The Story Of Jazz


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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
ISBN: 0195012690
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.)

Stearns also discusses the origin and development of blue notes, the flattened third and seventh notes of the diatonic scale. He shows that these notes are actually ranges of tones that can be altered to express emotions. There is no precedent for this in the tempered scale of European music. It is one of the things that makes jazz unique. Stearns also points out that jazz, with roots in West African drumming and Afro-Cuban music, allows for a much greater variation of rhythmic complexities than European music. However, the latter is what has given jazz its complex harmonies, which rose to new dimensions with bebop and post-bop. From the beginning, jazz was in its own way world music, the music of many nations.

The book explains how West Africa influenced jazz through gospel music and African American work songs, as were sung in the cotton fields and on prison chain gangs. These gave jazz its various inflections and shifts in voice as well as the riff, which derives from the call and response pattern of gospel and work singing. The author then traces the impact of these forms on boogie woogie and ragtime, and tells us how these differ from the true jazz idiom, which was only later fully developed by Louis Armstrong.

Stearns goes on to discuss in detail the early big bands, such as that of Fletcher Henderson, the development of swing, and the emergence of bebop and cool jazz. His discussion of the hipster persona of the cool jazz period is quite humorous. Stearns is fair to the newer music of that time, but he seems to prefer hot to cool jazz, so his portrayal of the music of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and others of the West Coast cool school seems negatively biased.

For me, the most important contribution of this profound work is how clearly it shows that jazz was not an out of nowhere American invention, but developed from a rich tapestry of music of diverse sources, each of which has a complexity and beauty of its own making. One can see then how even the far out experiments of free jazz, and music like Coltrane's "Meditations, which may sound strange to some listeners, actually derive from the early roots that led to jazz as a distinct form. The entire panoply of jazz music begins to fit together and make sense in light of Stearn's insight into the early sources.

I am sure there are jazz authorities who would question the accuracy of some of Stearns' research and analysis. The book could also be sharply criticized for its repeated use of the word negro and its lack of clear opposition to the oppression of African Americans.

On the other hand, the book was written before the civil rights movement, when the word negro was still acceptable to many people of color, and Stearns is certainly critical of social oppression. His stance is consistent with that of Martin Luther King in that he is not blaming or pointing fingers, but simply describing the reality and advocating change. Much to his credit, he is kind, compassionate and balanced even when he adopts the role of critic.

Though it may reveal my lack of knowledge of the literature on jazz music, I am grateful to my friend for turning me on to Stearns' work. This book definitely bears re-reading and re-consideration by jazz scholars, critics, and historians on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary - and all serious jazz fans will find it highly readable, fascinating and illuminating.

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