- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

WHY JAZZ?: A CONCISE GUIDE
By Kevin Whitehead
Oxford University Press, $17.95, 172 pages, illus.

One of my prized possessions is a dog-eared Pelican paperback, “Jazz,” published in 1952 and written by British music critic Rex Harris. Mr. Harris was a jazz paleo-conservative of the strict-constructionist, originalist school. He denied the title of jazz to any music that sounded different from or originated later than the classic New Orleans collective-improvisation, contrapuntal style. In a memorable footnote, he wrote:

“The tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hawkins possessed great powers of improvisation which, had they been canalized into a different medium of expression, e.g., the clarinet, might well have secured him a permanent place in jazz.” Alas, poor Hawkins, thought Mr. Harris, he could have been a jazz contender if he had just abandoned that silly tenor saxophone.

Hawkins, of course, was universally recognized as having a permanent place in jazz even as Mr. Harris wrote those words, and had already recorded a masterpiece, his version of “Body and Soul,” in 1939. But to Mr. Harris, Hawkins had deviated from the one true jazz faith and was therefore anathema. The history of jazz has been filled with battles in which one absolutist faction (e.g. dixieland) vehemently denied that another (e.g. bebop) was true jazz. Those battles are still going on. Has Wynton Marsalis helped or hurt jazz with his insistence on “swing and feeling” rather than free-form innovation? Some major jazz figures (e.g., Duke Ellington, Anthony Braxton) have claimed that “jazz” is too limited a term to describe what they do in their playing and composing.


It is the great virtue of “Why Jazz?” that Kevin Whitehead, jazz critic of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” is not an absolutist. It used to be said that anyone who immediately appreciated new and different musical approaches in jazz “had ears.” Mr. Whitehead has ears, and a catholicity of taste to accurately describe, although not necessarily subscribe to, different kinds of jazz. He possesses the critical tools to differentiate between the authentic and the bogus, and he has a clear writing style that enables him (for the most part) to write about complicated music in an understandable way, although I think some readers may be a bit baffled, as I was, by the complexities of post-1980 innovations.

His definition of jazz - “a music of rhythmic contrasts, featuring personalized performance techniques that usually involve improvisation … its aesthetic reveals a strong African American character, no matter who is playing it or where” - is useful as far as it goes, besides being admirably succinct. In 172 pages, Mr. Whitehead manages to offer informed, concise and jargon-free insights into every kind of jazz and every important innovator, and does so in a reader-friendly style that should appeal to jazz fans and those who simply want to learn a bit more about the music.

His approach is to ask questions (more than 100 of them by my rough count) such as “Was the swing era only about big bands?” or “Why do jazz musicians quote from other songs in a tune or solo?” or “How did Miles Davis react to the avant-garde?”- and then give brief and informative answers. This format frees him from being confined to a strictly chronological or thematic approach, which can be deadly dull, and offers the reader a chance to skip ahead or go back without missing the thread of the author’s argument.

But what exactly is Mr. Whitehead’s argument? He states it on the first page in answer to the question: “Why listen to jazz?” His answer is: “It’s fun to listen to. Everything else follows from that.” Bravo, Mr. Whitehead. I have been listening to jazz since I was a teenager, in the late 1940s, and I am aware that jazz has sociological, cultural and racial importance. But I listen to jazz not because of its extra-musical importance but because it is fun, for me at least, to do so.

Jazz is music, the most subjective, intimate and personal form of creative endeavor, and if it does not provide fun (and sometimes joy), don’t bother listening to it. But if you want to learn more about it, tune into Rusty Hassan’s or Tim Masters’ show on WPFW, the last Washington station to offer jazz on a permanent basis, or to Rob Bamberger’s “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” on WAMU, and just listen. If you like what you hear, buy “Why Jazz?” because it is a useful guide to those perplexed about jazz.

A personal note: Mr. Whitehead refers to 1950s jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker as “the California scene’s answer to Miles Davis.” Baker, he says, “sang like a choirboy.” This, essentially, was also my view of Baker, a Miles Davis wanna-be on horn, and a dreadful singer. But in recent years I have been listening to many of his CDs and I now realize that Baker was a fine, underrated, trumpet player in the broad, romantic tradition, with his own tone and phrasing. He owed absolutely nothing to Davis, a minimalist. And he was a very good, if idiosyncratic and limited, jazz singer. Like Rex Harris with Coleman Hawkins, I had rejected Baker without ever understanding what he was doing. But now, finally, I have ears.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.