Jazz History

Michael Schmidt holds a Ph.D. in History and is a Graduate Coordinator in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Texas at Austin.

To repeat one of its favorite metaphors, the literature of jazz history is a thick gumbo of perspectives and forms. Its contributors have ranged from amateur folklorists to previously obscure musicians to Beat poets to university scholars (whose expertise was itself wide, from Medieval English to Sexology) and this diversity of backgrounds has made its mark on its shape. Jazz’s history lives beyond academic monographs; it is comprised of popular historical overviews, concert and record reviews, literary essays, autobiographies, interviews, and, of course, liner notes.

This list keeps that unevenness and multiplicity in mind, even if it also favors the work of the “New Jazz Studies” of the 1990s and its heirs. This latter group pushed aside the deep focus on musical periodization and stylistic evolutionism that had driven narratives since 1950s and delved into discussions that reflected the contemporary methodologies of cultural history and ethnomusicology.

Part of the joy of reading jazz, however, lies in the unpredictability of the origin of insight. In the end, we come to the books to help us make sense of the recordings, to enlarge them with meaning and place them in discernible patterns. History does that, but often a comment, an expressed emotion, or an image from a less-traditional source breaks through those regular schemas and illuminates this ultimately unruly archive of sound in unexpected ways. Depending on the moment, the motion in Jackson Pollock’s painting on the cover of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz might explain or heighten the experience of that record’s polyphony more than a description of the saxophonist’s background in Texas and California.

The following books can be absorbed in a host of ways. If a reader wants a chronological perspective, they could begin with Shipton’s excellent synthesis or read the sequence Brothers-Ehrenberg-DeVeaux-Lewis. One could also emphasize the sources and read secondary texts alongside the primary voices: say, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans with the recorded testimony of another great Crescent City innovator, Jelly Roll Morton. Or one could simply follow the lead of Christian Marclay’s reassembled vinyl or Choose Your Own Adventure and look for order in the shuffle.

Places to Start

For much of its existence, jazz literature has been dominated by big-arch narrative histories of stylistic change. Perhaps the best of this genre, Shipton’s overview stands squarely in this tradition, but it steps up to a broader perch, incorporating not just recent research on the music and musicians but also strong components of social and cultural history.

A pioneering work of “New Jazz Studies,” The Birth of Bebop is a crucial book in the deconstruction of the evolution-propelled view of traditional jazz historiography. DeVeaux makes an excellent case that bebop was not just a paradigm shift in terms of style, but also an answer to a crisis in the economic opportunities of African Americans in the late Swing period.

Digging In

Ground-breaking in their moment, Ellison’s essays on music remain some of the most magisterial and illuminating works of American cultural criticism around. For those who just want his jazz pieces, one can look to the collection Living with Music, but I think reading them in the company of his ruminations on American identity, literature, and racial dynamics more fully reveals the deep and complex interconnections going on in Ellison’s thought and texts.

Brothers’ excavation of fin-de-siècle New Orleans places NOLA next to Vienna and Paris as central sites for the birth of twentieth century modernism. It tells the story of Louis Armstrong and the origins of jazz through the layers underlying “one musician’s experience of a complex city”: the sanctified churches, the urban rag-pickers, the culture of masculinity amongst musicians, the hardening definition of race in Louisiana after Plessy vs. Ferguson, and the complex dynamics between gens de colour and uptown African Americans from the countryside.

Ehrenberg’s insightful work demonstrates that, despite its long-held reputation as the definition of the commercial mainstream, big band music in the 1930s was, in fact, a vehicle for progressive New Deal politics and a vision of democratic pluralism. This essential book connects the production and reception of jazz to its social world and political moment, bringing together Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman with the interwar Popular Front, and jitterbug dancers with new visions of sexuality and greater racial inclusiveness.

A book about writing about music, this history of jazz criticism is crucial to understanding the deeply intertwined relationships between making and listening to jazz and the texts published about them. It is an essential read for thinking about the role that the conceptualization and historicization of jazz have played in what musicians play (and how they present it) and how fans and the record industry have heard it.

As a writer, Lewis is totally unique: an important scholar, a significant jazz musician, and a participant-observer in his subject matter (he has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since the early 1970s). More than just a profound scrambling of the “creator vs. critic” problem, A Power Stronger than Itself also offers an essential portrait of one of the key social-musical organizations of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries while placing its musicians into the more global story of postwar Experimental Music.

New Moves

Pinson’s book on Leonard’s iconic photography from the 1940s and 1950s—think of a black and white Dexter Gordon, sitting with his saxophone in hand, surrounded by thick wisps of cigarette smoke—is an excellent reminder that jazz is more than just an acoustic phenomenon. An attempt to grapple with why the music of these immediate postwar decades has come to define the contemporary jazz mainstream, her work argues that these images have cemented a popular, past-oriented expectation of how jazz should sound.

Africa Speaks, America Answers is part of a long, important wave of work that has expanded the geography of jazz beyond the U.S. borders. Through a discussion of two African and two African American musicians—Guy Warren, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Randy Weston, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik—Kelley builds an analytical and musical space between the two continents, showing how important jazz was to Africans and Africa was to Americans in the era of decolonization.

Voices and Lives

To return one of Miles’s own unforgettable compliments, his autobiography is “cleaner than a broke dick dog,” a testament to Davis’s total modeling of the cool as persona, attitude, myth, and sound. At the same time, it’s a poignant example of the authority of a masterful first-person chronicler and, in its apparent recycling of other people’s material, its fragility.

A one of a kind document, these are the recordings that Alan Lomax made of Jelly Roll Morton reminiscing, spinning yarns, telling anecdotes, playing piano, and singing in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge auditorium as part of a Works Progress Administration-funded (WPA) cultural project. Not all of it is considered one hundred percent historically accurate, but there is something deeply important and fascinating about hearing Morton recount his life and the early history of jazz over brilliant, corresponding piano performances.

Hentoff and Shapiro stand in for the critics and producers who have had such a role defining the categorical boundaries, canon, and interpretation of jazz. In Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, however, they put the voices of the musicians first, compiling the story of jazz with a series of interview segments and oral histories. In terms of its formal structure, it is a remarkable book of modernist history; in terms of testimony, it captures a significant body of observation and feeling that would not be otherwise available.