January 21, 2011
WE'RE WITH REX:
Appreciating music of contrasts: a review of WHY JAZZ?: A CONCISE GUIDE
By Kevin Whitehead (William F. Gavin, 1/18/11, The Washington Times)
It is the great virtue of "Why Jazz?" that Kevin Whitehead, jazz critic of National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," is not an absolutist. It used to be said that anyone who immediately appreciated new and different musical approaches in jazz "had ears." Mr. Whitehead has ears, and a catholicity of taste to accurately describe, although not necessarily subscribe to, different kinds of jazz. He possesses the critical tools to differentiate between the authentic and the bogus, and he has a clear writing style that enables him (for the most part) to write about complicated music in an understandable way, although I think some readers may be a bit baffled, as I was, by the complexities of post-1980 innovations.Posted by Orrin Judd at January 21, 2011 5:04 AM
His definition of jazz - "a music of rhythmic contrasts, featuring personalized performance techniques that usually involve improvisation ... its aesthetic reveals a strong African American character, no matter who is playing it or where" - is useful as far as it goes, besides being admirably succinct. In 172 pages, Mr. Whitehead manages to offer informed, concise and jargon-free insights into every kind of jazz and every important innovator, and does so in a reader-friendly style that should appeal to jazz fans and those who simply want to learn a bit more about the music.
His approach is to ask questions (more than 100 of them by my rough count) such as "Was the swing era only about big bands?" or "Why do jazz musicians quote from other songs in a tune or solo?" or "How did Miles Davis react to the avant-garde?"- and then give brief and informative answers. This format frees him from being confined to a strictly chronological or thematic approach, which can be deadly dull, and offers the reader a chance to skip ahead or go back without missing the thread of the author's argument.
But what exactly is Mr. Whitehead's argument? He states it on the first page in answer to the question: "Why listen to jazz?" His answer is: "It's fun to listen to. Everything else follows from that." Bravo, Mr. Whitehead.