If you’re on this website, you probably don’t need to read this book. Nevertheless, read on.
This new hardback, edited by British musician Dave Gelly, is not really designed for people who like and ‘know’ jazz. The natural audience for this book is perhaps a friend who doesn’t ‘get’ jazz. Or a novice who’d like to know more but is baffled by some of the language and ideas and jazz and just doesn’t understand how they “know what to play”. Or just the simply curious.
For this audience, Gelly’s book is perfect. It’s a comprehensive guide to the complex, multi-faceted but very rewarding world of jazz. The concept - part of a series which includes 30-second wine, religion (yes, seriously!) and classical music - is to give the reader the building blocks of what jazz is all about in as simple and straight forward way as possible, and in so doing generate a readiness to find out more and, crucially, check out the music.
The book does this well through two main factors: quality writing from musicians and writers who know what they’re talking about and so can get straight to the heart of the concepts and ideas they present; and great images that help tell a vivid narrative. The contributors include broadcaster and educator Charles Alexander, journalist Kevin Legendre, writer Chris Parker, broadcaster Brian Priestley and author Tony Russell.
Across seven chapters, they break down jazz into its component parts, explain them, and through each 30-second snippet of information, give the reader the basic principles and ideas behind jazz, uncluttered and easily digestible. So, chapter one covers the shape of jazz, including a 30-second section titled “How do they know what to play?” On the face of it an odd question, but actually one of the main things that non-jazz listeners will ask. There are sections on the styles of jazz - covering all the bases from bebop to fusion - and on the individual instruments associated with the music. Again, simple, straightforward, bite-sized chunks, which are well-written and presented. By the end of the book, a reader should think to themselves: “I get it”, or at least, get enough to want to find out more.
Between each chapter are individual biographies of all the jazz luminaries one might expect in a book of this kind: Miles Davies, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington among others are all given their own profile, providing context to some of the explanatory material. This is a book one picks up and flicks through; wherever the pages fall open, there’s something insightful, accessible and informative to read. What I found particularly informative is that the writers have looked beyond the obvious - there are chapters on technology and jazz, jazz mavericks, the avant grade and the future of the music. In this way, they elevate the book beyond simple coffee table material.
This book is well designed and is welcoming to the reader, encourage exploration from section to section, each with this core 30-second explanation of complicated ideas is straightforward, but precise, language. Even as someone who listens to a lot of jazz, in each section I read something I didn’t know or found a different take on an idea or style that I was familiar with.
The pictures, in particular, are of a high quality and special mention should go to designer Ginny Zeal, who has provided the contributors’ texts with stunning montages of all the greats, creating a sense when reading the text that you can imagine the musicians playing alongside.
As an introduction to the music of jazz, this book has merit, as it does not simply address the question in a linear, or overly-academic way. It’s accessible and inviting for the reader and that’s how it should be. Jazz is, after all, just music - great music, even - and its enjoyment should not be beyond the ken of anyone. 30-second jazz provides a route into the music, and that cannot be a bad thing.
Illustrations: Steve Rawlings