Visions of Jazz

It isn’t easy getting a handle on a genre that ranges from the smooth swing of a Benny Goodman to the jagged edges of an Ornette Coleman but Gary Giddins’ ‘Visions of Jazz’ (ISBN: 0-19-507675-3) is a beautiful book that makes delightful reading for any jazz lover.

Gary Giddins is passionate about jazz and that’s a thrill for readers at almost every point throughout his “Visions of Jazz,” especially since he mixes his emotional attachment with scholarly research and a fluidly engrossing style of writing.

One of the first orders of business is coming to grips with the scope of this wide-ranging genre. In 79 chapters, he covers everything from the early minstrel shows to free jazz, with something intriguing to say about each performer and all the various twists of the many changing approaches to the genre.

“The one truth about jazz of which I am certain,” he writes, “is that it incarnates liberty, often with a perversely proud intransigence, merging with everything and borrowing anything, yet ultimately riding alone.”

book - Visions of JazzAnother strong positive is how his persipicatious views are presented via assured prose. Consider this wonderful sentence: “Through much of its history, jazz made avid converts with the simple promise of undying excitement, whether maximized by throbbing rhythms, bloodcurdling high notes, violent polyphony, layered riffs, hyperbolic virtuosity, fevered exchanges, or carnal funk.”

To which one is tempted to reply, Man, I’m hip.

Of Jazz and Classical Music

Giddins is rightfully concerned about jazz suffering the same fate as classical music in the U.S. After just a few paragraphs in the book’s Introduction, he unleashes this:

Sounds good, no? Yet many ruefully recall a vanished age when what we now call classical music was a vital, transfiguring, seductive, and galling art, often improvised, that spoke to people’s lives and kept them on their toes. It was also popular. Then the institutions took over and retailored it into a malleable craft and fixed repertory, easily channeled from one orchestra to another, for the amusement of the upper middle-class shopper out on a cultural excursion, the fat-cat subscriber whose season boxes entertain clients and friends, and children who eat their spinach… The louts who rioted at the debut of Le Sacre du printemps now seem quaintly admirable in their concern. In the age of the Three Tenors, when superstar virtuosos record themes from Oscar-winning movies (a task previously left to studio hacks), the concert series subscriber may be identified by a lobotomized grin.

Jazz is seen as a potential antidote to that lobotomized grin and not just because of the trading back-and-forth with classical music (“Royal Garden Blues” being interpreted by Darius Milhaud in La creation du monde or great writer/arrangers like Billy Strayhorn creating jazz from a classical format, to name just two examples), but also because of the sheer joy of those moments of inspiration that reach out to listeners and transport them atop or even inside the melody of a song.

There are qualifications to a scholarly approach to the music, as Giddins notes in discussing the musical advances of Louis Armstrong: “Implicit in the liberties Armstrong took, and in the rise of jazz itself, is the assumption that musicians are superior to the songs they perform — a radical stance by classical principles, where a performance is evaluated by its fidelity to the text. In jazz, performance is the text.”

Pithy Commentary

Some of the observations in Giddins’ book are priceless. I could give you dozens of examples but consider these two sentences on Frank Sinatra: “Though he may have been, at his much documented worst, a foul-mouthed misogynist, unthinking lout, violent drunk, friend to criminals, sore loser, and political hypocrite, he was first and last The Voice.”

And: “Many people give no thought to his technical virtuosity until they sing along with a record and find themselves gasping for air as Sinatra casually plots a sixteen-bar phrase with one exhalation, too subtly manipulated for you to notice anything but the absolute dramatic rightness of his decision.”

Here is another observation that almost seems to be a photo essay using words: “By the late ’40s, the press and many musicians had established bebop, or bop, as a kind of cult, as though it were less a music than a lifestyle, complete with flashy clothing, dark glasses, berets, beards, secret handshakes, and an extensive lingo of jive talk.”

On the twin subjects of bop and rock, it rarely gets any better than Giddins: “Yet bop, as initially presented, was surely the most demanding virtuoso music ever to take root in the American vernacular, much as rock and roll, as initially presented, was very likely the most elemental.” (BTW, based on comments throughout the book, Giddins does not appear to be anti-rock, just pro-jazz.)


No discussion of jazz can exist without some acknowledgement of Charles “Yardbird” Parker and Giddins does not disappoint:

A virtuoso alto saxophonist, Parker was the only musician after [Louis] Armstrong to influence all of jazz and almost every aspect of American music — its instrumentalists and singers, composers and arrangers. By 1955, his innovations could be heard everywhere: in jazz, of course, but also in rock and roll, country music, film and television scores, and symphonic works. Parker altered the rhythmic and harmonic currents of music, and produced a body of melodies — or more to the point, a way of melodic thinking — that became closely identified with the idea of jazz as a personal intellectual modern music.


For anyone who has ever wondered if their unique creative path is worth the trials and tribulations they are often made to suffer, Giddins has these words of wisdom regarding Thelonious Sphere Monk:

Although a small coterie of musicians (notably Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell) esteemed him from the beginning, he labored in solitude for much of his most creative period. His records were ignored, his compositions pilfered, his instrumental technique patronized, his personal style ridiculed. Yet no voice in American music was more autonomous and secure than Monk’s, and no voice in jazz relied more exclusively on jazz itself for its grammar and vision.

For all of that, it is a shame that Giddins devotes just 10 pages to Monk. For comparison, here are the page counts for several other figures: Charlie Parker, 22. Miles Davis, 16. Charles Mingus, 11. Cecil Taylor, 12. John Coltrane, 14. Duke Ellington, 46. David Murray, 10. Muhal Richard Abrams, 8. Louis Armstrong, 19. Modern Jazz Quartet, 26.

This ‘n’ That

The Index is pretty bad other than as an alphabetical listing of people who appear in the book, but that’s just a minor annoyance in a work that is so open to all the sonic and rhythmic possibilities of jazz. And ya gotta love these lines at the start of his Acknowledgements: “In a book that attempts to spot check a hundred or so years of jazz, I begin with two blackface comedians and conclude with a jazz clarinetist playing Webern. Need I add that at no time in this work’s long gestation was it conceived as a conventional critique or history?”

Getting Back to the Roots

In a lot of music, jazz included, everything often comes back to the blues, as Giddins so beautifully puts it:

The miracle of the blues is its endurance, which is probably inseparable from its elemental logic and its strenuous integrity. Almost anyone can be led to a piano and taught to hammer out the rudiments of a blues chorus. It takes only a matter of minutes to learn. Yet pianists who are great virtuosos in other idioms have spent years shoveling one blues chorus after another without getting close to the genuinely creative or satisfying blues. American born and bred, the blues is quintessentially American in form and function. It epitomizes progress and transition. Unlike the symphony, sonata, or concerto, the blues has no beginning, middle, or end. It is a building block; the number of blocks, or choruses, required to complete the building is usually decided on the spur of the moment. Not only have millions of such choruses been played without exhausting the form and its possibilities, but the fact of its constancy has underscored the challenge of keeping it meaningful. The blues remains the outer domain of musical exploration. You enter every chorus at peril, tempted by cliché and banality. Yet when you negotiate the trip perfectly, whether a single stanza or a whole series of them finessed with expeditious turnbacks, nothing in art is more satisfying.

Striking Observations

Giddins continually offers ways of approaching all facets of jazz and I urge anyone who likes any of the sub-genres (swing, bop, third stream, big band, avant-garde) to give a couple of minutes to his views on all of them. His brilliant description of Cecil Taylor’s piano playing as being like “Count Basie on mescaline” almost made me spill the coffee I was sipping at the time. Some of the hot liquid would have struck my eyes but this is a jazz book and I was reading it while wearing shades. ‘Cause, remember, I’m hip.

Gary Giddins on jazz:

More information about the book (publisher’s website): .

* * *

This original review is Copr. © 2014 by John Scott G and originally published on – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. No fee or other consideration was paid to the reviewer, this site or its publisher by any third party for this unbiased article. Editorial illustration based on book jacket created by and © Christopher L. Simmons. Reproduction or republication in whole or in part without express permission is prohibited except under fair use provisions of international copyright law.