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Setting the Tempo

AAJ Staff By

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Submitted on behalf of Peter Luce

Setting the Tempo: 50 Years of Great Jazz Liner Notes
Edited with an Introduction by Tom Piazza
Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1996
ISBN: 0-385-48000-8

Recently, an ongoing debate with a friend over the respective sonic merits of jazz on vinyl (my preference) vs. CD (my friend's preference) took a different turn when I stated that an advantage of the LP format is that it allows space for extended liner notes. At this, my friend looked at me in his most condescending manner and said that LP liner notes were "nothing more than marketing hype."

Marketing hype? Well, OK, maybe a little. After all, hype wasn't invented in the 90s. But, I've always thought that liner notes were much more than that and now I have Tom Piazza's wonderful book, Setting the Tempo: Fifty Years of Great Jazz Liner Notes, to back me up. Mr. Piazza even goes as far as identifying liner notes as a "minor literary genre" and builds a very convincing case that this is so.

From the introduction:

It is striking how often [liner note] writing contains much more than [promotional hype]: background on the musicians and the recordings, historical context, musical analysis, a window into the recording process, intimate anecdotes and personal views of the musicians that have an immediacy and warmth rarely found in other jazz writing-setting the tempo, in a sense, for the listener's appreciation of the music.


Tom Piazza's introduction provides some insights on the value of liner notes to the jazz fan. Liner notes, he says "play a special role in a jazz fan's development." Indeed, this is where many of us began to learn about jazz, its history and its musicians. "Good liner notes," Piazza states, "stick in the listener's mind and attach themselves to the experience of listening to the record." This connection is created with the simultaneous acts of reading the liner notes and listening to the music. That such a connection exists is recognized by jazz fans who came to jazz in the LP era or who have gone back to the LP as their preferred format for collecting jazz.

While liner notes are sources for much factual information about musicians, jazz history or recording sessions, they provide something more. Mr. Piazza has recognized that liner notes:

...tell the listener, in many subtle ways, what it means to be a jazz fan. They embody styles of appreciating the music, a range of possible attitudes toward it. It is this extra dimension that the liner note as a form really distinguishes itself.


The included liner notes themselves cover the entire history of jazz as documented on 78 RPM albums and the LP. Contributors include not only jazz writers and critics, but musicians and record producers. Highlights include Gunther Schuller's account of his search in Kansas City for Buster Smith, Charlie Parker's alto saxophone teacher ( The Legendary Buster Smith on Atlantic) and George Avakian's vivid description of Duke Ellington's historic performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival ( Ellington at Newport on Columbia).

Most of the great jazz writers are in the collection including two of my personal favorites Martin Williams and Whitney Balliett. Williams has two contributions, his notes to Count Basie in Kansas City on RCA Victor and those to Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come on Atlantic. Whitney Balliett reminds us of the importance of the blues in jazz in his notes to the Atlantic Joe Turner recording, Boss of the Blues. Other fine jazz writers are in the collection , Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Leonard Feather, and Stanley Crouch.

The voices of musicians come through as well. Read Duke Ellington's personal remembrance of pianist James P. Johnson ( Father of Stride Piano on Columbia). Tom Piazza speculates that Bill Evans' notes to the Miles Davis LP Kind of Blue (Columbia) may be the most widely read liner notes in jazz history. Who can forget the opening sentence, "There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous." Evans goes on to draw a relationship between that art and the musical structures which Miles created for Kind of Blue. On liner notes as windows into the mind of a musician, I can think of no better example than Charles Mingus' notes to his album Let My Children Hear Music.

Finally, a word of caution to everyone before starting to read this great collection. Mr. Piazza states that the final criterion for inclusion in the book was "...whether the notes stand on their own and make good reading apart from the record they were originally meant to accompany." If you are like me however, you will feel a compulsive need to be listening to the music described in the liner notes. No problem if you happen to have all of the recordings.

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