As time goes by, the Institute of Jazz Studies slips further backward in its publication of this fine series of academic essays on jazz; this 2003 edition was published in 2007! However, better late than never. This volume includes some highly technical musicological studies: Charles O. Norman's report on fake book arrangements and their effects in modern jazz, "'Wrong Together': Structures, Norms and Standards," and Matthew Santa's "Nonatonic Progressions in the Music of John Coltrane."
Slightly less formidable is a careful comparison of Miles Davis's solo style, Alona Sagee's "Miles Davis's Improvised Solos in Recordings of `Walkin'': 1954-67." This scrutinizes the way Davis varied his work on live and studio recordings in this period, the height of his career.
The longest essay is a thorough oral history of the modern alto sax player Sonny Redd (or Red), aka Sylvester Kyner (1932-81), Anders Svanoe's "Bluesville: The Journey of Sonny Red." Born in rural Mississippi in 1932, Redd grew up in Detroit and moved to New York City in 1957 to enter the burgeoning modern jazz scene there. He played with major musicians, recorded and was generally known as a capable and entertaining musician, but there was by then a glut of post-Parker alto players and Redd never established an identity with the jazz audience. Nevertheless, he persisted stubbornly in the music, becoming "a jazz survivor" in one commentator's words.
Svanoe's history is very thorough, with many interviews, photographs and other documents, 40 scores of compositions and solos (including scores to several flute quartets) and an annotated discography of Redd's work. The essay runs to 145 pages, virtually a whole monograph and is very well organized and readable. It is an interesting scrutiny of a workaday musician who was not a "jazz giant" or a publicity hound but who made a highly individualistic contribution to modern jazz.
The volume also includes five book reviews (several quite extensive), a bibliography of articles in non-jazz journals and a list of books received by the Institute of Jazz Studies, 2003-05. As usual, the production, editing and design are all immaculate.
This is an important revisionist history for general readers, unraveling the myth of the Delta blues and detailing the process of collecting, field recording and mythopoeia that gave us the blues revival of the 1940s and '50s. Author Mary Beth Hamilton does an excellent job of ordering the real history of the blues and of drawing clear portraits of pioneer record collectors and folklorists like writer/collector/sociologist Howard Odum, Fred Ramsey, Charles S. Smith and William Russell (editors of the landmark Jazzmen in 1939), John and Alan Lomax, Library of Congress folklorists, and other such trailblazers as Samuel Charters and arch-collector James McKune.
History and commentary on both blues and jazz grew like Topsy through the lifelong work of dedicated amateurs, a long way from the fusty halls of academe. In both cases, foundation myths of considerable romantic power grew up around archetypal figures who were declared to be "The Man," the only true begetter of the genre. In jazz, this was Buddy Bolden, turn-of-the century bandleader and cornetist who "called his children home" with a horn so powerful it carried from end to end in New Orleans. For the blues, it was not stodgy old Professor W. C. Handy, even noting his string of early scores for songs he collected. It was a wholly obscure and hapless wandering guitarist and singer of the 1930s named Robert Johnson. His handful of recordings cut in 1936-37 in a San Antonio hotel room became the Holy Grail of modern blues fanatics.
Hamilton correctly traces the first blues craze to the publication, ca. 1910, of many tunes by black musicians like Handy, noting that "to most white observers the music seemed to have materialized instantaneously." She does not, however, connect this surge of blues to the need for dance music -- "blues" then generally signified a slow dance that complemented the fast one-step dances of late ragtime.
The second coming of the blues was in the wake of the jazz revelation of 1917-18 spearheaded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In 1921, OKeh records released vaudevillian singer Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," which kicked off what is usually called the "classic blues" -- powerful and operatic recordings by women that dominated the new category of "race records" in the 1920s.
This popular phenomenon prompted Howard Odum, an academic sociologist, to turn back to work he had done in recording and annotating blues in Mississippi as early as 1907. He compared his files with the blues records that commercial labels were selling in the mid-1920s; then he wrote two books, a study called The Negro and His Music (1925) and an epic novel or "fictional autobiography" of a mythic bluesman he called Black Ulysses, Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1928).
By the 1930s, a cadre of blues and jazz record collectors, mostly Eastern college students, made the study of black music on disc a serious personal enterprise. Their work led to the publication of Jazzmen and the establishment of "Hot Clubs" and gazettes for record information, best exemplified by The Record Changer. The movement was international and had a powerful impact on popular culture.
In the late 1930s, Jelly Roll Morton recorded his monumental oral autobiography for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress, and Robert Johnson traveled from the Mississippi Delta to Texas to record. Morton's stunning epic of early New Orleans and the "invention of jazz," to which Morton was at least an eye-witness and possibly the progenitor, established vivid ideas of Buddy Bolden, the marching bands, the Mardi Gras Indians and many other Technicolor fantasies in all subsequent jazz historiography. Johnson's records went approximately nowhere but eventually were unearthed by hyper-fanatical collectors like mystery man John McKune, who with Samuel Charters (author of The Country Blues, 1959) built up a parallel romantic genealogy for the blues, emerging in the 1940s and '50s as a florid tale of wandering, devil-possessed minstrels lurking at midnight crossroads in the darkest Delta. Interestingly, Columbia Records reissued the Johnson recordings in the late 1950s on its "Thesaurus of Classic Jazz" series.
Hamilton notes the paradoxes involved in this tangled folk history -- the idea of ancient and archaic singers scooped up by 20th-century scholarship, recording technology and sales practices; the urge to seek "purity" in folk music untouched by modernism, greed or commercial gain; the fact that the act of finding and recording such songsters was itself a corrupting agency. It all applies equally well to the jazz revival that paralleled the blues crusade -- for example, the Moldy Figs desperate to find Bolden-era players who could show what jazz was before the Fall into commercialism, Swing, Bebop, etc. William Geary "Bunk" Johnson was the jazz equivalent of bluesman Robert Johnson.
In Search of the Blues is slightly fragmented, and Hamilton makes some odd errors of fact and judgment (at one point she calls William Russell a "curmudgeon"[!] and underestimates the importance of his American Music record label), and she believes the blues and jazz revivals peaked about 1950, when much of their worldwide impact was yet to register. Also, she does not link the two genres very clearly when she mentions the British "skiffle movement" of the 1950s (its sources are in the very jazz and blues collecting history she covers) and the emergence of 1960s rock (especially the Beatles and Rolling Stones) which converted all this material into a new and ultra-popular music. The book also needs a bibliography to clarify the sources of Hamilton's research.
The importance of Hamilton's subject as an embedded substory in 21st century popular culture is revealed in the way the Robert Johnson myth has become ubiquitous and instantly recognizable, appearing in the Coen brothers' splendid "roots music classical opera" (a film entitled Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?); in Sherman Alexie's brilliant novel, Reservation Blues (where it becomes an American Indian myth), and in works by Walter Mosley and many other popular writers. In Search of the Blues is an excellent starting point in tracking this tale through a clearly written, fast-moving narrative. I hope we hear more from Hamilton.
Should you want more detailed information on the development of the Robert Johnson mythology, see Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson (1989) and, more recently, Escaping the Delta, by Elijah Wald (2004). Singer-commentator Wald also wrote an excellent biography of another blues-to-folk pioneer, in Joshua White: Society Blues (2002).