All That’s Jazz is the latest book by writer and jazz critic, Sammy Stein, a columnist for All About Jazz, Jazz In Europe and Kind Of Jazz. The book is described as being about the passion of jazz music – how it has evolved, and how that has impacted everyone involved in the industry, from musicians to record labels, jazz clubs to festivals.
Anyone who has read Sammy’s countless CD and gig reviews will know that she is eminently qualified to address these topics; after all, her passion for jazz comes across in her writing, which draws the reader in, leaving them eager to learn more about the artist concerned. That being said, this book took Sammy out of her comfort zone, taking a step back from her thoughts on individual performances, to an analysis of the nuts and bolts of the jazz portion of the music industry.
The book opens with a section on ‘what exactly is jazz music’, which is a tougher question to answer than ever before. Older musicians might well argue – and some do - that what passes as jazz now is in some cases not worthy of the label. But that was always the case, as Sammy rightly argues, even when new styles of classical and pop music emerged over the years. The fact is, jazz has had to adapt to survive, and what has emerged is probably more vibrant than twenty years ago.
The second section of the book is entitled ‘A Bit Of History’; as the chapter title suggests, it makes no attempt to provide a detailed history – that would require a book in itself – but it does provide some necessary context to what follows. To the author’s credit, some of the background to the origins of jazz was new to me, and very interesting and informative. The history was less compelling when it came to more recent history, with arguably too much emphasis on free jazz – admittedly the more improvised element of jazz – than some of the other genres that perhaps kept the flame burning, such as fusion, jazz-funk, perhaps even ‘European’ jazz as a strand. But then again, this was only ever intended to be a brief history – and it would be impossible to cover too much ground in so little space.
The vast majority of the book is effectively a survey of the state of (primarily) European jazz today. Sammy examines labels in jazz – asking whether musicians like to be categorized, and the role of record labels themselves, even going as far as to discuss how they survive in this era of streaming and downloads. There is also a discussion as to what it means to be a jazz musician now – what it takes to start out, how musicians gain experience these days, and the impact it can have on family life.
Chapter five examines the live music scene; as a London-based jazz journalist, the live scene feels vibrant, but Sammy casts the net a lot wider, and looks at what is happening around the UK, over in Europe, and even parts of the United States. Clubs have been and gone, but there stills seems to be a place for vibrant, innovative, improvised music – for the most part, at least, jazz is no longer just for old men with beards, and still seems to be attracting a new audience.
There is a long section on how jazz connects to the wider world now. Jazz magazines like Downbeat and Jazzwise still play a role, of course, but social media is playing a bigger role, whether it is through Twitter, Facebook groups, blogs or online radio. Some musicians are very adept at making the most of these new media, but older musicians, perhaps unsurprisingly, feel that young jazz musicians would be better off paying their dues – at least from a musical perspective.
While researching the book, Sammy found certain themes emerging, and these themes determine the layout of the book. If there’s a downside to this approach, it is that the book has a somewhat ‘scrapbook’ approach, rather than a narrative. But this is a minor complaint. This is a book filled with thought-provoking analysis of the jazz industry today, that will appeal to both musicians and fans alike, and a host of colourful anecdotes and stories. If Sammy Stein set out to convey the passion that goes into the music, and the passion of everyone involved in jazz – from musicians, to record labels, to fans – then she has done an admirable job. Chances are, you’ll discover some new music through All That’s Jazz, and that’s what it’s all about.