Kevin Whitehead's Jazz Primer | Bleader

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Kevin Whitehead's Jazz Primer

Posted By on 01.11.11 at 01:55 PM

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Each year more books purporting to introduce readers to jazz (and more jazz record guides) hit the market. You haven't heard about most of them, and for good reason—they tend to be either dumbed-down or redundant. I would've never expected the consistently erudite and illuminating Kevin Whitehead (a regular commentator on NPR's Fresh Air and a onetime Reader contributor) to enter the jazz-guide arena, but he accepted an invitation to write one from Oxford University Press. Last week his book Why Jazz? arrived in stores.

From the outset Whitehead makes plain that he's not trying to be comprehensive or preaching gospel. He calls his book "a crash course in hearing connections, while answering the kinds of questions new or curious listeners often ask." He heard many of those questions from students while teaching jazz classes at the University of Kansas, and he uses them as subheadings (for instance, "Why did bebop sound so radical when it was new?") to organize this concise, loosely chronological book. (It's 136 pages not counting the glossary, listening guide, and suggestions for further reading.) Whitehead is a pithy writer, stylish without getting sidetracked by his own cleverness, and over the years I've learned a ton from reading his work—like his definitive book on Dutch jazz, New Dutch Swing—and heeding his advice. I remember a conversation we had when he pointed out that only a fool would claim that such-and-such is the best record or so-and-so is the best musician, because nobody can hear everything out there. I took that to heart, and since then I've taken special care to avoid overreaching in my pronouncements.

That kind of wisdom is a hallmark of Whitehead's writing. In one simple paragraph in a section on the Dixieland revival, he quietly drives home a point most jazz histories ignore or overlook: that the Dixieland revival occurred as a reaction to the way swing and later bebop downplayed the rhythms and multilinear improvising styles of early jazz. "After 1940, jazz spawned more and more substyles," he writes. "In response, some musicians embraced new possibilities, some stayed their own course, and others defended their own style by attacking alternatives. So it's gone ever since."

At times Whitehead's descriptions and explanations might prove a little technical for the novice listener—particularly when he discusses harmony and chord structure—but by and large his writing is succinct and clear as day. At this point I don't need someone to tell me why Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong are important, but I'm still happy for a fresh perspective and some new insight.

Today's playlist:

Palais Schaumburg, Palais Schaumburg (Tapete)
Kelley Stoltz, To Dreamers (Sub Pop)
Jacques Coursil, Trails of Tears (Sunnyside)
Ole-Henrik Moe, Ciaccona/3 Persephone Perceptions (Rune Grammofon)
Dona Ivone Lara, Canto de Rainha (Universal, Brazil)

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