802 Bookshelf: The Biographical Encyclopedia Of Jazz

by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, Oxford University Press, 1999, 718 pages, $49.95 hardcover.

Volume XCIX, No. 11December, 1999

Bill Crow

Praise be, the new encyclopedia is finally here! Feather’s original “Encyclopedia of Jazz” was published in 1955, and an updated version came out in 1960. Companion volumes – “The Encyclopedia Yearbooks of Jazz” and “The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties” by Feather, and “The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies” by Feather and Gitler – became staples of the jazz reference shelf. In the 1980s Horizon Press, the publisher of the entire series, went out of business. It took Feather and Gitler until 1990 to find a new publisher and sufficient funding to continue the project.

Since so much time had passed the authors decided against another update. They began a new book, with fuller biographies of musicians who had been in the previous books plus the addition of musicians who had come on the scene since the 1976 edition. Feather, writing in Los Angeles, and Gitler, writing in New York, worked on the biographies until Feather’s death in 1994, after which Gitler saw the work through to completion.

Most of the original entries have been rewritten and brought up to date. Due to the large number of entries (more than 3,300), the authors decided, in the interests of saving space, to eliminate the photographs and peripheral essays that had been included in the original encyclopedia, hence the addition of the word “Biographical” to the title.

Another space saver is the heavy use of abbreviations. A handy list of them appears early in the book and, after a bit of browsing, one quickly gets the hang of them. The bios are quite thorough, giving thumbnail sketches of musicians’ vital statistics, musical backgrounds, career highlights and recordings. Detective work by Gitler and his assistants has corrected many earlier dating errors, although the passing of time unfortunately creates more missing death dates even as the ink dries on this printing.

This volume is a welcome addition to the bookshelf of readers interested in jazz at any level. Serious students of the art and its artists will find it indispensable.