Top positive review
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a must for every jazz/big band fan
on 4 September 2008
This voluminous tome is not your usual collection of reminiscences and short biographies of the big bands and their leaders (like those of George T. Simon or Richard Grudens), let alone a hagiography ('everything was better in the old days'). There are not even any photos or other illustrations. The book is an in-depth study of the development of jazz during the swing era. It is devided into sections concerning the major figures who shaped the development of swing (Ellington, Armstrong, Goodman, Lunceford, Basie etc.), a section on the great soloists (Hawkins, Norvo, Hines, Webster, Tatum, Teagarden, Allen, Russel, Wilson, Eldridge etc.), on the great black bands (Kirk, Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Webb, F&H Henderson, Erskine Hawkins, Calloway etc.), on the white bands (Casa Loma, Miller, Barnet, Shaw, T&J Dorsey, Herman, James, Kenton and even on Clinton, Chester etc.) territory bands (Leonard, Towles, Boots & His Buddies etc.) and the small bands.
He assesses the performers' strengths and weaknesses, comparing their relative merits, putting their achievements in the right perspective (e.g. Casa Loma and Horace Henderson are finally given the credit they are due, Calloway and Miller are given a much fairer treatment than other jazz studies have done), often illustrated by transcriptions of the music in question (even writing out solos, which must have been a fiendishly difficult thing to do).
Far from being an arid and academic work however, it is very well written in wonderful English which can be full of praise if something's good and delightfully scathing if something's not.
Which is not to say the book is without its biases. A man like Artie Shaw, who admittedly often blew his own trumpet (if you'll forgive the pun) while savaging others, is hardly given his proper due just because was more outspoken and because he too recorded a fair share of commercial items. In Schuller's opinion the 1940 band only recorded one worthwhile item, Stardust, while the rest is reviled as musical taffy. Moonglow, It Had to Be You, Alone Together and other splendid items are left unmentioned. Also Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman might have been dealt with in a more positive way.
Schuller listened to literally thousands of recordings to form his opinions and the book invites the reader to do the same. When you do (as I did), you'll find that quite often he is right in his conclusions. Since music is also a matter of taste you may not always agree despite his being right.
In the almost ten years I've owned this book I have almost read it to pieces, jumping from chapter to chapter, always finding something new to discover.
The greatest asset of the book is that it made me listen again in depth to recordings and bands I took for granted, plus that it made me dicover music and bands I would not have otherwise given serious consideration (like Boots & His Buddies) and that it helped me form an opinion of my own of what I like and what not and why. As such I cannot praise the book too highly.