The History of Jazz, second edition by Ted Gioia

I decided to kick off the new year (and new decade, I guess!) by reading a new genre of music writing. I am a seasoned jazz listener, since I first started, freshman year of college, with Charlie Parker: it was something to write history papers to. Something I could “trust and ignore.” I became a jazz DJ that year to avoid the overnight hours assigned to freshman and threw myself into the world of jazz. My interests since then have always been with Miles, Parker, Monk, and Mingus. I’ve recently branched out and always enjoyed swing, but Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz, Second Edition is a great place to start.

First of all this is a University Press book (Oxford s/o UPs!), so it is a dense read. It covers A LOT of ground. The first chapter is ‘The Prehistory of Jazz’ with a sub-header: The Africanization of American Music. So this book goes way back and starts from a literal beginning of, what I now believe to be, the first American genre. (Which could be tied for first with country music, after watching Ken Burns’ Country Music series on PBS–great!!–which takes a lot of instrumentation and performance from jazz. But really, I think? they birthed around the same-ish time.) The history itself of how music travels from one continent to another (the beginning is always Africa. 90% if not all music comes from Africa because of the slave trade) and how it changes between culture and language. With jazz, the beginning is the melting pot of New Orleans where Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, French, European, and African traditions found a home.

Each genre of jazz, which I was completely unaware of, has it’s own chapter. The book is organized chronologically. I could’ve used more pictures, but here we are. I wanted to read for the music writing but not only did I chose a University Press book, which are historically more all-encompassing and academic, but a ‘complete’ history of… book, so it wasn’t that kind of read. Translating how jazz sounds onto the page is complicated. Performing jazz is a complicated, technical skill. Writing about it mirrors just that: the descriptions are more about time, patterns, poly rhythms, and theory. There are a few lines about “buttery trombones” and “controlled violence” which I am literally here for, but the writing itself is complex. I did a lot of simultaneous listening and reading, just so I knew what I was trying to understand. I highly recommend this approach.

A lot of the information is presented with lists of personnel, who recorded what for which label, what live performance did what for the genre, and who was there. Lots of covers and tributes paid to artists and songs past (not unlike hip-hop and horror, jazz is a genre of art that ALWAYS pays tribute and homage to its beginnings) I did not recognize 95% of the artists mentioned (and made note of all of them, about halfway through the swing chapter. I started a playlist featuring every player mentioned.) Jazz is very much about who’s who, so a lot of the content can feel like an overwhelming encyclopedia. Sometimes it’s best to breeze through if only to push on. There’s A LOT of ground to cover.

Personally this was a reading feat. I had been admiring this book for a while, contemplating which book on jazz to begin with. It seemed like the best all around history, and if I’m going to go, I’ll go big. I thought many times I would never get through it, but slow and steady wins. It took me a whole month, but was very satisfying to finish. If you are a beginner to jazz, it’s a perfect book if you really want the whole meal.

Each chapter features many sections on the pioneer of their sound, covering a small biography of artists: Armstrong, Jelly Roll, Dizzy, Getz, Bechet, Ellington, Goodman, Parker, Coltrane, Evans, Miles, Monk, Marsalis, and on and on and on. Many of these men died tragically in freak accidents (a surprising amount!) (many, many, mostly men: nature of the beast) and many from drug and alcohol abuse. (The first female big band leader, born in China and raised in Japan, Toshiko Akiyoshi is a pure thrill to listen to. A true giant of the piano!) The nature of the genre’s rise and challenges mirrors a lot with popular and rock music, where there’s always a new generation sending a hero up the pop charts, so says Paul Simon. Jazz has just been around longer than rock and pop so it’s lived the cycle many times over.

Toshiko Akiyoshi

The last two chapters felt the easiest to read maybe because I had finally found a groove with the text but also because Gioia really starts to fly. There is so much information and the world jazz section is boiled down to just a few pages or so. (It deserves its own playlist.) I’m sure there are entire books on it out there, this was just a primer. The last big genre of jazz he sits with is postmodern. The bands I was first introduced to by way of college jazz radio circa 2006, Medeski Martin and Wood and The Bad Plus, are merely glossed over but I felt proud to recognize a couple names. Modern artists like Nels Cline get a basic shout out. He spends time with Nora Jones when discussing modern vocalists. I hadn’t considered her since my sister’s CD of Come Away With Me (2002).

This book would also be easy to pick up and put down over a long period of time. But I am a reader who can only read one book at a time or I won’t read any at all. I can’t recommend it enough. It will sit with me for a long time and I look forward to exploring the genre further. Cheers, Ted!

[Originally posted to my Goodreads before the world changed in January 2020.]