Giants of Jazz Essay - Critical Essays

Louis Terkel


Each of the twelve chapters devoted to individual musicians in Giants of Jazz are given titles that draw attention to a distinctive feature of the musician in question. One of the ways in which Terkel does this is to connect a particular performer with one of his or her hit songs. In the case of Billie Holliday, for example, the singer’s name is linked here with one of her most famous recordings, “God Bless the Child.” Yet this link is not simply a musical one. The biographical portrait of the singer draws heavily on her childhood in Baltimore and its influence on her artistic temperament.

Another way of emphasizing his subjects’ importance is to identify them by means of their nicknames. Some of these names are so common as to have completely replaced the names that the musicians in question were given at birth. Such is the case with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and others not included in Giants of Jazz. To cite one instance of many, Terkel preserves this jazz tradition by recalling the phrase “Empress of Jazz” and attaching it to Bessie Smith. These nicknames and soubriquets, however accidental and even dubious their origins, suggest the scope, grandeur, and power of the musicians’ accomplishments. The names in question underline what it takes to be a “giant,” and why their talents are worthy of the reader’s respect.

If there is one thing that these greats share with other people in other fields, then it...

(The entire section is 544 words.)