Book Review: The Bluffer’s Guide to Jazz

The Bluffer’s Guide to Jazz
(109pp., £6.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Although this series of short introductions to various subjects (other Bluffer’s Guides deal with everything from sex and cricket to beer and the quantum universe) is primarily designed to amuse, this particular guide contains a great deal of useful and reliable information about the New Orleans origins of the music and its subsequent dissemination worldwide, the various forms jazz takes, its chief practitioners and its classic recordings.

Jazz, of course, is a perfect subject for a book such as this, since (as Alyn Shipton points out in a review quoted in its blurb) ‘no two jazz enthusiasts ever agree about anything’ (whether fact or opinion), and the music has, moreover, a history so riddled with ironies, inconsistencies and (occasionally) sheer obfuscation that even experts often find it difficult to say anything unequivocally ‘true’ about it. Add that magic ingredient ‘hipness’ (the idea that the music is somehow the ‘authentic source’ of everything from rock’n’roll to hip-hop) and you have fertile ground indeed for bluffers.

Written by Paul Barnes and Peter Gammond (with the odd update from John Lewis), the guide – if carefully read, marked and learned – should allow its users to keep their heads above water in all but the most specialised conversations about the music. It also serves as a witty (and wise) introduction to an extremely controversial and complex subject, packed as it is with aperçus such as: ‘Miles was about the only jazz musician whose audiences got younger as he got older’; ‘[Erroll Garner] swung like the proverbial old boots, in spite of a left hand that seemed to be loitering with intent’; and ‘[smooth jazz is the] name given to the bland soul and funk instrumentals which comprise the playlist of most “jazz” radio stations and act as a cure for insomnia’.

As to the efficacy of bluffing, I can only aver that one John Dawson, the man responsible (in the early 1970s) for dragging me kicking and screaming from rock and folk towards a proper appreciation of the jazz he loved, used it extremely skilfully. Asked what sort of jazz he liked, he would unhesitatingly reply: ‘Bop and on, plus a little early Duke Ellington’; in attempting to smuggle jazz and blues albums past me, he would invariably compare their featured artists with contemporary rock figures, so that the Memphis Jug Band were ‘the Velvet Underground of their day’, Charlie Parker was ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the alto saxophone’ and Miles Davis ‘changed his musical approach more frequently than Tim Buckley’. Worked for me...

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