Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide, by Kevin Whitehead. New York: Oxford University Press, 155pp. $17.95
The mark of a good journalist is one’s ability to sustain the reader’s interest even in subjects they might find boring or off-putting. There is nothing easy about this. Equally as hard is the task of drawing readers deeper into subjects they might already consider themselves experts on, or close to it. With the individual’s reading time limited by many other factors, one is unlikely to read a book unless they’re expecting to learn something they didn’t already know.
In this regard, NPR veteran Kevin Whitehead has succeeded admirably with his new book, Why Jazz? If you’re the type of reader, such as myself, who’s followed jazz music passionately for your entire adult life, voraciously consuming every available bite (or byte) of the music and its accompanying writing, you would be justified in looking down at this book with skepticism. I did, but I was wrong. Whitehead set himself up for an almost impossible task, but he definitely got the job done.
After all, what could the author possibly teach you about a subject you know with such encyclopedic precision, especially in the brief and breezy span of 155 pages? Quite a lot, as it turns out, and much of that has to do with the author’s perspective. Maybe it’s the NPR training, but Whitehead has a real gift for explaining things, and he brings that gift to bear in regard to such complicated matters as the essence of improvisation, or the complicated geographical routes jazz has taken to global prominence.
Whitehead excels at dealing with the music’s complicated early history, which went undocumented for the first 20 years. He proves also expert in teasing out the small, subtle differences that emerged through its evolution, managing to slice-and-dice genre types while maintaining loyalty to a syncopated whole. He smartly thickens the text with a selected discography that will have even the most seasoned jazz fan scribbling titles into a notebook, for future reference. (The infamous YouTube to mp3 converter is an invaluable tool; go ahead and download it now, because after reading this book, you’ll be working it like a plow-ox in planting season.)