Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

New edition of “The History of Jazz”

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Ted Gioia writes at The Honest Broker:

Back in the early 1990s, Sheldon Meyer of Oxford University Press asked me to write a full history of jazz, from its origins to the current day—a book that would serve as the publishing house’s flagship work on the subject.

When Oxford University Press had published Marshall Stearns’s The Story of Jazz in 1956, it had served as a milestone moment in music scholarship. For the first time, a major academic press was embracing jazz as a legitimate field of study. But by the 1990s, Stearns’s book was terribly out-of-date, and Oxford needed a new work to replace it in their offerings. My book was envisioned as that replacement.

I told Meyer that I would need at least 4-5 years to deliver a book on such an expansive topic. He accepted this timeline—he was a wise editor who took a long term view of publishing, a rarity nowadays, but that’s why so many books he edited went on to win the Pulitzer or Bancroft prizes. I was blessed to have him as my editor, and wanted to work with him on this project. I managed to complete the manuscript in the promised time frame, and in 1997 my book The History of Jazz was published, a few days after my 40th birthday.

In retrospect, I view this moment as the key turning-point in my vocation as a music historian. The History of Jazz would prove to be the bestselling jazz book of the next quarter-of-a-century, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in English and various translations. It brought me in contact with readers all over the world, and put me in an enviable position. Music tends to be a young person’s game, and that’s true for writers as well as performers. Yet I found that I had somehow reversed the trend, finding a much larger readership after the age of 40 than I’d ever enjoyed as a young man—in the aftermath everyone from the White House to the United Nations would contact me for guidance and advice on jazz-oriented projects, and I still hear daily from readers of this book who share their own jazz stories from all over the world. I never take that for granted, and have always felt gratitude to Sheldon and Oxford, but especially to these readers, who have stayed with me through so many subsequent books.

But the history of jazz is not a static subject. The music continues to morph and evolve. So I wrote an updated and expanded second edition of The History of Jazz released in in 2011. And ten years later, another upgrade is very much necessary. A few weeks ago, the new third edition of The History of Jazz was released—which has allowed me to bring this exciting story, once again, up to the current day.

Below is an extract from the new edition for my subscribers. It looks at the extraordinary conjunction of events spurring a resurgence of interest in jazz in the current moment.

For more information on the book, you may want to check out my recent interview for NPR, conducted by Natalie Weiner.

How Jazz Was Declared Dead—Then Came Roaring Back to Life

by Ted Gioia (from The History of Jazz, 2021 Edition)

I’ve heard many predictions about jazz over the years. The prognosticators typically serve up grim forecasts about the genre’s inevitable decline into irrelevancy or its survival on life support as a kind of musical museum exhibit celebrating past glories. Such prophecies aren’t much fun to consider—but they haven’t been very accurate either. None of these seers has anticipated what’s actually now happening on the jazz scene, a development as delightful as it has been unexpected. Jazz has somehow rediscovered its roots as populist music, embarking on a new and unscripted dialogue with mainstream culture. To some extent, jazz has even turned into a kind of talisman for forward-looking sounds in commercial music—with the same mass-market periodicals that published obituaries for the genre just a short while ago now proclaiming its hot new status.

Artists as different from each other as Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding, Shabaka Hutchings, and Robert Glasper have shown that they can draw on the full range of current-day song styles without losing their jazz roots, and attract a young crossover audience who are energized and excited by this give-and-take. Pop culture stars, from Kendrick Lamar to Lady Gaga, have returned the favor, seeking out ways of uplifting their own artistry by incorporating jazz ingredients into their music. In the process, the whole notion of jazz as a niche genre for snobbish insiders has gotten overturned. Jazz is showing up with increasing frequency on tourist guides, suggested as the preferred evening’s entertainment in New York or London or Tokyo or some other travel destination. And even for stay-at-homes watching movies from the comfort of their couch, a surprising number of Hollywood offerings—La La LandGreen BookWhiplashMiles AheadBorn to Be BlueSoul—have served up jazz stories and songs suitable for mainstream appeal.

Of course, not every jazz old-timer celebrates the music’s newfound popularity. Just as complaints could be heard in the 1980s and 1990s when the music gained wider respectability and made an alliance with academic and nonprofit institutions, a whole litany of different grievances have been raised now that the genre has seemingly reversed course and returned to the people. But the lessons of jazz history are fairly clear by now: complaints and denunciations by entrenched insiders are almost always a sign that something important is underway. In this instance, the new discourse between jazz and popular music seems more than just a passing trend but the sign of an emerging ethos that might prove lasting and transformative.

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment a trend reverses. And in the case of jazz, it sometimes seemed as if its alleged downturn would never end—at least judging by the pessimistic media pronouncements on the art form made during the early years of the twenty-first century. Jazz’s problem, they declared, wasn’t like a bad haircut, something you could grow out of, or an embarrassing tattoo that a laser might zap away, but more like a death sentence. I still recall my dismay when The Atlantic entitled an otherwise favorable review of one of my books with the dispiriting headline: “The End of Jazz,” and followed it up with a subhead that promised to explain “how America’s most vibrant music became a relic.” I was miffed, but I could hardly blame the author. He was simply stating the consensus view among opinion leaders.

That was back in 2012, but the notion that jazz was dead had been bouncing around for quite some time. In 2007, Esquire had published a similar article, proclaiming in its headline not only the “Death of Jazz,” but adding that the genre had been in decline since John Coltrane’s demise forty years earlier. Around that same time, critic Marc Myers published an article on his JazzWax website entitled “Who Killed Jazz and When?,” which reached a similar conclusion, but pinpointed an even earlier cause of decline— specifically, the decision by jazz bands in the late 1940s to stop playing for dancers. When CNN tackled the same matter, in an article entitled “When Jazz Stopped Being Cool,” the guilty parties were now the Beatles and rock & roll. Other pundits focused on different root causes for the music’s obsolescence, with everyone from elitist fans to narcissistic performers getting a share of the blame. But the final result was, as they saw it, hardly open to debate: jazz had been on life support for too long, and it was time to put the dear old thing out of its misery.

It’s now been several years since I’ve seen any of those anguished obituaries for jazz, and instead a different kind of news story has taken its place. Big font headlines now proclaim  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 August 2021 at 4:07 pm

Posted in Books, History, Jazz

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