Some people take on projects that, while possible to accomplish, are impossible to accomplish perfectly. Ted Gioia, a veteran musician and scholar, released this "second edition" of his jazz history about a year ago, updating his original work from a decade earlier. Look what he took on: "Present a history of an American musical form that is a century old, complicated by prejudice and poverty and wide variations of creativity, commercialism and rebellion, involving dozens of instruments, thousands of artists, and in many cases songs that can be performed at various lengths with one to 30 musicians and recorded between the 1920's and the turn of the 21st century. And by the way, do it in less than 400 pages of narrative." How the hell does one organize such a project in a way that will not just enlighten most interested readers, but keep from boring them if they only care about the music and artists most prevalent in only one or two of the ten decades examined?
Well, Mr. Gioia is not universally successful, of course. For me, a casual jazz fan for the past 50 years, I have a fair amount of interest in the early years of the form, a huge interest in the way it went between 1946 and '66, and very little interest in the state of jazz over the past 30 years. Other readers will approach the book with opposite enthusiasms or indifferences.
I would give his ten chapters "star" ratings of one to five for readability, based on my life experience with the music, while for the purposes of teaching readers how jazz came to be, and what it once was, and what it became, and where it seems to be heading, all his chapters deserve a high ranking. How would YOU organize such a task? You cannot stay strictly chronologic, since Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and some others had careers of five to six decades. You cannot give each of the 100 years of jazz only four pages. Some years likely deserve a few paragraphs, some ten pages. Mr. Gioia is roughly chronological, except for following the big stars into their full careers once he first mentions them.
Therefore, this book is one you will read more for knowledge than for pleasure. I am totally non-musical, only a diehard fan, and some of the musical references were beyond my understanding. I bought this at a bookstore, and paid the cover price, and I don't regret it. Having finished it, however, I see no reason to keep it in my personal collection. Instead, I'll continue listening to favorites like Miles, Monk, 'Trane, Modern Jazz Quartet, Ella, Brubeck, Bill Evans, Tal Farlow, Armstrong, Ellington, Mingus, Glenn Miller, Goodman, Jimmy Giuffre, Charlie Haden, Peggy Lee, Diana Krall, Gene Ammons, George Shearing, Art Pepper, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Mann, and others. Each is at least mentioned in the big book under discussion. And as I listen, I'll know just a bit more how each fits into the hundred years of jazz.