WHAT JAZZ IS by Jonny King


An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz
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 Acting on the assumption that ``what jazz lacks is not inherent appeal, but familiarity itself,'' King offers this beginner's guide to America's first indigenous musical form. Presenting a how-to manual for aspiring aficionados, King is often pedantic but never condescending and always relaxed, as he calls the trombone the ``bone'' or John Coltrane ``Trane.'' The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to teaching the ``rules'' of jazz and how the masters break them. King uses an imaginary show attended by the reader as an innovative framing device, introducing points of style or the dynamics of a particular instrument and then integrating them into the theoretical jazz band's performance. King gives a player-by-player run-through of jazz instruments, dropping names and terminology along the way. For instance, bassists don't play, they ``walk.'' Drums and piano are introduced respectively as the ``essential timekeeper'' and the indispensable instrument of the style. A jazz pianist himself, King brilliantly characterizes the style of Art Tatum, telling a wonderful anecdote of how Vladimir Horowitz actually followed Tatum around to peek at his technique. When the ``front-line'' of jazz instruments is introduced, we get nice, concise statements on just why Charlie ``Bird'' Parker was such an important saxophonist and what made Ella Fitzgerald the quintessential jazz vocalist. The last section of the book explores five basic jazz subtypes via a suggested playlist. Along with names that the uninitiated would find unfamiliar, there are titles by Chick Corea, Sonny Rollins, and Ornette Coleman to round out the recommendations. Two warnings to the reader: First, this is not a book about the origins of jazz; second, King assumes copies of the suggested recordings are at hand, so stock up before delving into the book. (12 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: July 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8027-1328-9
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Walker
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1997