Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux; Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G Cohen - review by Daniel Matlin

Daniel Matlin

A Kind Of Blues

Jazz

By

W W Norton & Co 704pp £27.99 order from our bookshop

Duke Ellington’s America

By

University of Chicago Press 663pp £26 order from our bookshop
 

Veils of cigarette smoke frequently cloud the faces of the jazz musicians framed by Herman Leonard’s camera. A dozen of Leonard’s celebrated photographs appear in the pages of Jazz, a new history by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, yet the task these authors have set themselves is precisely to demystify a musical genre seen by many to be shrouded in esoteric argot, critical obscurantism and sonic in-jokes.

To this end, the authors offer a glossary of terms such as ‘riff’, ‘turnaround’ and ‘playing outside’, as well as almost eighty listening guides interspersed throughout the book, which delve beneath the surface of classic recordings. How did Billie Holiday, with her notoriously narrow vocal range, transform the ‘corny’ melody and ‘banal’ lyrics of ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight’ into a radiant and sincere aesthetic statement? Giddins, a seasoned critic, and DeVeaux, a leading jazz historian, manage to scrutinise the apparent ‘alchemy’ that jazz artists have performed on the American popular song without reducing imaginative achievements to a toolkit of mechanical licks and tricks.

Least successful are the book’s two introductory chapters, intended to acquaint the novice with the music’s technical rudiments before the authors set off on their historical narrative. While Giddins and DeVeaux address the book to beginners and aficionados alike, these opening chapters will inspire little more than yawning

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter