Picks and Pans Review: The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

updated 05/08/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/08/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

edited by Barry Kernfeld

Grove, a high-toned British publisher sometimes regarded as the ultimate encyclopedic authority for classical music, has lent a modicum of prestige to jazz by at last recognizing it as a subject worthy of serious study. Touted by Grove as the first scholarly bible of the genre, this two-volume, 1,323-page dictionary has 4,500 entries by 250 academics and critics and surveys the entire spectrum of jazz. It runs from early gutbucket music (the term derives from a bucket used in lowbrow saloons to catch beer barrel drippings) to contemporary jazz-rock. Too much of the writing is maddeningly pedantic, in contrast to The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, a now outdated collection of thumbnail biographies by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler. Grove's research nonetheless remains unprecedented in scope, and the dictionary includes the first comprehensive historical listings of jazz nightclubs and festivals around the world, as well as a number of erudite essays on jazz instrumentation and the meaning of such concepts as beat, blues progression and modality.

Editor Kernfeld's overall judgment, however, is quirky and often questionable. The dictionary includes biographical entries for dozens of obscure musicians in remote outposts, including Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a reeds player whose main distinction is having once jammed with Benny Goodman. Yet there is no entry on Willis Conover, who as host of Voice of America programs since 1955 has sparked more interest in jazz worldwide than anyone else. Kernfeld stretches the notion of jazz-rock to include such popular performers as Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Tom Waits and Maria Muldaur. Yet he ignores such cutting-edge musicians as Jane Ira Bloom, Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson. The movie actor and sometime pianist Dudley Moore curiously merits an entry while Art Tatum protégée Dorothy Donegan, a pianist who has been active since the 1940s, is omitted.

Worse, little effort is made to distinguish journeymen players from real masters. Composer and indispensable Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, for example, is given less ink than many mediocre sidemen. Likewise pianist Herbie Nichols, whose compositions rival those of Thelonious Monk in rhythmic complexity, is dispatched in a scant paragraph Though this dictionary might seem a treasure trove for the jazz faithful (at least on a better-than-nothing basis) and an essential primer for the uninitiated, it falls woefully short of Grove's reputed high standards of scholarship. (Grove Dictionaries of Music, $295)

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