Hentoff covers the big-band and bebop eras with style and grace, providing insights into the lives and work of such greats as Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker. Anyone with even a passing interest in jazz music will appreciate this collection of essays (most previously published in the Wall Street Journal) on its luminaries. Aficionados, especially, will value the discographic information included. A "less is more" thread runs throughout the book: Dizzy Gillespie, for instance, says, "It's taken me most of my life to figure out which notes not to play." Hentoff (Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee, 1992, etc.) takes his cue from these efficient, economical musicians. Most essays run two to three pages, but Hentoff finds a key phrase, his own or another's, to nail down an elusive personality. John Coltrane comments, after a set with Thelonious Monk, "I lost my place...and it was like falling down an open elevator shaft." And the author himself writes that alto and soprano saxophonist Johnny Hodges "looked on the bandstand as if he were figuring out his tax returns." Most readers will be surprised to learn that there was a swinging big band composed entirely of women, the Sweethearts of Rhythm, active from 1937 to 1948. And that Bing Crosby -- surprisingly hailed by Hentoff as a great jazz singer -- opposed the war in Vietnam. Politics figures in other ways as well: There are a few accounts of playing the south during the Jim Crow era. Throughout, Hentoff treats his subjects with great respect. But his outright disdain for "free jazz" and most of its young, living practitioners limits the scope of these essays. The country music section is too brief to do that genre justice. Hentoff combines a fan's passion, a scholar's mind, and a poet's sensibility to illuminate one of the most elusive and distinctly American phenomena-jazz musicians and their music.