The NPR Curious Listeners
Guide to Jazz by Loren Schoenberg
By Don Rose, from The Jazz Institute of Chicago website
Thursday, August 04, 2005
National Public Radio, the only regular jazz venue available
to much of the country, has come up with a neat little introductory
manual of the musica companion to its similarly titled
opus on the classical idiom. Written in a friendly, accessible
but still sophisticated style by the saxophonist and conductor,
Loren Schoenberg, its one of those things you might
want to give your jazz-challenged friends as an ear-opening
Most intros to jazz come in the form of narrative histories,
serial biographies or discographical recommendations. This
one gives us a little bit of eachand I emphasize little
bitorganized engagingly into short sections that
include a couple of decent efforts to define jazz from the
ground up. It further provides brief bibliographies of books
and websites where there is more to be learned.
It also adds the distinctive element of a section on key
individual performancesspecific songs from albums or
sessions, such as Sonny Rollins Without a Song
or Eric Dolphys Bee Vamp. Unfortunately,
the specific discs or collections in which those fine performances
appear are not identifiedthe novice is left to do his
or her own devices to locate them.
Schoenberg, known when he emerged on the blowing scene as
a Lestorian revivalist, is clearly an acolyte of the Wynton
Marsalis-Stanley Crouch-Albert Murray school of blues-is-jazz-based
linear tradition (he has conducted the Lincoln Center repertory
band and Marsalis provides a foreword to this volume). But
though there is much praise for Wynton throughout the book,
as well as tributes to Murray and Crouch, he strives emphatically
to provide equal information on and fair appraisal of modernists,
free-blowers, and others outside the hallowed confines and
limitations of their canon.
In short, he is fully aware of the short-comings of the Ken
Burns film that was so cramped by their school of thought,
and provides us with a broad-based, up-to-date critical history
limited only by the short space provided for such a guidebook.
His first five pages are an effort to define jazz in a general
way, then he modulates into a brief, accurate, period-by-period
history with a few sidebars. He breaks no new ground here,
as might be expected, but it is a reasonable retelling for
the novice, again frustrating mainly because of its brevitya
continuing problem throughout, because so many stories and
so many names are omitted in the history as they are in the
The historical narrative section is embellished by yet another
passage where he gives us a quick essay on each of the various
schools of jazz, while apologizing in advance for having to
utilize categories such as bebop, swing, New Orleans, etc.
He would prefer, along with Max Roach and others, to speak
only of individualsMonks music, Birds music,
Aylers music and so forth.
This section is notable for making Kansas City Swing a separate
entity unto itself and for specifying the limitations of Dixieland
as contrasted with Chicago Jazz; also for dismissing late
fusion and smooth jazz. He is fairthough clearly a bit
uncomfortablewhen it comes to free jazz. He indicates,
for example, that many free players who became prominent were
unequipped to deal with the conventions of the past.
The following chapter, one of the most valuable, is devoted
to the nature and role of improvisation and the role of written
jazz. This section clearly should have come earlierright
up there with the effort to define jazz, because it is so
integral to the definition and is at the heart of the mysteries
of the music. Its the kind of information missing from
too many histories and introductions.
His 70+ biographiesgenerally the expected figures with
an occasional surpriseare deftly done, most taking about
a page each. I especially enjoyed several passages including
this description of Billie Holiday:
...Holiday was not an actress when she sang, but the effect
she gave was more a statement on the act of singing and an
attitude than it was a reflection of the actual sentiment
of the words.
Schoenberg is at his best, however, in annotating his selection
of important CDs and in detailing the qualities of a given
performance, citing the intricacies of the musicians playing
off of one another or the special character of a given solo.
Its the quality that earned him a Grammy several years
ago and something he also did remarkably well in his liner
notes to the Savoy set of Charlie Parkers live performances.
Here, for example, is his observation of the Earl Hines track
titled Fifty-Seven Varieties:
There are passages here, which, if isolated, would be as
hard to parse as a corner of a pointillistic painting, but
their function becomes clear when heard as part of the total
piece. Hines manages to carry on two separate planes of improvisation.
The lead passes from one hand to the other with no preparation,
and there are even moments when one of them has to wait for
the other to finish an idea before continuing. The narrative
comes perilously close to incoherence at times, but in Hines'
conception this becomes an expressive device.
He continually sends his reader back to the music itself,
to create understanding through listening, and that thrust
is what makes this a first-rate guide despite the fact that
you may not find any except a passing reference to some very
important figures. Further, his listing of the 50 top jazz
CDs is like none other, though he defends his choices very
I found only a few minor errors, as when Ran Blake becomes
Ron and the habanera rhythm in St. Louis
Blues becomes a tango, but I found nothing to poison
the mind of the theoretical novice for whom the book is intended.
Indeed, theres a world of musical enrichment packed
into a small package here.