Playing in the Fields of Jazz: a review on the new book by Sammy Stein

In her new book The Wonder of Jazz author Sammy Stein invites the reader to take a walk on the jazz road, making sure that we will have the opportunity to stop and smell the flowers along the way. Her honest and extremely respectful approach both to readers and to the object of her analysis makes it impossible to resist.

         

“(…) samba sways from side to side

Jazz is different, forward and back

And samba, half dead, got half warped

Influence of Jazz”

– Carlos Lyra, Influência do Jazz, 1962

When Carlos Lyra released Influence of Jazz in 1962, the message was clear, but not new. Similar complaints of an alleged degradation of Brazilian popular music by foreign genres date way back.

1922, Pixinguinha (Alfredo da Rocha Vianna Filho), a musician who is considered the very soul of what would be later called Brazilian popular music returned from a successful season in Paris bringing in his luggage something new: a saxophone. He got in contact with the new instrument through North American big band musicians performing at the French capital.

Immediately incorporated into his own arrangements and compositions, the sax became the trademark of Pixinguinha, until then a flute virtuoso. In the same year, the first radio broadcast took place in Brazil. In other words, when Brazilian popular music starts to be broadcasted and heard by the masses, it already had a jazz component in its DNA. In the words of Brazilian samba diva Alcione: “Samba is a cousin of jazz”.

I had the same cosy feeling of being among friends, in the company of a good cup of coffee (glass of wine, or whatever comforts you) while reading The Wonder of Jazz by author, writer, journalist, and curator Sammy Stein. Make no mistake, though: there is nothing shallow in this book. On the contrary, it is full of documentation, sources, evidences and counter-evidences, as recommended for a good journalistic investigation.

Then again, The Wonder of Jazz is so much more than that! It is also a book that builds its narrative directly from the knowledge of musicians. Interviewed by the author, these voices give a very special color to the work. Another element that makes The Wonder of Jazz a delightfully enjoyable reading is that Stein makes no secret of the fact that she is passionate and intimately connected to her subject.

Her letter of intentions could not be clearer. Stein knows to whom she writes (”I am writing for readers who want to understand more about jazz and be part of the energy . . . curious people with inquiring minds.”); why she is writing (“This book is an immersive exploration of jazz’s history, impact, and future”), and the limitations imposed by the topic (“No matter how many papers, books, reviews, and interviews one reads, unanswered questions remain.”).

This is a book about a passion, written with passion by an insider. Passion and care. In each paragraph of each chapter, a lot of care is taken to provide content that the reader can trust and use. Therefore, an aspect of this work I would like to highlight is its educational character. The Wonder of Jazz already has already a place among the reference books on the genre and it will certainly be cited in future academic and journalistic works.

The “game changers” list in chapter 3 and the “cabaret card” in chapter 5 are examples of the precious information brought by Stein. The informal yet didactic approach to the names that marked the genre in different sectors goes far beyond the simple biographical character and makes this chapter an important reference tool for students, researchers and fans of the genre.

Establishing links between jazz and the arts, Stein manages to compose a rich portrait of aesthetic influences, including boxing. The diverse range of examples makes this work recommended both for the public in general and for the specialist. Her walk in the fields of jazz also include political, cultural and social aspects of the genre. However, there would be room for more information about South-America in general (for instance, information about stablished jazz festivals on the region) and particularly about the impact of Bossa Nova on jazz.

Despite such minor issues, the bouquet offered by Stein presents a vast palette of colors. They come from the stories, outbursts, criticisms and hopes narrated by more than one hundred jazz musicians requested to open their hearts about all sorts of career related issues. Once more, I would like to praise the frank way in which Stein deals with the sensitive question of the livelihood of jazz musicians. While it is clear to many that the glamour of the stage is not reflected in multi-million payouts (at least not for the vast majority of musicians), very few people are actually aware of how fragmented and unstable the income of an average performer can be, especially during the pandemic years.

Finally, I would like to point out that the generous amount of information provided by the author on all aspects of the correspondence between jazz and society proves how the latter benefits from the development of the genre. In order words, in response to one of the many questions raised by the author (“Is jazz still relevant?”), one can only say: more than ever.

***

Be seeing you!

G.F.       

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