Originally published in: Village Voice, Dec. 1996

Jazz for Dummies

A couple of years ago I splurged on Rhino's R&B Box, six CDs spanning three decades of hits from 1942 through 1972. I'm old enough to have caught the Motown/Stax end the first time around, and over the years I thought I'd searched out most of the early stars of rock and roll. Indeed, just about everything on the latter five disks (post-1950, my birthdate) was familiar, but the first was bewildering: except for Louis Jordan, who I had belatedly discovered, and Johnny Otis, the only names that I recognized were jazz artists: Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet, Dinah Washington.

There are several good reasons for buying anthologies: as an introduction; for dependably diverse listening pleasure; to pick up on obscurities. I invested in The R&B Box as a mop-up operation, to figure out what I had missed, then spent the following year chasing down anything tangentially related. I found terrific collections of Joe Liggins, Percy Mayfield, Chuck Willis, Little Willie John. I found Rhino's marvelous Jump Blues and More Jump Blues anthologies. I found that the Ravens had a version of "Summertime" even more monumental than their "Old Man River." I found out that Frankie Lymon was a genius.

But most of all, I learned that my assumption that r&b (hence r&r) had evolved from Mississippi blues was off base -- probably just a myth that took root when the English Invasion blithely amalgamated Muddy Waters and Little Richard, when Eric Clapton catapulted Robert Johnson into the jet age. And the further I dug into the roots of r&b, the more jazz I discovered -- Lionel Hampton, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway. The other shoe finally fell when I picked up a copy of What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record and its first nominee was a cut featuring Illinois Jacquet, J.J. Johnson, Nat Cole, and Les Paul from Norman Granz's 1942 Jazz at the Philharmonic.

But jazz is a much broader river than blues, r&b, or r&r until it diversified into rock in the '70s. Dabbling in jazz over the past 20-some years, I had rarely warmed to anything pre-Ornette. This time I hit on classic jazz that signified: Louis Armstrong's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Duke Ellington's The Webster-Blanton Band, Coleman Hawkins' Anthology, Count Basie's Collected Decca Recordings, Fletcher Henderson's A Study in Frustration, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Jimmie Lunceford, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rushing, the list goes on and on. I read books, rummaged through the jazz guides, triangulated ratings, compiled shopping lists. I listened day in/day out, revised and repeated. Some 900 CDs later, I'm still learning new things. But at least I know the lay of the land.

In this project, jazz anthologies play a special role: they give me a chance to check what I know against the compiler's expertise, to fill in gaps and build frameworks. Most jazz anthologies are promo items, teases for their proprietors' backlists. Some are wonderful, but most are jumbles that never fit together. Just about the only systematic cross-label anthology around is The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, five CDs that stretch from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. It has the air of a grand statement, but occasionally looks better on paper than it sounds -- as on the disk that juxtaposes Duke Ellington with Charlie Parker with no apparent musical rationale. So it is encouraging that Rhino (Billy Vera and James Austin, who put The R&B Box together, and Will Friedwald, author of books on jazz singing and Frank Sinatra and compiler of Rhino's Great American Songwriters series) has come up with a seven-CD Masters of Jazz series, covering the '20s to the '60s, drawn from a wide range of sources, and conveniently available piecemeal.

The first two disks start out from Miles Davis's definition of jazz as "Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker." This approach bypasses the rich swing era (only partly covered on Big Bands of the '30s and '40s), thus exaggerating the disjunction between traditional and modern (bop) styles, but also making it easier to focus on each.

While Armstrong is the dominant figure on Traditional Jazz Classics, he is kept to four pieces (counting King Oliver, Clarence Williams, and Bessie Smith), barely a taste. The rest of the disk provides a fine survey of the spread of New Orleans-based jazz to Chicago and New York (where Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller enter the picture, albeit all too briefly). The other striking point is how integrated this music is: New Orleans hosted lively white jazz bands like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and the style was quickly picked up by white musicians elsewhere (who, for that matter, kept playing Dixieland long after blacks had moved on). Particularly noteworthy are Eddie Lang (guitar) and Jack Teagarden (trombone).

Bebop's Greatest Hits is even better -- not to mention more important, given how pervasively bebop influenced all subsequent jazz, and how difficult it can be to get a handle on. Or maybe that's just my problem. Coming at jazz from r&b gives me two grudges from the start: the beboppers' belief that they were too good for the foursquare swing rhythm r&b is based on, and their subsequent transformation of jazz from popular music into art music. Moreover, the adulation accorded Charlie Parker has always annoyed me, in large part because I can hardly ever hear whatever is being praised -- his "blues" and his supposed rhythmic originality as well as his famous harmonic modulations. Even when his playing is clearly virtuosic, he almost never convinces me. So it's a real compliment for me to acknowledge that Bebop's Greatest Hits does an exceptional job of giving bebop in general, and Parker in particular, a fair hearing.

Bebop's Greatest Hits starts with the hard stuff, a one/two punch of Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" and Parker's "Ko Ko." With its angular rhythms, soaring trumpet, and chant hook, "Salt Peanuts" is instantly catchy. "Ko Ko," on the other hand, races through an amazing series of reckless changes. The next piece, by a band that includes but doesn't feature Coleman Hawkins, is basically "Ko Ko Redux," neatly toned down to give you an idea how bebop would survive once the radicalism wore off. Then come two more Parker performances, good ones even by my standards -- I credit the more swinging Lucky Thompson, but Parker does play beautifully on "Yardbird Suite." The disk ends with Clifford Brown in 1954, when hard bop was starting to put the music back into bop. There are a couple of Gillespie showcases, a taste of Monk, Miles Davis (and Lee Konitz) giving birth to the cool, and great Bud Powell with a very young Sonny Rollins. Only George Shearing seems out of place -- I would've much preferred another Monk, with Milt Jackson this time.

Big Bands of the '30s and '40s covers '30s big band swing expertly but all too briefly, then favors the less famous modernist-oriented bands of the '40s (Earl Hines, Jay McShann, Billy Eckstine, although Lionel Hampton's r&b landmark, "Flying Home," is also spotlighted). The only mistake is Gillespie's "Manteca," a great performance also on Bebop's Greatest Hits. It's a superb appetizer, but needs more Ellington (and Basie) to truly become a feast. Big bands barely survived into the '50s, what with disruptions like World War II, diversions like television, and the outbreak of undanceable for-musicians-only jazz, ultimately becoming vehicles for composers rather than dancers. Big Bands of the '50s and '60s does a good job of sorting this out, keeping artists prone to excess (Woody Herman, Stan Kenton) within tasteful limits, finding nifty pieces by Maynard Ferguson and Gerald Wilson, sneaking in vehicles for soulful ringers like Stanley Turrentine and Jimmy Smith when their studio bands reached the requisite body count. The only great stuff here is Ellington, naturally, and Charles Mingus, who makes a wondrous noise.

The series finishes with two disks of vocals and the diverse and relentlessly pleasant Jazz Hit Singles, which to Billy Vera recalls "more enlightened times [when] top 40 radio stations often played jazz singles, especially if they were very short, as lead-ins to the news each half hour." Beyond Charles Mingus, whose Billboard chart position is not noted, the rest makes ideal dinner background and is recommended for waiting rooms everywhere, especially if your dentist will promise to program out Wes Montgomery's pop-into-muzak "Windy."

The two vocal volumes are weaker, partly because jazz vocals became increasingly marginal in the postbop era, partly because the compilers deviate from the conventional taste that serves them so well elsewhere, showing a inordinate fondness for strings and vocalese, and omit way too many major singers, including Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Helen Humes, Dinah Washington, and Sheila Jordan.

The first half of Female Vocal Classics is excellent nonetheless, with classic Billie Holiday, two Ella Fitzgerald scats, and stellar assists from Roy Eldridge and Duke Ellington. But the second half, which features June Christy, Betty Carter, and a bunch of obscure lounge singers with string orchestras, does no better than Nina Simone's turbid reading of Ellington's "I Got It Bad." I hate it when jazz critics put down something they disdain (often late Miles Davis) by declaring it Not Jazz. Nevertheless, it's awful hard to figure out what Gloria Lynne and Etta Jones are doing here. (Lynne doesn't even merit a mention in Friedwald's book.)

The best of Male Vocal Classics cannot match Billie or Ella, obviously, but on the whole the collection is more amiable. Friedwald is inordinately fond of smooth-voiced crooners like Billy Eckstine, Jackie Paris, and Mel Torme, none of whom cut much mustard here. And he gives us Nat Cole with strings, forgetting that people of my age never thought of him as a jazz singer because we always heard him that way. But the real dead spot occurs with two hunks of vocalese (King Pleasure slaps words onto "Moody Mood for Love" like so much stucco, and Jon Hendricks's contrived "Cloudburst" goes every which way but bop) separated by Chet Baker reciting "My Funny Valentine." High points are a Joe Williams/Count Basie blues blast and Eddie Henderson's "Seņor Blues."

Still, I can't help but wonder just how useful the Jazz Masters disks really are. The stuff that gets passed over -- small group swing, cool, hard bop, soul jazz, fusion, the avant-garde -- isn't merely important: it is the very music that is most accessible and most interesting to nonjazz fans. Additional volumes might help. But the more basic question is whether it is even possible to edit an anthology that provides as good and general an introduction to jazz as, say, The R&B Box provides to the black pop of the postwar era. Probably not. But you can have fun, and learn a thing or two, trying.