Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jazz Piano History and Development by Billy Taylor

I love jazz and am working on learning the history behind the music that I play entirely too often for my wife's indie-folk taste.

This book by one of the classic jazz pianists is exactly the type of work I like best, as the perspective of the artists themselves was often different from the writers of the period, particular because a lot of the writers were white while the performers were black.

Taylor sets the stage by talking about the origins of jazz within African America culture, noting correctly that this was often overlooked by the jazz writers of the time. He also speaks extensively of the improvisation of a jazz musician, correctly noting that such performances only come after long practice. As with most other things, in order to break the rules, you have to learn them first.

After establishing the links to African culture--perhaps a bit too forcefully, but that's understandable--it's time to go over the main periods of jazz and how the piano changed over time. There's a large difference between the playing styles of, say, Earl Hiles and Duke Ellington, as opposed to Monk and well, Billy Taylor. Taylor uses quite a bit of musical notation to aid the reader in seeing this, but since I can only barely read music, I could only just barely grasp the significance of the examples.

A person who can read music would probably appreciate the book more as a whole than I did, but don't let that steer you away from the text. Taylor strives to make the book readable for those who are less musically inclined, and I for one am thankful. If you know the music to which he refers--and let's face it, if you're going to read a jazz book, your Ipod has quite a bit of jazz in it--then you'll be fine.

The middle section of the book, where Taylor spent most of his musical life, is by far the best part of the work, spending extensive time on the intricacies of piano work in the pre-bop, bop, cool, and early 1970s period. He tries hard to convince me that cool jazz is good, but I'm afraid that's a hard sell for me.

What I appreciate, however, is the linking between the past and the present. Taylor shows how the pianists of the latter part of the 20th Century are still building on the ideas of the earliest jazz musicians: "Throughout the history of jazz there have been many stylistically different approaches to the same musical material. The key to these stylistic differences has often been the treatment of rythym." Later in the same section on cool jazz, Taylor mentions how Gil Evans used 1930s arrangements for his music. Jazz may progress through time, being influenced by rock (as in the fusion work of Weather Report and others), gospel (Ray Charles), and other forms of music, but it also draws from its roots.

Taylor looks into the future of jazz in the 80s, and I don't think it ended up as he'd hoped. It seems that the Kenny Gs of the world outnumbered the heirs of Hines, Monk, or even Herbie Hancock. (Nothing against Hancock, I just don't think his work is nearly as innovative as the others.) Too often jazz means a bad keyboard synth pad and a sputtering sax. I don't think Taylor would like what he saw if he were still alive. Still, it's interesting to see his thoughts.

Taylor ends every chapter with further reading and listening, making for some great "homework" if you're a jazz fan. If you're looking for a place to start your jazz history work, this book should suit your needs just fine, assuming you can find it. You may need to "bop" into your local library, but it's definitely worth the trip.

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