it as a basis for your own explorations. That, after all, is how Alyn Shipton approached the very different worlds he visited, and if it worked for him, then why not for you?


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