Skip to content

Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz

So I have gotten really interested in jazz over the last year. (Apparently this is de rigueur for men as they enter middle age.) I’ve always had a vague understanding of the musical syntax, and can fake playing cocktail-piano renditions of standards okay, but I’ve never really had a good knowledge of the field as a whole.

My three-pronged approach to remedying this has been 1) reading about jazz theory (largely through Bert Ligon’s Jazz Theory Resources and Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book, about which maybe more later), 2) reading about jazz history, and 3) listening to a ton of music. Reading this book, unsurprisingly, was part of prong 2.

Any book about music starts out at a disadvantage in that the actual subject it is discussing is apprehended by the ear and not the eye. With classical music, at least the score is the definition of the piece, but with popular music even a transcription is just a lens that inherently distorts the subject. The History of Jazz doesn’t even try to display musical excerpts; it’s purely text, and although the text is fairly descriptive, simply reading about the music is completely insufficient if you want to understand anything about its history.

Luckily YouTube is around to fill in the gap. I don’t know how much less I would have gotten out of this book if all I could do was read it, but being able to immediately reach out and listen to 80% of the referred-to repertoire was completely invaluable.

Anyway, the actual book itself. Given that it could only really describe the music at one level of indirection, it was actually really instructive. Jazz, especially once you get to the 1950s, consists of a giant interconnected family tree of artists and styles, and it was really impressive to me that Gioia was able to construct a fairly reasonable linear narrative navigating the entire maze, jumping on to an artist’s path for a few years, taking a couple of detours to describe his peers, and coming back to him later when his subsequent style was more relevant to the current story.

The music that I am most interested in (bebop and its descendants) doesn’t even enter the picture until halfway through the book, but that’s probably unavoidable, and the material on early jazz is really interesting. It hadn’t really occurred to me, for example, how impossible it is to disentangle jazz’s roots from the effects of slavery, which turns the love of jazz into an inherently ambivalent kind of prospect. (Another downer is that everyone seems to die young; if they make it past 40 it’s kind of surprising. I swear that being a jazz musician is more dangerous than coal mining.)

If you’re looking for a 400-page overview of the entire giant field of jazz (up through the mid-1990s), I bet it’s hard to do much better than this. It certainly gave me a broad bird’s-eye view of the genre that enabled me to focus on the artists and periods I thought I would be interested in, and when I came back to it after learning more about a given subject, its summary still seemed pretty good to me. Supplement it with YouTube and you’ve got a perfect multimedia introduction to the genre.