Thursday, March 17, 2011

Recent Jazz Books

Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet by Randall Sandke: To say this book has been controversial among the jazz scene would be quite an understatement. Commentary by Ethan Iverson and Chris Kelsey have thrust this book into the spotlight. It's a much needed conversation, too. Jazz has always been split with racial (and gender) fault lines throughout its history, and Sandke's thesis is that the music has really been integrated since the beginning, in opposition to the oft-cited view that jazz was an entirely African-American creation. This opposition to the prevailing orthodoxy is bound to raise some hackles. The evidence that he offers to back up his thesis amounts to a literature review in the early sections, looking at the jazz critics of earlier eras and the way that they covered the music and the amount of attention given to white and black performers. When he moves into the arena of modern jazz, one of the most controversial portions of the book revolves around his criticism of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, where he raises the specter of "Crow Jim" or reverse-racism in the hiring practices for the program. Sandke also speaks candidly about recording and financial opportunities available to musicians of all races. While sometimes succumbing to a rather dry and academic tone, I think that this is an important book for jazz partisans to read and discuss. You don't have to agree with Sandke's thesis, and indeed I was uncomfortable with several aspects of it, to admire his courage in pushing this conversation to the fore and addressing issues that have been within the music since its conception. Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet -

Why Jazz? by Kevin Whitehead: This book aims to offer a simple, accessible primer to the music of jazz, explaining the roles of the musicians and the different sub-genres of the music while putting everything in a historical and social context. It works pretty well, although hitting people over the head with some music theory right off the bat tends to throw them in at the deep end. Whitehead's knowledge of the music is both deep and broad and his use of the question and answer format for the book's format keeps the information down to bite sized digestible chunks that work well for the neophyte or the curious. He makes his case for the importance of the music in both an artistic and historic context but never hectors the prospective listener with a harangue or lecture. Longtime fans will find nothing new here, but the curious listener who has recently heard jazz through the media or in person and is looking for more information about the art form may find this book to be a good non-intimidating starting place. Why Jazz? -

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