The latest collection of essays by Davis (Outcats, 1990; The History of the Blues, 1995; etc.) finds this gifted jazz critic singing some blues of his own. The problem is not, Davis says in his introduction, the usual one, that jazz is a marginalized art form that doesn't get any respect. In fact, he observes, the music is enjoying its greatest popularity since the big-band era. But ``keeping up has ceased to be fun,'' he writes pointedly. The music has fallen into the hands of musical neoconservatives like Wynton Marsalis who, despite their obvious gifts, have a narrow vision of jazz history. As this collection amply testifies, Davis is still drawn to the ``outcats,'' the marginal figures within jazz itself. These essays represent his continued search for ``audible individuality'' as embodied by sounds as dissimilar as the corruscating free jazz of saxophonist Charles Gayle and the melody-driven romanticism of trumpeter Ruby Braff. At the same time, Davis's profiles are exemplary in their reproduction of diverse voices ranging from Braff's witty crankiness to Anthony Braxton's knowing eccentricity, from the mischievous giddiness of Don Byron, a black clarinetist of surpassing skill who moves easily between jazz and Jewish klezmer, to the warm motherliness of Rosemary Clooney. At the heart of the book, though, is a single theme that unites all of these disparate figures: Despite the success of a handful of younger artists, it is as difficult to be a jazz musician today as it has ever been. If anything, the essays that take Davis outside the world of jazz- -pieces on rap, Michael Jackson, and a couple of highly intelligent ruminations on the Broadway musical—serve primarily to underscore that sad truth. Davis remains one of our most engaging music critics, thoughtful and erudite, funny and self-aware. Highly recommended.
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