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Jazz lives in the African American National Biography

By Scott Yanow


When I was approached by the good folks at Oxford University Press to write some entries on jazz artists, I noticed that while the biggest names (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc.) were already covered, many other artists were also deserving of entries. There were several qualities that I looked for in musicians before suggesting that they be written about. Each musician had to have a distinctive sound (always a prerequisite before any artist is considered a significant jazz musician), a strong body of work, and recordings that sound enjoyable today. It did not matter if the musician’s prime was in the 1920s or today. If their recordings still sounded good, they were eligible to be given prestigious entries in the African American National Biography.

Some of the entries included in the February update to the Oxford African American Studies Center are veteran singers Ernestine Anderson, Ernie Andrews, and Jon Hendricks; trumpet legends Harry “Sweets” Edison, Kenny Dorham, and Art Farmer; and a few giants of today, including pianist Kenny Barron, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and clarinetist Don Byron.

File:Kenny Barron Munich 2001.JPG

In each case, in addition to including the musicians’ basic biographical information, key associations, and recordings, I have included a few sentences that place each artist in their historic perspective, talking about how they fit into their era, describing their style, and discussing their accomplishments. Some musicians had only a brief but important prime period, but there is a surprising number of artists whose careers lasted over 50 years. In the case of Benny Carter, the alto saxophonist/arranger was in his musical prime for a remarkable 70 years, still sounding great when he retired after his 90th birthday.

Jazz, whether from 90 years ago or today, has always overflowed with exciting talents. While jazz history books often simplify events, making it seem as if there were only a handful of giants, the number of jazz greats is actually in the hundreds. There was more to the 1920s than Louis Armstrong, more to the swing era than Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, and more to the classic bebop era than Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. For example, while Duke Ellington is justly celebrated, during the 49 years that he led his orchestra, he often had as many as ten major soloists in his band at one time, all of whom had colorful and interesting lives.

Because jazz has had such a rich history, it is easy for reference books and encyclopedias to overlook the very viable scene of today. The music did not stop with the death of John Coltrane in 1967 or the end of the fusion years in the late 1970s. Because the evolution of jazz was so rapid between 1920 and 1980, continuing in almost a straight line as the music became freer and more advanced, it is easy (but inaccurate) to say that the music has not continued evolving. What has happened during the past 35 years is that instead of developing in one basic way, the music evolved in a number of directions. The music world became smaller and many artists utilized aspects of World and folk music to create new types of “fusions.” Some musicians explored earlier styles in creative ways, ranging from 1920s jazz to hard bop. The avant-garde or free jazz scene introduced many new musicians, often on small label releases. And some of the most adventurous players combined elements of past styles — such as utilizing plunger mutes on horns or engaging in collective improvisations — to create something altogether new.

While many veteran listeners might call one period or another jazz’s “golden age,” the truth is that the music has been in its prime since around 1920 (when records became more widely available) and is still in its golden age today. While jazz deserves a much larger audience, there is no shortage of creative young musicians of all styles and approaches on the scene today. The future of jazz is quite bright and the African American National Biography’s many entries on jazz greats reflect that optimism.

Scott Yanow is the author of eleven books on jazz, including The Great Jazz Guitarists, The Jazz Singers, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Record 1917-76, and Jazz On Film.

The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture. It provides students, scholars and librarians with more than 10,000 articles by top scholars in the field.

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Image Credit: Kenny Barron 2001, Munich/Germany. Photo by Sven.petersen, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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