The Knowledge: Jazz by John Fordham (Quadrille: 2015) is a small, compact book that gives people a way into jazz. This book is clearly designed for people with absolutely no knowledge of jazz, and Fordham- The Guardian’s long standing jazz critic- writes in such a way that the complexities are not overwhelming for novices. As most basic jazz texts are this book is arranged chronologically with a basic chronology chapter (‘A Hundred Years of Jazz in Sixty Minutes’- though it only takes about 10 minutes to read), and then a series of chapters that discuss the visionaries and key musicians in each era. These chapters are very basic and certainly cannot get into how many musicians played important roles in multiple eras. However, these chapters give the novice reader a good overview about some of the key musicians in each period. Two really great features of this book are chapter 9- A Guide to Jazz Speak, and chapter 10 ‘Why They Mattered- Recordings and Influences’. The glossary gives really good basic definitions about common jazz terms and a few instrumental terms, such as ‘multiphonics’, that are used frequently in some forms of jazz. The grey insert pages are also interesting (though I have to say that white font on dove grey background is not the best combination for reading), and succinctly fill in gaps or expand on ideas.
This book isn’t perfect, there are a few factual mistakes- Dave Brubeck did not leave veterinary studies to study with Darius Milhaud: he did his undergraduate degree and served in the Army before studying Milhaud on the GI Bill after World War Two. This may be a small thing, but it is an important distinction because those intervening years were important to Brubeck’s musical development. Also, Diana Krall is Canadian, not American, which is a small but important distinction (particularly to Canadians!). There is also one very egregious copy editing/formatting mistake on page 64 lines 2-3 (you can play spot the mistake- it took my brain a minute of going over those lines to figure it out). There are also events that are glossed over and end up giving a different impression of how things were than was actually the case.
All in all however, this is a good book for the novice trying to get into jazz. It isn’t a textbook or an in depth (or even mildly deep) history, but it’s not at all intimidating. It’s also small enough that you can read it from cover to cover in about an hour and a half if you’re so inclined. I would recommend it to anyone who’s just starting their jazz journey.