'Why Jazz?' offers short answers to big questions

Downtown After Dark

Here’s a book that should be required reading for Jazz 101 courses worldwide.

“Why Jazz? A Concise Guide.” By Kevin Whitehead. (Oxford University Press, New York; 172 pages; $17.95/hardcover; 2011.)

While aimed primarily at novice jazz fans, more experienced aficionados will also enjoy the author’s easy-to-read prose style as he succinctly outlines the basics of the genre, from its New Orleans origins through the Swing Era, bebop, avant-garde and the postmodern period covering the last 30 years.

The writer, Kevin Whitehead, is a graduate of nearby SUNY Oswego and now reviews jazz for National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” Although he now lives near Austin, Texas, Whitehead dedicated this book to CNYers Anne and Dave Tiffany.

Though his personal tastes lean toward the music’s experimental edges, Whitehead does a yeoman job of summarizing the contributions of traditional artists such as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. But the author revels in his own milieu when writing about the creativity of avant garde artists such as Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn and Cecil Taylor.

Along the way, he examines often-overlooked recordings and provides pithy definitions of terms such as syncopation, the circle of fifths and the flatted fifth.

As suggested by its title, one of the most interesting things about “Why Jazz?” is that it’s formatted as a series of questions which the author answers. For instance, “Are jazz solos really improvised?” and “Why do jazz people go on so about Louis Armstrong?”

The short answer to the latter is “He influenced everybody. Of all the 1920s jazz soloists, he had the surest grasp of the subtleties and refinements of swing.”

Bix vs. Pops

Comparing Beiderbecke to Armstrong, Whitehead points out that Bix’s “tone set him apart, and he’d linger over odd notes that Armstrong might hit only in passing. His lines were more wistful and ethereal… but in truth his influence, profound as it is, has been nowhere near as extensive.”

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