Jazz writing is an essayist's art, an ideal medium for the cameo writer, with endless possibilities for the character sketch and the anecdotal remembrance. Big, galumphing narratives seldom tally with a culture that raced impetuously through its history and resources, to the point where a century of music seems like a babble of conflicting voices and developments.
Whitney Balliett, whose witty and urbane portraits have graced the pages of the New Yorker for decades, is the most famous exponent of this essayist style. But he has recently been eclipsed by Gary Giddins, in the Village Voice, one of the shrewdest journalist-critics of his day. Giddins's superlative Visions Of Jazz: the first century (Oxford, 1998) is a compelling journey through the music, combining musical insights with a canny placing of each figure within their, and our, world.
European writers, obliged to consider so much of jazz history at a geographical distance, have mostly taken a theoretician's view. While there have always been glimpses of visiting giants, most of us have had to experience American jazz through records, which has nurtured a school of armchair critics who often deal in absolutes, judging complex musical lives on the basis of what might only have been one day in a recording studio. If it had been an off day, too bad. This dense book is untroubled by such issues, although it does acknowledge that "recordings are simply what chanced to be preserved".
The book is defined largely by its senior author, Max Harrison. (The first volume, covering the pre-bebop era, was published in 1984 and compiled by Harrison, Charles Fox and Eric Thacker. The latter two have since died, although Thacker also contributed many of the entries in volume two). A baleful and somewhat frightening man, Harrison remains among the finest of all jazz critics. He brings a classical scholar's insight to music that has all too often been subject to either sensationalist reporting or bland approval. If he can seem remote from the lives that fashioned jazz as a social phenomenon, he does the musicians the rare favour of treating their work as something that can compete with any other music in terms of inspiration, gravitas and substance. The finest of his essays - on Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman in particular - are fascinating because they are so singular. As familiar as these names now are, Harrison has found fresh things to say about them. In his discussion of Ayler, one of the most difficult musicians in all of jazz, he finds an astonishing clarity on a confounding subject.
Of the co-authors, Eric Thacker, a gentler soul, is readable in all his pieces. But Nicholson, a representative of a younger generation, who covers many of the more recent records, can be verbose and, at times, wearisomely contentious.
This, then, is a deeply old-fashioned book. It recalls the schoolmasterly tone of Jazz Monthly, the British magazine that set a formidable standard of criticism in the 1960s, but found itself becalmed when that strain filtered out of music writing and rock criticism began to grow up. The 250 records chosen are all plausibly talked-up, although elitism sometimes gets the better of the choosing: there are fantastically obscure discs by the likes of David Mack and Gyorgy Szabados which nobody will be able to find. And the final chapter, "Fracturing Into Postmodernism", is entirely inadequate as a representation of the 1980s and 1990s.
Wynton Marsalis, the most high-profile jazz musician in America today, recently remarked that: "this whole preoccupation with abstraction, which is inherited from European critics, is a mistake. Our music is not going to go in that direction". We are flattered to seem so influential. Better to see us as a bellwether for leading listeners towards music that will never get its fair shake from either the music business or the cultural establishment at large. At its best, this book does the job magnificently.
Richard Cook is editor of "Jazz Review"