The cultural and social changes brought about by the emergence of R&B in the ’40s and rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s are now entrenched and commonplace. But many jazz fans, particularly those who came of age during the swing or bop eras, are still unable to accept rock’s preeminence in American popular culture. Indeed, one of the sharpest divides among jazz critics is between those who consider rock the ultimate musical enemy and those who have embraced the music.
It’s a debate that underlies several current jazz books, foremost among them a new collection by Gene Lees. His 1987 book, Singers and the Song, was a superb behind-the-scenes look at vocalists and lyricists. Now Singers and the Song II (Oxford) combines new chapters with reprints of the best segments from the first edition.
The opening chapter revisits Lees’ incisive work on the songwriting process, with the author going into enough detail to explain how certain vowels and consonants are easier to sing than others. Of the new chapters, the best sections are lengthy portraits of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jackie & Roy. Each of these profiles is filled with personal details and anecdotes that could only come from a true insider. (Lees himself has enjoyed success as a lyricist, having written words for songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Johnny Mercer; he’s also the publisher of Jazzletter, a superb monthly chronicle of arts and letters.)
Lees’ hatred of rock is thorough and complete; he blames it for the demise of everything from radio networks to literacy. Whether the reader shares his perception, few writers are better able to present their viewpoint; fortunately, Lees’ work is balanced enough to keep it from being overly vitriolic.
Current Lincoln Center artistic director Stanley Crouch is another ardent anti-rock scribe, and Always in Pursuit (Random House) collects his most recent set of essays. Crouch, once a free-jazz champion and left-wing activist, has since shifted his politics far to the right; he spends more time in this book bashing the left than he does covering jazz. Still, when he does write about jazz, he offers deep musical knowledge and cultural insight. His essay on Duke Ellington brilliantly debunks the psychobabble advanced by such writers as James Lincoln Collier, and his look at Louis Armstrong also offers some first-rate analysis.
Because he’s such a superb writer, Crouch’s diatribes against hip-hop, Prince, and Michael Jackson are entertaining, if at times nearly obsessive. But his political and social commentary never matches up his to musical essays, mainly because it tends to read like reworked Ralph Ellison or updated George Schuyler.
On the other side of the debate are Gene Santoro and Mikal Gilmore, jazz critics who enjoy rock and urge jazz fans to broaden their horizons. Santoro’s second collection of essays, Stir It Up (Oxford) spends equal time discussing jazz, rock, and world music. He’s among the few writers able to discuss Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Ornette Coleman, and Cuban and Hawaiian musics, and he finds ways to make each of his subjects appealing to anyone with an open mind. Whether or not you enjoy all of the artists Santoro profiles, you certainly won’t be bored.
The same holds true for Gilmore’s Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll (Doubleday), although the subject matter here tends more heavily toward pop music. Gilmore has written for both Downbeat and Rolling Stone, but it’s apparent that Doubleday considers his rock material more commercially potent. There are overly long chapters on punk and new wave, and Marvin Gaye and Al Green get short shrift while pieces on Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Bruce Springsteen are bloated with information that has been printed countless times over the years.
The rare jazz chapters are so good, it’s a disgrace the publishers didn’t decide to include more. Gilmore keenly profiles Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, discussing their wary view of critics and their conflicted feelings about courting widespread popularity. In other chapters, he insightfully shows the impact blues and R&B music has had on rock artists such as Lou Reed.
Stuart Nicholson has previously written celebrated books on ’80s jazz and Ella Fitzgerald, but his newest work ventures into somewhat controversial terrain. Jazz RockA History (Schirmer) profiles those musicians and composers who in the late ’60s and early ’70s merged two styles that many felt were incompatible. Nicholson has the musical skills to write authoritatively about the movement, and he writes with integrity and honesty. In one of his more interesting points, he discusses how record company greed ultimately killed the creative energies of such intriguing groups as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic band, and Miles Davis’ electric outfits.
Nicholson covers the entire scene, from the first editions of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago to such current stars as Dave Weckl and the Yellowjackets. He maintains that jazz-rock has been unfairly maligned by conservative jazz critics, but he also views the smooth-jazz phenomenon as the ultimate betrayal of the music’s initial promise. Few jazz books are more balanced or more complete, although Nicholson’s volume could have devoted more space to such groups as Defunkt and Oliver Lake’s Jump Up.
A bad rap
It’s not about jazz, but hip-hop journalist Ronin Ro’s newest book has tongues wagging. Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise & Violent Fall of Death Row Records (Doubleday) shows in unrelenting detail how ballooning egos, unethical conduct, and brutish tactics led to both the rise and the demise of Death Row Recordsand, by extension, of hip-hop.
An insider with extensive connections, Ro presents Death Row CEO and founder Marion “Suge” Knight as a man who uses physical intimidation to get artists to sign contracts and to break pacts with other companies and managers. Knight is a complicated figure, someone with enough vision to see that the major labels didn’t really understand the rising popularity of gangsta rap, nor know how to relate to its stars.
Knight’s ultimate goal was to make Death Row a hip-hop equivalent of Motown, and at one point he nearly succeeded. But in the process, his actions may have contributed to the violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. He certainly exploited East Coast vs. West Coast tensions and perpetuated the stereotype of rappers as little more than gun-toting thugs.
Ro doesn’t attempt to justify the stories of vicious conduct that permeate his book. He knows enough about the music and artists to make a solid analysis of gangsta rap, but he doesn’t make any wide-ranging conclusions about its impact. He does, however, lament the music’s overemphasis on guns and violence. Thus Have Gun Will Travel could well end up being the bible of the anti-rap movement. At the same time, it’s a tribute to ingenuity and a document of how greed and unchecked behavior can torpedo any enterprise.
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