‘Jazz for Dummies’ is part of the widely popular ‘… for Dummies’ series and bills itself as “Your swingin’ guide to America’s greatest music”. Like most of the Dummies canon, it is written in a friendly ‘conversational’ style with asides and anecdotes sprinkled throughout.
The author, music journalist Dirk Sutro, takes the reader on a chronological journey through the development of jazz but also covers the theoretical side of the music and offers advice on jazz appreciation and forming your own jazz combo.
Sutro guides the reader through the development of jazz from traditional and Dixieland styles to swing, bebop, soul jazz and more recent developments like free and electric jazz. His anecdotal writing here is particularly compelling, full of quirky stories of eccentric bandleaders and tragic lives. He also devotes a chapter to the technical side of jazz which requires a basic knowledge of music theory but is easy to understand.
However, this is where the positives end. Sutro regularly exhibits a patronising view of what does and doesn’t constitute jazz, at times getting hung up on the idea of Kenny G or acid jazz falling under the oh-so-precious jazz banner. His personal opinions permeate a little strongly when, for example, he claims that ‘twangy, countrified’ music fits “within a jazz context” but smooth jazz isn’t for ‘serious fans’.
Also, there are passages which refer to ‘sidebars’ of information, but frustratingly don’t mention their specific location, saying ‘nearby’ instead of ‘above’ for example. This leaves the impression that editing was an afterthought and detracts further from the book.
It doesn’t stop there. There are parts of this book that are so hilariously corny they almost make it worth the read- but not quite. One of my favourite such moments occurs in Chapter 13 where Sutro encourages the reader to express themselves at jazz gigs- “If a saxophonist plays a twisty line that gives you goose bumps, shout out a word or two of encouragement”. Another special section of the book is entitled ‘Chapter 12: Good Times: Jazzing Up Any Dinner Party’, and explains how to dazzle your nearest and dearest with jazzy décor and ‘insider jazz slang’.
In short, if you’re getting into jazz and you want to understand more you would do better to see Ken Burns’ 2001 documentary mini-series ‘Jazz’. There is also an abundance of information online at Allmusic.com, A Passion for Jazz and Wikipedia which cover everything you need to know getting started, so don’t make the trip to the book store to pick up ‘Jazz for Dummies’. You’ll be glad you didn’t.