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Visions of Jazz: The First Century
by Gary Giddins
ISBN 0195132416 / 9780195132410 / 0-19-513241-6
Publisher Oxford University Press, USA
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As Gary Giddins makes clear in his introduction to Visions of Jazz, he's not attempting to draw a canonical line in the sand: "Everyone has his or her vision of jazz, and this is mine." Modesty aside, though, it's hard to imagine a critic with a more encyclopedic grasp of detail, or a more lucid, funny, and appropriately musical style. Weighing in at almost 700 pages, the magnificent Visions of Jazz consists of 70 profiles, beginning with a dual portrait of blackface pioneers Bert Williams and Al Jolson and concluding with the klezmer-infatuated clarinetist Don Byron. These sketches mingle musical, biographical, and cultural insights--indeed, one of Giddins's great gifts is to break down the very distinction between such categories. Yet Giddins is hardly an unhinged generalizer, and he loves to zero in on a particular chorus and disclose its charms on a bar-by-bar basis. The pinnacle of this musical microscopy occurs in his Dizzy Gillespie essay, with an almost biblical exegesis of 64 measures from the 1989 version of "Salt Peanuts." But even in these nuts-and-bolts passages, Giddins is always accessible, combining precisely the right proportions of edification and old-fashioned entertainment. The only problem with Visions of Jazz, in fact, is that it makes you so itchy and impatient to hear the music. Fortunately, Giddins has taken care of the problem by curating a companion disc called (you guessed it) Visions of Jazz. This isn't, it should be said, a predictable journey from one jazz milestone to the next. Instead he's assembled a delightfully idiosyncratic anthology, which testifies to the music's irresistible pulse and all-American parentage. --James Marcus [via]