Two remarkable books crossed my desk recently and it's a pleasure to
recommend them:

A NEW HISTORY OF JAZZ by BBC presenter and London Times jazz critic
Alayn Shipton is a mammoth work (965 pages) that covers the history of
jazz from plantation music to the present, postmodern stage. Published by Continuum Press, the book is billed as "the antidote to Ken Burns' Jazz."

Shipton's canvas may be large but he fills it with telling and precise details, the fruit of his many years of painstaking research. He delves into all aspects of jazz, from its Congo Square origins to boogie-woogie, big bands and bebop. Impressive as the narrative sweep is, it isn't as important as the critical analysis Shipton brings to the project. He believes that the history of jazz is more subtle and complicated than previous writers and scholars have indicated and that most popular approaches to the subject--especially that of TV documentarian Ken Burns--have missed the big picture.

Remarkably, Shipton is able to write history and criticism in a readable and accessible way. His sketches of such jazz greats as Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington bring them to three-dimensional life, and he is equally adept at painting portraits of the likes of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Cassandra Wilson. He's also good at describing the clubs, bars and music halls where so much jazz has been played over the years.

Perhaps because he's British, Shipton devotes more-than-usual space to the international development of jazz and comes up with insights about musicians from England, West & East Europe, Russia, Africa and the
Caribbean islands which I've never encountered in a jazz history before.
There's something to learn--and enjoy--on every single page of A NEW HISTORY OF JAZZ.

Tony Russell's THE BLUES --FROM ROBERT JOHNSON TO ROBERT CRAY also describes the evolution of the blues in historical fashion, but it
doesn't have the depth of Shipton's work. Only 224 pages long, THE BLUES
leans heavily on illustrations and thumbnail sketches to tell its story, but that doesn't mean it's a trivial or unimportant book.

Russell kicks things off with a pungently written introduction: "There have been times when pop and blues have been bedfellows. The deeply American rock of the early Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds or the Animals was chiselled out of a stratum of pure blues. At their gigs the Stones not only played wall-to-wall cover versions of obscure American blues but told the audience what labels the originals could be found on. Heavy metal began as a kind of simplified but vastly overblown blues--bomp and circumstance....That old bulldog blues has been yapping at the heels of popular music for most of the century."

Russell breaks down the 20th century into chapters and picks out the
musicians who made each era memorable--Johnson, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and so on. More than just blues legends come in for attention, though; Russell's scope includes such unsung
heroes as Leroy Carr, Brownie McGhee, Robert Shaw, Trixie Smith and many, many others.

THE BLUES has a design and layout that make for eye-pleasing skimming.
Its photos, a mixture of color and black & white, are evocative. The book also contains a list of milestone recordings (and where to find them) and a comprehensive index that makes looking up your favorite blues singer or player an easy thing. (Schirmer Books, ppbk, $18)