Studs Terkel’s Giants of Jazz is a number of books in one. In the first place, it is a collection of twelve portraits in words of some of the most noteworthy figures in jazz. The selected musicians cover the whole spectrum of jazz performance, from the individual artistry of such figures as vocalist Bessie Smith and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to the technical genius of instrumentalists such as Louis Armstrong. In this way, the richness and variety of the jazz tradition is captured.
The author’s approach also enables him to tell the history of jazz through the stories of many of those performers who made that history possible. Therefore, in addition to providing an appreciation of individual musicians, Giants of Jazz also gives an indication of the music’s origin, its development, and its contribution to American culture. Moving from jazz’s early days in New Orleans to its status at the time that the book was written, Terkel sketches vividly a sense of the music’s and the musicians’ struggle for the musical equivalent of freedom of speech.
Terkel points out in a brief note of acknowledgment that his material is based, where possible, on conversations with as many of his subjects as possible, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The rest of the material is derived from the author’s research in the files of the well-known jazz magazine Down Beat. The concluding chapter of Giants of Jazz, entitled “Jazz Is the Music of Many,” places his pen portraits in a larger social and artistic context. The style throughout is simple and direct, and the tone is warm and generous. Terkel keeps the youthful audience for which the book was written in mind at all times, without being patronizing or lecturing. A discography is also included, though it is largely of historical interest because of the complexities of record manufacturing and marketing.