Giants of Jazz Essay - Critical Context

Louis Terkel

Critical Context

The publication of an introductory work on jazz for juveniles, such as Giants of Jazz, may be taken as an indication of the music’s widespread acceptance. The story that Terkel tells possesses an undercurrent of important social and racial developments in the United States during the twentieth century, and the music itself can be regarded as a bittersweet serenade to these developments. Some of these issues are touched on in the last chapter of the book. It is clear, however, that the perspective from which such considerations would be viewed after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s is much more complex than that which was the norm in 1957, when Giants of Jazz was first published. In stating that jazz is essentially “optimistic,” and that this optimism is audible through the music’s “swing,” the author is being unduly, but understandably, simplistic.

Yet it would be misleading to reject the overall standpoint of Terkel’s final chapter. In it, he draws attention to the book’s necessarily selective approach and mentions other musicians who might well have been included, among them the saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. By making this point, however, a major omission from Giants of Jazz is revealed: There are no portraits of saxophonists. Yet, even before the book was published, the saxophone had clearly become an essential jazz instrument. On the other hand, Terkel makes an...

(The entire section is 420 words.)