David Meltzer’s READING JAZZ is essentially an anthology of various views of jazz, most of which are written by white males. The works that are represented range from outrageous racist nonsense to well-conceived and thoughtfully executed pieces about the music. The selections, among which are critical pieces, essays, appreciations, poems, and pieces written by jazz musicians that address their own understanding of the music they play, are grouped within five chronologically arranged sections that deal with particular periods of jazz history: “Meanings, Origins”; “The Jazz Age”; “Pre-Bop Swing”; “Crazy & Cool”; and “Free Jazz, Fusion, Jazzak, and Retro-Jazz.” Each section begins with a brief introductory piece by Meltzer. Some—but not all—of these pieces are interesting and informative.
Meltzer introduces the works he has chosen to anthologize with what he calls a “Pre-ramble,” which is indeed an apt name for the thirty-one-page section that seems to be sometimes a confessional piece, sometimes a sociological study, sometimes a historical overview, and sometimes a prose poem. Good ideas and interesting points surface occasionally in this bizarre piece, only to be submerged in an ocean of incoherence. As Meltzer himself says on the final page of the “Pre-ramble,” “What is he (what am I) writing about? ‘What does he mean?’”
READING JAZZ fulfills an important function by making available pieces about jazz that would otherwise be extremely difficult to locate. It is fascinating to see in one volume the widely divergent views on jazz of such writers as Maxim Gorky, Julio Cortazar, Langston Hughes, H. L. Mencken, and Clark Coolidge. One can only wish, however, that Meltzer had provided a more cogent analysis of his subject.