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A history of hot notes

JAZZ: THE ESSENTIAL COMPANION
Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather,
and Brian Priestley

Grafton, £17.95

Jazz:  The Essential Companion  Book cover


This new book, I would guess, sets out to replace Leonard Feather’s Encyclopaedia of Jazz, which for years was the obituary department’s only help when jazzmen died, along with John Chilton’s Who’s Who for those born before 1920. It brings the obituary scene bang up to date and includes lots of people, I’m glad to say, who aren’t going to die for a long while yet.
For non-obituarists the book is pretty much sheer delight. The three British authors have provided nearly 2,000 alphabetical entries, mostly biographical but also covering almost any topic a newcomer or oldcomer might want to worry about. Ragtime is there, and so is Free Form and Jazz-Rock-Fusion, this last a masterly summing up of that phase by Ian Carr. I’ve gone through the book in the reviewer’s usual quest of people-they-missed-out, and blow me down, but there are hardly any. What about Jack Sheldon? What about Donald Lambert and stride piano? It’s not much of a list.
            There are many more British people than handbooks normally contain (as compared to one single column on Australian jazz, which should raise a few hackles down there) but not, as far as I can see, at the price of skimping elsewhere.
            What does make this book fascinating is that, just as you begin to recognize soloists in jazz after a few bars, you start to pick out the tone of voice of each writer in this book without looking for the initials at the end of the entry. Digby Fairweather, taking care of more traditional business, is bubbly and tells stories about people (Lee Wiley, Jack Purvis, Joe Venuti); Brian Priestley is more scholarly, with a stern twinkle, while Ian Carr, up the modern end, has no twinkle at all, but a sober, almost puritan feel – his long and excellent piece on Miles Davis sternly avoids any mention of his controversial personality. There again, his piece on Russian jazz contains great thoughtfulness, and you are more likely to find deep truths in Carr than the other two.
            I find what is happening in jazz at the moment (what Carr calls the post-fusion age, though he is sensible enough not to define it) more interesting than anything in the last 20 years, with the arid waste of free form safely crossed and the jungle of jazz-rock hacked through, and I am going to need this book a lot – in fact, I was using it for work before I got round to reviewing it.
I have only one major criticism. There are no critics or impresarios mentioned. This is absolutely serious; people like Norman Granz, John Hammond. Leonard Feather and George Wein have had more effect on jazz history than many of those included. The only two writers included, Dick Sudhalter and Mike Zwerin, are in there because they play. And Boris Vian is not even mentioned. Shame gentlemen! Otherwise, a wonderful job.

The Times, 1987

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