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Tom Piazza
Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen
(Random House)

As soon as I looked into Tom Piazza’s new book Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen (Random House) I immediately thought of Martin Williams’ 40-plus-year-old Where’s the Melody? Their missions are the same—to give novice jazz fans entrée into the music—but what’s striking is how similar the books are. Both assume the centrality of the blues (somewhat surprising in Williams’ case, since in his masterwork The Jazz Tradition he argues that it is the particulars of rhythm that both set the music apart and distinguishes its various styles), even if Williams actually devotes far less space to instruction with most of the book devoted to a collection of previously published magazine pieces, though he does make some attempt to connect them thematically to the opening essay. Still without making reference to copyright dates, the books are strikingly the same, and that’s a bit disturbing. Has the music changed so little in the intervening four-plus decades? Or is jazz becoming a prisoner of its past? After all, it seems the most excitement generated the past several years has been by archival recordings—Trane and Monk at Carnegie Hall this year, Albert Ayler in a box last year, Coltrane’s Love Supreme live before that. Piazza is associated with an institution, Jazz at Lincoln Center, just as Williams was associated with the Smithsonian, though some years after he published Where’s the Melody?

Piazza opts, like Williams, for an analytic, rather than historical, approach, breaking down jazz performances to what he considers their basics. For Piazza that starts with a discussion of what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background, and from this first chapter it’s evident that we’re really not talking about jazz in the broadest sense but rather the mainstream represented by Wynton Marsalis, who provides the foreword. Piazza grounds his analysis in the particulars of seven performances included on the accompanying CD. These performances are not intended to represent a mini-history of the music; in fact they seem chosen not only to provide examples of the techniques discussed, but also to avoid overtly canonical performances. So we get Sonny Rollins playing “Moritat”, not “Blue 7”, from Saxophone Colossus. We get Dizzy Gillespie with Duke Ellington’s band performing Strayhorn’s “UMMG”, then Gillespie and Rollins again with Sonny Stitt on “Eternal Triangle”.  The oldest track is King Oliver’s performance “Weather Bird Rag” with Louis Armstrong on second cornet from 1923. The most recent is a 1987 recording of “I Can’t Get Started” by Stan Getz, and the freest is “Footprints” by the Miles Davis Quintet. Basie’s “Boogie Woogie” rounds out the program. Williams, by comparison, goes from middle period Armstrong to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, and has the definite sense of a canon in the making—the Smithsonian History of Recorded Jazz, which he edited, being a few years in the offing. Williams’ book, though, came without benefit of an accompanying LP.

Certainly having the CD is a major benefit. Throughout Piazza makes reference to specific spots in the recordings. At his best his illustration can be illuminating as when he breaks down a series of exchanges between Rollins and Stitt on “Eternal Triangle”.  He moves from explaining the concept of foreground and background, to a discussion of the blues, the cyclical form of “most” jazz performances. In dealing next with improvisation, he demonstrates his erudition, with references to Plato and contemporary film. He draws on his own background in fiction to extend to the point of absurdity a metaphor about a musician telling a story without really analyzing musically what that means. And when he deals with “Swing, Rhythm, Time, Space” Piazza turns more toward the existential: “Once a performance starts, the musicians and listener move over to an alternate musical dimension in which time changes its very nature.” In concluding the chapter, Piazza asserts: “Jazz musicians figure out a way to make an indelible space for themselves in time, within a world of attrition and decay. Their temporary victories over time stave off death by using the elements we have talked about so far in this book.” Maybe he should have started there.

The philosophy seems at odds with a book that doesn’t seem sure that its readers know what a trombone is. Indeed, the book never seems sure of its audience. Is it the well-read adult novice who appreciates the references to other arts or is it the junior high student lacking even the most basic knowledge of music? Or maybe it’s the suburbanite who catches fragments of Coleman Hawkins playing in the background of his neighborhood Panera? Each could glean something worthwhile from the book, but they, especially the adults, will find the tone bothersome at points. Certainly the book seems to assume the listener would not be coming in from contemporary related forms. The lack of discussion of any style more recent than the 1960s is notable. Yes, the Getz dates from later, but its style is rooted in the 1950s. It’s as if nothing much has happened since Where’s the Melody? was published. No fusion, no avant-garde with its various schools both domestic and foreign, not even the Young Lions restoration. The book exists in a stylistic bubble.

Who is it then who would go about “understanding jazz”? When Williams was writing, jazz was still associated with some popular forms and had a certain glow of prestige granted by arty television specials and kind words from the vanguard of the classical  music world. Well-rounded music fans were likely to have some jazz in their collections, maybe Brubeck or Miles Davis or an Ellington album—listeners who’ll be taken with the sound, yet still wonder what it’s all about. Piazza assumes somehow that that’s where the new listeners are coming from. Maybe he’s right. Maybe his book is aimed at listeners whose interest was piqued by Ken Burns’ series and the spate of compilation CDs linked to it. But others may slip in through the jam scene, through the jazz hooks incorporated in some hip-hop. or lured by the music’s enduring patina of urbane stylishness. There are those junior high students who pick up some knowledge of jazz at school. For many of them, I’m afraid, this book will only confirm what they perceive as the stodginess of jazz, a besuited arcane form. And if there’s anything I would hope a new listener—young or old—would understand about jazz is that it remains a vital, vigorous music that frustrates all efforts to shackle it.