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Monday, Dec. 21, 2009

The ‘DownBeat’ Interviews

75 years of great jazz and more

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DownBeat is one of the great music fanzine successes and probably the oldest-running publication of its kind. Started in 1934 by devotees of the still-disreputable music called jazz, a sound deemed unworthy of serious consideration in the mainstream press, DownBeat became the most respected journal of opinion and criticism in jazz as that music grew in esteem. As jazz’s presence in popular culture receded with the rise of rock ’n’ roll, DownBeat expanded to encompass worthwhile artists rooted, however loosely, in jazz and blues.

Along with critical reviews, DownBeat has always featured interviews with artists and articles by the artists themselves. DownBeat: The Great Jazz Interviews (Hal Leonard) draws from 75 years of back issues to present a collection of words by dozens of significant jazz artists plus some important musicians from outside the fold. Edited by DownBeat’s Frank Alkyer and Ed Enright, the book begins with fascinating pieces on (or by) such formative figures as Louis Armstrong and two feuding men with tall claims for their contributions to American music, Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy. The Great Jazz Interviews brings together swing-era articles on Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman; bebop interviews with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker; and examinations on the cool school through Miles Davis and Stan Getz. The ’60s brought interviews with venturesome artists such as Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane along with Jimi Hendrix.

DownBeat magazine was always supportive of black artists at a time when such sympathy was not a given in America. It tended to be open to all developments. A 1954 interview with Les Paul shows the magazine was already documenting the technological shift that was changing the way music was created and consumed. The 1970s and ’80s brought fascinating discussions on music with Frank Zappa and Brian Eno.

The Great Jazz Interviews is essential reading for anyone who cares deeply about music, jazz or otherwise.