Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Ohio Jazz

Ohio Jazz: A History of Jazz in the Buckeye State.
By David Meyers, Candice Watkins, Arnett Howard, & James Loeffler.
Charleston, SC. : The History Press, 2012.  Paperback. 
189 p.  ISBN 9781609495756

Books like this are few and far between for most cities and states, and so one must cherish them.  While not comprehensive, Ohio Jazz gives us a glimpse into the world of the genre, a place to start, and an anchor upon which to build further.  For that, the authors, collaborators on a couple of previous books on music in Columbus, should be congratulated.  

Of course, since the authors are denizens of Columbus, one should not be surprised to find a preponderance of Columbus-related jazz history.  They already had a lot to work with, and included significant amounts here.  But they give no short shrift to other cities, with Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, Springfield, and other towns getting a share of the credit for the historical and current scenes.  In fact, I was surprised by the number of times both Dayton and Springfield came up (clearly my own ignorance showing).  I kept rooting for Northeast Ohio with every turn of the page (while not born here, I’ve lived here for 30 years), and came away with more than two dozen names of musicians from this part of the state who I did not know were associated.  This is why I got the book.  Writing a quick review is just a secondary idea.  

So, what’s good about this book?  It is in large part a reference book.  The initial chapters are mostly arranged chronologically, from ragtime to the present, while the second part of the book is an alphabetical batch of 60 short biographies of musicians from around the state, some big names, some not, depending on your depth of jazz knowledge.  I only knew of 34 of the 60, and I’ve been digging around in jazz for a while.  Many are huge names: Art Tatum of Toledo, Albert Ayler of Cleveland, Billy Butterfield of Middletown, Wild Bill Davison of Defiance, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Rahsaan Roland Kirk of Columbus, just to name a few.  You can find more information about any of them in places such as the AllMusic Guide, or an encyclopedia, but you won’t find them tied together geographically, like they are here.  The chapters give a good, if somewhat dry overview of each phase of jazz history, with the connections between that phase and Ohio musicians.  The chapters are rather breathless in their tone, because there’s so much to cover.  There are many lists.  But if you’re a jazz fan, that won’t deter you from working through them to find the information you want.  

What doesn’t happen here is a good feel for the jazz scene and history of each city.  But a scene involves more than just who was born here or educated here.  It includes the clubs, the juke joints, the nightlife, the interactions among musicians and fans.  Little of that is here, since each city would require its own book.  That kind of approach requires an extended historical monograph involving examination of primary sources and interviews with those who remember those scenes.  Joe Mosbrook (mentioned in the text) has been doing that for Cleveland for decades and hasn’t finished.  The authors have done some of that work for Columbus in one of their other books.  There’s so much more work to be done.  

This book will be most appreciated by jazz history aficionados, music historians with a geographical bent, and reference librarians, like me, who need to parse out this kind of information.  Every library in Ohio ought to have it.

J. Clark Wanser, M.A., M.L.S

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