Richard Cook is a jazz writer from way back, and from over there (England) where he is an editor for England’s premier jazz mag, Jazz Review. This isn’t his first compendium; he co-authored the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD and Bluenote Biography.
This nearly 700-page anthology of jazzmen and women and terminology common to the genre is for the cognoscenti, but even I, a humble occasional listener, can get satisfaction from thumbing through to find “my” jazz artists.
Mainly female, my jazzsters include Sarah Vaughan, of whom Cook states, “her judgment could be strange, her manner unconvincing, and her career on record inconsistent and sometimes misconceived,” though he acknowledges her as one of the greats on up there with Ella. Cook calls Ella “the queen” though as he notes, this is an all-night argument. Billie Holiday is of the women, most like the men, imitating to her doom their predilection for hard drugs and dissolute living. Holiday had the distinction of being busted for drugs as she lay dying of their ravages, which Cook calls “a final indignity of the sort her life had become wretchedly familiar with.”
Despite his ending that sentence with a preposition, Cook’s book is charming, cultured, and long, the opposite of Thomas Hobbes’s summary of the lives of most human beings, and an inspiration to encyclopedists everywhere. How did he get so damned smart? How does he know so much about so many obscure musicians (Norwegians, yet) and how can he bring himself to write yet again about the great ones, the Armstrongs and the Adderlys, making them come to life for us? It’s all in the phrasing, like good music, all in the pace and the well-chosen selections.
But where is Bessie Smith? I’m still puzzling over that one, Mr. Cook.