On JazzPosted: May 31, 2022
On Jazz: A Personal Journey
Cambridge University Press (May 5, 2022), 312 pages
Kindle edition $15.49, Amazon hardcover $24.95
When I read about a book that captures my interest and the review or mention of the book appears before the publication date, I set a reminder in my Outlook calendar to download the Kindle sample on the actual date of publication. That was the case with On Jazz. Based on the review I was eager to read the book.
Certainly the author is well qualified to write about jazz. Alyn Shipton has played bass since his teens, he has written extensively about jazz, he was an editor at the publishing house Macmillan in the United Kingdom, responsible for accepting or rejecting books on jazz, and he has a long history at the BBC, hosting or producing jazz programs. As a longtime jazz aficionado and one who listens to jazz six evenings a week, I was looking forward to reading the book.
I was disappointed. I shouldn’t have been, I suppose. Shipton makes clear that the reader should take the subtitle, “A Personal Journey,” at face value and directs the reader to other books he has written for a more objective history of jazz.
Shipton writes about his experience with jazz in New Orleans and provides profiles of some of the greats in jazz history: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and others. He takes a unique approach to these profiles. He interviews the musicians who worked with these artists and provides transcripts of those interviews. The conversation was often hard to follow, however, as the interviewees were speaking in a conversational, vernacular manner which Shipton leaves as-is. He moves from one individual to another, and it’s often hard to keep track of who is speaking. The problem is exacerbated because the book uses the British convention of single quotes for quoted material with double quotes inside quoted material: the exact opposite of the American convention that I am used to.
Then there’s the fact that Shipton doesn’t define his terms. He writes about the swing era and about big bands, but he doesn’t define what kind of music either is associated with. He talks about Old Testament and New Testament music without telling the reader what those terms mean in the context of jazz. Late in the book he discusses the advent of fusion and he writes about bebop, without any clarification of what the terms mean. Added to that is the musical terminology that Shipton assumes the reader knows the meaning of.
From an archival standpoint I like the fact that the recollections of the rank-and-file musicians who worked with the big stars of jazz are preserved in Shipton’s book. But for a readable history of jazz and its evolution there are no doubt better choices.