on August 14, 2002
I had some thoughts of using this as a text in a jazz history course, but it's probably better suited to jazz aficionados and "adult" learners (I tend to attract 18-year olds). Giddins may very well be the best jazz writer on the present-day scene, admirably carrying on in the tradition of Martin Williams, Leonard Feather, Gunther Schuller and Nat Hentoff. The sketches, retrospectives and evaluations in this collection are guaranteed to inform as well as provide fresh perspectives on things already known. Perhaps Feather and Hentoff are better at providing some of the first-hand personal information that helps a reader join the music to the musician, the musician to the human being. The making of this music does not come without great physical risks and costs, and it's always fascinated me how jazz artists have come to terms and compensated for weakened chops (Diz), altered timbre (Sarah), or a foreclosing mortage on one's time (Duke). Perhaps it's to his credit that Giddins avoids the merely anecdotal along with amateur psychologizing, though such details can often spell the difference between the glimpse that is insightful and the one that is memorable.
on May 30, 2000
Gary Giddins has performed a remarkable feat. He has covered one hundred years of jazz history in one volume. At 700 pages it is big for sure but it is well researched and very readable. At first glance it appears that Giddins has structured and organized the book in the worst possible way by having one chapter on each of the seminal figures of jazz history, and in semi chronological order.
The pitfall here is that it lends itself to a book that looks like lots of note cards strung together. This structure can also obscure the larger picture; jazz is not just the history of a bunch of individuals. Giddins very skillfully avoids both of these traps. Each chapter is well researched, filled with anecdotes about the musician or group, and through the chapters flows the larger background of the historic movements and issues in the development of jazz.
Giddins also approaches jazz with a refreshing "inclusiveness" and wastes precious little energy in defining what jazz is or in dismissing various movements as "unpure" or other such nonsense. In fact he makes the point right up front that jazz owes as much to popular music for its genesis as it does to spirituals or black folk music. In the chapter on Irving Berlin he points out that Tin Pan Alley was a mixture of black, Jewish and other ethnic blends of music, and in fact, Berlin was even accused of having an underground railroad of black song writers in his back room that he was ghosting for. And this, at the time, was not meant as a compliment..
Of course, jazz cannot be discussed in a vacuum and race plays an important part in its history. Giddins adds two bits of trivia, which I find speak volumes in themselves about where we are and where we have come from. One was that Al Jolson lobbied Gershwin for the part of Porgy. He, thankfully, did not get it. Second was that Ellington's all black orchestra played in an Amos and Andy movie in the 30's and the producer had the lighter skinned members of the orchestra blacked up with makeup for the scenes. I suppose this was to dispel any idea in the minds of the movie audience that the band might be integrated.
The book lacks a recommended discography, which would have been valuable. Giddins does comment on the recordings of his subjects in their respective chapters so that is a big help. There is a 2 CD companion set with the same title which is a nice-to-have but it is largely an afterthought and the only connecting material is the 4 inch square flimsy comment sheets that come with the CD which does not really relate back to the book itself.
This is a essential book for any jazz lovers library.
on October 21, 1998
I have always been interested in jazz but I was intimidated by it. The wonderful thing about Giddins's writing is the way it draws you into the music and makes you want to listen; also the incredible range of music discussed, from Jelly Roll Morton to Joshua Redman with excursions into singers, songwriters, and other people ("sidesteppers" Giddins calls them) who have influenced or been influenced by jazz. The chapters on musical humor--specifically Fats Waller and Spike Jones--are a revelation. Giddins has the ability to analyze a solo note for note and keep you enthralled; when you finally get the record, you hear it in a different way, for example Armstrong's Tight Like That or Coleman Hawkins's One Hour or Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca or Sarah Vaughan's Thinking of You, and dozens of others. By the time you get to the book's last three words--"Jazz is everywhere"--you feel that Giddins has more than made the case for the universality of this music. This is a great book.
on February 16, 2002
Gary Giddins is probably the most articulate and learned jazz critic in the USA. This is an outstanding contribution to jazz scholarship. Its format is deceptively conventional in its linearity: it runs through the century through portraits of the musicians themselves, in chronological/thematic groupings. But it urges the reader forward with an exciting, fully engaged narrative that expertly interweaves the complementary and conflicting elements of the jazz tradition like counterpoint in a fugue. Giddins' infectious enthusiasm and enchanting storytelling skill make this an irresistible read. Unfortunately it falls slightly short of a comprehensive reference work; the index of recordings serves only as a vague guide to the aspiring collector, and the index of names is helpful, but not as powerful as a full index. A full index and coherent discography would have enhanced an already highly recommendable work.
on July 5, 2002
Veteran jazz critic Gary Giddins is immensely articulate and intelligent, and yet so readable and user-friendly. As erudite as he is, he never pontificates, or "talks down" to the reader, as many jazz writers often do. Few writers can "hear" the music as well as he does -- and he somehow transmits this to the reader. Not content to be merely an historian, Giddins can also analyze a Charlie Parker solo with the best of them (as he does here), and his musical knowledge is formadible. He provides telling accounts and anecdotal information of the great jazz players and singers with great authority, a strong command of the language and an intrinsic love for this music. Of the dozens of books on jazz I have read, this is still my favorite. Each refreshing chapter stands on its own, and as a jazz player and teacher, I simply can't recommend a better book than "Visions of Jazz".
on October 21, 1998
I bought Visions of Jazz as a gift for a friend who is a music lover. I started reading through it and after two chapters I knew I wasn't giving it away. This is a book that you read first for pleasure and then reread as a reference. The book is a compilation of biographies that reads like a novel. The historical references, music criticism and wonderful narratives about the artists give the book depth and bring the music alive. I purchased the accompanying CD, which is great background music while reading or doing anything else. Mr. Giddins has such a profound knowledge and love of music that you can't help but want to be part of his world and vision. I bought another copy for my friend, it was too good to keep to myself.
on December 29, 2001
This is avery informative guide and will appeal to those who know "something" about jazz, but really don't know that much about specific eras or classic jazz artists. The book does not include some important players, but such a thing is not avoidable. My only concern was the lack of consistent referencing of classic or otherwise notable recordings. In some chapters, Giddins provides titles and record lables, as well as choice cuts. In others, he'll say something like "Ella Fitzgerald's classic 1945 recording" and its up to the reader to see if any of the 400 available Fitzgerald recordings might be the one.
on May 11, 2000
I am 57 years old, a white, suburban male, with almost no experience in jazz. I know what I like, but I don't know why, and although I enjoy older generations of singers and songs, many of the people in this book are unfamiliar beyond their names. That is the triumph of this book. It is so well written, so beautiful and rapsodic,so educational and entertaining, I want to learn more, hear more, and find the connections. The only thing I wish were included were photographs and a 10 cd set to hear the music the author refers to. Now, I have to get a saxophone or trumpet !
on March 17, 2001
This is an indispensible book on jazz and essential reading for all lovers of this music. The book's format consists of chapters on individual artists. It can be read as a reader selecting the chapters of interest. Reading the book as a whole, it reads as a novel with interconnecting parts. Giddins' style sets the artists within the context of their times and provides a great deal of insight on the men and women who created jazz. Five big stars.
on May 13, 1999
This is an outstanding, invaluable guide to jazz. I recommend it fully, with just one caveat -- not enough coverage of the incredible influence of Brazilian music (percussion, bossa nova, rhythms, MPB composers) on jazz. For that reason, one should also consult "The Brazilian Sound" (Temple University Press) as a supplement to this work.