Will Hermes
December 08, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Jazz: A History of America's Music

Current Status
In Season
Ken Burns, Geoffrey C. Ward
Nonfiction, History, Music

We gave it a B

If Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns’s handsome coffee-table book Jazz: A History of America’s Music didn’t seem destined to become America’s definitive jazz reference, one might simply praise its merits. The photos, many never published before, are fabulous. The defining biographies of Armstrong and Ellington are movingly drawn. And, like The Civil War and Baseball, the vivid social history tells a larger story of ”race relations and prejudice” and ”the American promise of freedom.” By using jazz as a metaphor for interracial harmony, the authors found their narrative compass. But Ward and Burns (who owned only two jazz LPs before the project began) are pop historians, not jazz scholars, and their story skews the music’s history. They make a powerful case for jazz’s multicultural soul, yet footnotes like Nick LaRocca (the music’s own Vanilla Ice) and Paul Whiteman are doted on while a giant like Sarah Vaughan gets slight treatment. Contributing writers try to address the blind spots: Notably, Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch engage jazz’s past 40 years (as in the film, the book’s greatest shortcoming). But the lack of critical balance is troubling. And when Gerald Early reduces today’s aesthetic battle — between the polyglot philosophy of jazz progressives and the conservative vision of cultural gatekeeper Wynton Marsalis — to a spat between pianist Keith Jarrett and Marsalis, the revisionist tone hits a high G. A well-told story, but not the whole story. B

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