A Non-Review

In the words of Edward R. Murrow, this just might do nobody any good. Murrow said those words at the beginning of a speech which was sharply critical of television, a medium that had presented Murrow with success and recognition. I am about to about to make the same leap. I do not relish this opportunity. While I apologize ahead of time for hurt feelings, I feel that I must write these words to encourage a higher level of writing and scholarship in the field of jazz history.

Call this a “non-review”. The book in question has absolutely no business residing alongside the other fine volumes reviewed in earlier issues of this website. For purposes of identification, I will tell you that it is titled “Experiencing Big Band Jazz” and that it was written by Jeff Sultanof, but I will not provide a purchase link, because I don’t want you to buy it. This book is a particularly egregious example of shoddy work which was pushed into the marketplace without recognition of its responsibilities or consequences. The book is a “listener’s guide”: a branch of jazz history literature that tells the story of jazz through discussion of historical recordings. I have an abiding passion for this sub-genre. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I built my record collection based on suggestions from the original 6-LP set, “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” and a book called “The 101 Best Jazz Albums”. The author/compilers of these sources, Martin Williams and Len Lyons respectively, took great care in including recordings that contributed to jazz’s evolution, and their essays provided solid defenses for their selections. It wasn’t necessary to agree with all of their choices—and I didn’t—but it was clear why these recordings were included in their collections. Like most jazz authors, I have written pieces in this genre. When I developed and taught a jazz history course as my undergraduate honors thesis in college, I compiled an audio history of the music on 22 cassettes, and wrote a 500-page book of listening notes to accompany the tapes. My Master’s thesis (portions of which appear elsewhere on this site) walked readers through Marty Paich’s dektette recordings, and “A Selection of Singers”, an audio/visual history of vocal jazz, followed the Smithsonian model. Also, many articles on this website use the listener’s guide approach to discuss historical recordings by iconic musicians.

When Sultanof’s book arrived in my mailbox, I was quite disappointed in the contents. Initially, I rejected the book, but was forced to reconsider it when another book’s size and focus proved too unwieldy for inclusion in this issue. When I examined Sultanof’s selections, I thought that many of the tracks had merit, and I was happily surprised to see discussions of big bands that were usually ignored in historical surveys. Those qualities, plus a handful of significant passages where Sultanof points out important elements occurring within the recordings, led me to believe that the book might deserve a positive review. Apparently, I found all of the good parts in my initial perusal, for when I read the book in its entirety, I found precious little to endear me to the work.

One major issue with the book is stated in the introduction: The neat thing is that you don’t have to spend one penny to listen to the examples cited in this book; all but one of them…are on the Web via YouTube or Spotify. Really? You want to encourage your readers to steal music? YouTube and Spotify are notorious for paying a pittance of royalties to artists (as in pennies for hundreds of streaming plays). I’ve used YouTube links and Spotify lists on this website as they are valuable tools for education, but they do not represent the end of the buying cycle. After I bought my copies of “Classic Jazz” and the Lyons book, I spent thousands of dollars on records which I either found in a store or—more often—special ordered. And, then as now, I was glad to do so, in order to pay the musicians for their work. At the other end of Sultanof’s book, he offers suggestions for further listening. Does he offer ways to purchase these recordings? No, he just gives more YouTube links! To reiterate an argument that I have made on these pages for the past several years: CDs are not dead; they are still manufactured, bought and sold. And if you’re not into physical discs, then download—but please do so legally.

As to Sultanof’s selected recordings, I have no problem endorsing an author’s personal choices, provided that they can defend their choices through their writing. I listened to several of the tracks with Sultanof’s book in hand, and I was shocked at the number of missed opportunities in the text. Yes, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke were important soloists, but where is the discussion of their differences and similarities? One of the Beiderbecke tracks with Paul Whiteman is “Changes”, a song with lyrics which specifically refer to the work of an arranger. Why isn’t this important connection mentioned or discussed? Later, there’s a 1933 Spike Hughes track with back-to-back solos by Chu Berry and Coleman Hawkins. At that time, the two tenor men were virtually indistinguishable from each other, but their paths diverged and by 1939, they were easily identifiable as unique soloists. Sultanof never follows the lead. Sultanof’s description of Bennie Moten’s “Moten Swing” notes that the saxophone section quotes the original tune “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, but fails to discuss the incredible ensemble swing which defined the Kansas City swing style. On either end of the historical spectrum, Sultanof seems to have completely lost interest: the James Reese Europe track essays are filled with non-information like “clarinets play the melody under muted trumpet growls” (Really? You don’t think that listeners can hear that for themselves?), while Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count”, one of the most heart-wrenching ballads ever recorded by Johnny Hodges with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, gets a grand total of three unemotional sentences from Sultanof’s pen

I don’t know who—if anyone—edited this book for content. Famous names are dropped throughout the text without any explanation of their significance. Musical concepts like polytonality and swing rhythm are not mentioned, supposedly because someone thought that those ideas were too advanced for non-musicians. I taught jazz history for laymen, and I discovered that any musical concept can be broken down to its elements and explained in simple terms. You don’t have to be a musician to count measures, recognize song forms, or—to the point here—understand that using two keys simultaneously has artistic viability, and that the Moten and Basie bands were phrasing off the beat as a unit in order to propel the rhythmic aspects of their music.

OK, enough. This book deserves no more of my time, and no more of yours. Sad to say, it is part of a series of listener guides from Rowman and Littlefield, and as a result of my experience with this volume, I have no desire to examine the other books. There are plenty of other books that can help newcomers to this music (specifically Ted Gioia’s “How to Listen to Jazz”) so there is no need to bother with Sultanof’s poorly-written addition to the genre.

At the end of Edward R. Murrow’s speech, he said of television, This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. Jazz contains all of those same qualities. Jazz writers and educators must strive to be those humans determined to communicate the rich jazz legacy to a younger generation. If we don’t, we take the risk that the music we love will someday become a dead art. 

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