Toward Jazz’s “Official” History: The Debates and Discourses of Jazz History Textbooks

Kenneth E. Prouty


In the late 1970s, jazz studies in American higher education had grown to the point that jazz history courses were becoming an increasingly important part of the curriculum. This article critically examines the emergence of textbooks intended to meet the needs of jazz history teachers, from the late 1970s to the present. Of particular importance is the manner in which such works position themselves in relation to the prevailing canonical frameworks of jazz history, which was largely the result of the pioneering historical work of Marshall Stearns in the 1950s. I suggest that authors of textbooks have positioned themselves in relation to the canons of jazz history in various ways. While almost every text ultimately presents a canonically-based narrative, authors frequently express varying degrees of unease with those same frameworks. The result is a body of work which simultaneously reflects an attraction to and repulsion from the canon. Of central importance in this article will be an assessment of major jazz history texts published over the course of the last three decades, beginning with Frank Tirro’s Jazz: A History, and ending with the recently published Jazz by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins. These texts are examined both with respect to their own individual narratives and structures, as well as their reception within the scholarly community.



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ISSN 2155-109X