Even though it is only about 100 years old, jazz has developed so swiftly and in so many diverse ways as to make it a gargantuan task to record its history satisfactorily. Ted Gioia's book is the second edition of a history which was originally published in 1997. In the intervening years, Alyn Shipton has published his New History of Jazz (2001), a monumental work which certainly challenges Ted Gioia's slimmer volume.
Shipton's book drew heavily on first-hand accounts from jazz musicians - mostly interviewed by Alyn, whereas Gioia seems to have depended more on written and printed sources. Inevitably the two histories adopt differing approaches and stress different influences on the growth of jazz. One example is how each book treats Louis Gottschalk, who strikes me as an important figure in the development of ragtime (and hence jazz), since he was composing "raggy" pieces as early as the middle of the 19th century. Shipton doesn't mention him at all, and Gioia only refers to the "Latin tinge:" in one of his compositions.
A more radical difference between Gioia and Shipton is evident in their treatment of Norman Granz and his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. Shipton devotes several pages to the phenomenon, noting how Granz not only discovered the potential of live concert recordings but also promoted racial integration and encouraged the idea of "mainstream" jazz which employed musicians of various styles working together. I would question Shipton's description of Granz's concerts as encouraging a competitive spirit and an essentially conservative musical style, but he devotes reasonable space to an important feature of jazz, where Gioia virtually ignores it except for recognising how Granz promoted the career of Ella Fitzgerald.
Ted Gioia's description of Norman Granz includes a sentence ("Granz never paid much attention to keeping current angle") which is typical of the occasional sloppiness in parts of this book. Reviews don't usually criticise the typefaces used in books, but the print used here sometimes allows too little space, especially after full stops and commas, rendering reading uncomfortable.
Another flaw is that the index is inadequate. It omits the likes of Weather Report, Lyle Mays, Vic Dickenson, Les Paul, Quincy Jones and Dick Hyman, even though several of these are mentioned in the text. Bix Beiderbecke is mentioned in several more pages than are listed in the index. And Gioia cites two periodicals as possibly the earliest jazz magazines while overlooking Melody Maker which, despite not being entirely devoted to jazz, dates from some years earlier.
On the plus side, this book covers many aspects of jazz interestingly as well as clearly. The history of jazz is essentially the story of the individual musicians who formed and changed jazz. Thus a history can become a string of biographies, but Ted Gioia links these together skilfully so that the story flows smoothly.
I am particularly pleased at the amount of space the author devotes to Duke Ellington, in my opinion the outstanding genius in jazz. He explains why Duke employed the most distinctive musicians rather than necessarily the most accomplished, even though many of them turned out to be highly talented individuals.
The speedy development of jazz is illustrated by Gioia's final chapter, "Jazz in the New Millennium". This surveys such innovations as the way that many musicians now make and distribute their own albums, or sell their music on their websites. I would question Ted Gioia's belief that jazz musicians have become more serious. He cites not only Brad Mehldau's academic sleeve-notes but also asserts that a singer like Diana Krall has become "introspective and austere" (Gioia can't have seen the same Krall DVDs that I've been watching).
However, I would agree with Gioia that there has been a reduction in the combative attitudes which formerly existed between the fans of different forms of jazz. Many jazz enthusiasts now seem to accept that there are numerous styles of jazz and each one has its devotees. Jazz musicians also happily cross the borders between these different genres without any feeling of discomfort. Such breadth of vision is matched by a willingness to learn lessons from what has come to be called "World Music".
Earlier chapters of the book tend to describe jazz as a predominantly American phenomenon. For example, Gioia makes little mention of British jazzmen and only refers to such obvious European phenomena as the ECM label and the Hot Club of France. But his last chapter admits the importance of Europe and other regions as contributors of particular brands of jazz. And Gioia lists numerous influential European artists - from the Swedish Esbjorn Svensson to the Italian Stefano Bollani, and Martial Solal from France to Tomasz Stanko from Poland. Gioia also recognises the importance of Japan - not only as a source of many notable jazz players but also for its enthusiastic jazz audiences.
Jazz began as a hybrid, with a lineage that took in ragtime, the blues, classical music, marches, African-American rhythms and various other styles. In Gioia's words, it is "the most glorious of mongrels". Today it continues to accept numerous influences from all over the world, which help to make it a uniquely exciting musical medium. Ted Gioia manages to convey much of this excitement.