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A New History of Jazz by Alyn Shipton

Jazz is arguably the most important music of the 20th century. But, as significant as jazz is, its history, like the music itself, is an inexact art. In his book, A New History of Jazz, Alyn Shipton challenges the conventional assertions about the development and spread of Jazz, delving deep into the annals of available documented history to provide substance to his treatise. What is known about jazz is that the African-American culture is interwoven throughout the music's derivation and subsequent worldwide proliferation. After this, things get a little less definite.

Lester Bowie (Art Ensemble of Chicago) once asked: "Is Jazz Dead, Yet?" He eloquently answered his own question by saying that although jazz has changed over the years, sometimes radically, the music has survived by virtue of its ability to change, adapting by taking on elements of newly discovered musical concepts. What was once jazz is different now and will continue to change in the future. In other words, in oxymoronic fashion, jazz is dead-- but thriving. Likewise, the uncertain origins of what became "jazz," at this point in history, are fluid and will continue to change as more information is added to the mix.

This newest attempt to uncover the beginnings of jazz has been unflinchingly billed as "The antidote to Ken Burns' Jazz," the PBS ten part series which garnered a great deal of attention in early 2001. The author's desire to go head to head with the most popular presentation of jazz in many years is good for him and good for jazz. Much like Miles Davis' belief that controversy brings attention to the music and gets more people listening--a debate on the details of when, where and how jazz began will accomplish this same goal. Unfortunately, at almost a thousand pages, only the most ardent jazz fan will take advantage of this well written, well-documented history of Jazz.

Mr. Shipman approaches this subject as a jazz historian. Professionally, he is a critic for The Times in London and presents jazz radio programs for the BBC network. It seems that almost any assertion presented in the book is painstakingly footnoted at least once. Admittedly though, since the evolution and spread of early jazz was something that occurred over many years (and it seems many places), the "facts' are sometime imprecise and the same events are often interpreted differently by those observing it. The birth of jazz, like other historical events relies on music, memory and early personal chronicles from inside and outside the circle of the events themselves. In these ambiguous situations, Mr. Shipton lays out his evidence and allows the reader to learn the different possibilities that may or may not lead to a definitive conclusion.

I invite you to get on this historical roller coaster that is jazz: The beginnings, the middle and the present are all included here for your consideration. Also, keep in mind the Columbia/Epic/Legacy two-CD collection "Jazz, the Definitive Performances," which is billed as an accompaniment to the Book. It begins with the 1917 recording of (Back Home Again In) Indiana by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and ends with Wynton Marsalis' Freedom Is In The Trying (1995). And, of course, like the book, there is a lot in the middle

Larry Dane-Kellogg is host of JazzCapades, a radio program on WHCJ in Savannah, GAThis newest attempt to uncover the beginnings of jazz has been unflinchingly billed as "The antidote to Ken Burns' Jazz," the PBS ten part series which garnered a great deal of attention in early 2001. The author's desire to go head to head with the most popular presentation of jazz in many years is good for him and good for jazz. Much like Miles Davis' belief that controversy brings attention to the music and gets more people listening--a debate on the details of when, where and how jazz began will accomplish this same goal.

Additional Info

  • Book Title: A New History of Jazz
  • Author: Alyn Shipton
  • Publisher: Continuum Pub Group
  • Year Published: 2001
  • Book Type:: Non-Fiction
  • ISBN: 826447546
  • Rating: Four Stars
  • Number of Pages: 965
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