With Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins has set out to do the impossible, and come surprisingly close to succeeding. The task is to recap the first, and only, century of America's indigenous music, in a fashion which is interesting to the novice as well as the veteran jazz listener. One reason he is able to pull this feat off is the excellent organization of the book. The main reason, however, is Giddins's obvious passion for the music, complemented by his impressive knowledge of jazz history and the artists who shaped it.
The book is divided into seven sections from Precursors to A Traditional Music. While the organization is primarily a chronology, or an evolution of the first 100 years of jazz, it does not strictly adhere to dates. For example, sandwiched between discussions of Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong is a section on contemporary musicians Hank Jones and Charlie Haden. I was surprised to see this initially, but after reading the section, which is a discussion of spirituals and their place in jazz history, I appreciated this more fluid approach to what is primarily a history lesson. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington also recur several times throughout the book, which is deserving since their presence was felt in different ways at different times. With most of the book dedicated to giants in jazz history, the inclusion of some lesser-knowns is a real treat. These people, such as Spencer Williams, Bobby Hackett, Spike Jones, and Chico O'Farrill really set this book apart from others of it's kind, not just by their inclusion, but in the fact that Giddins makes sense out of their place in history. Giddins clearly wants to make the reader understand and appreciate all the steps that this music has taken, as well as how the social and political climate affected it, and vice versa.
Visions of Jazz is a richly rewarding book, one that has a huge payoff if the reader invests the time and energy. Giddins's style is deliberate, with the material leaning more toward analysis than anecdote, and does a wonderful job of conveying his enthusiasm to the reader (one can glimpse just how affected he is by the music he has spent his life critiquing). A double CD produced by Giddins is available from Blue Note to coincide with this publication featuring many of the artists discussed in the book. This should be a great help, especially for those listeners who aren't as familiar with the people and styles being discussed. It could well serve as a primary teaching tool for jazz history courses, or just be enjoyed, listened to artist by artist.
Giddins has written about jazz for the last 25 years, chiefly as jazz critic for the Village Voice and has served as Music Director of the American Jazz Orchestra, which he founded in 1986. This is to say that he brings a lot of experience and knowledge to the subject he is examining. Perhaps the largest compliment I could pay Gary Giddins is one which he pays to many of his subjects: he has a distinct, unique voice. This is the goal for many a jazz musician, and many a writer, and Giddins achieves it in Visions of Jazz, one of the best books on the subject in quite some time.
Bill Carey is a graduate student in Music at DePaul University.