Why Jazz? A Concise Guide

Oxford Univ. Jan. 2011. c.176p. illus. discog. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780199731183. $17.95. MUSIC
Whitehead, jazz critic for National Public Radio, tries to compete with Dirk Sutro's Jazz for Dummies with this book for those new to jazz. Arranging his material chronologically, he starts with basic concepts such as swinging, blue notes, and improvisation, then moves through the first four decades of jazz, discussing ragtime, 1920s jazz pioneers Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, and the big band sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. The author continues with chapters about bop and hard bop, plus recent developments, such as a fixation on the jazz tradition, "M-Base," and postmodern jazz. Writing in a conversational style and organizing the book as a series of questions, Whitehead summarizes the highlights of jazz but provides little context to his facts and seldom discusses why certain movements and artists rose to prominence. He could also have provided lists of prominent players by era and a brief guide to listening in place of his sections about musical theory, which will confuse novices.
VERDICT Though a good attempt, Why Jazz? will likely not replace more comprehensive titles. Sutro's Jazz for Dummies is a go-to intro.

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