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Stories of jazz's journey from pop music to `art'

Swing to Bop, by Ira Gitler. New York: Oxford University Press. 331 pp. $22.50. Subtitled ``An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s,'' Ira Gitler's ``Swing to Bop'' explores that all-important period of change wherein jazz was transformed from pop music to art form. He does this not with his own words (except for a few comments here and there), but with words straight from the horse's mouth -- from the musicians who lived through those years and played and heard the music.

What emerges is enlightening, engrossing, and, above all, entertaining. I've yet to encounter anything quite as amusing as a ``musician's story,'' and this book is chock full of musician's stories -- all the crazy, wacky, off-the-wall things that can happen on the road, in the clubs, in the studios, or just about anywhere a jazz musician hangs or wears his hat.

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On the serious side, we get a straight-on look at racial prejudice, especially that directed against bands traveling in the South in the '30s and '40s, and the camaraderie among the musicians themselves which aided and abetted the breakdown of those attitudes.

Red Rodney, a white trumpeter who associated with many black musicians, states that jazz life in the bebop era was ``the one area in American life where there was honestly and sincerely no prejudice whatsoever. Nothing. We lived together. Ate together. Thought together. Felt together.'' He goes on to say that the black revolution of the '60s put a damper on this togetherness for a while, but adds, ``It's come back now, though. Now I feel good vibes.''

Mr. Gitler has carefully arranged his quotes to bring out the major reasons for the changes in the music: a growing impatience with the highly structured format of the big bands and the desire for more solo space; a need to break away from conventional harmonies and reach out for something more challenging; the great changes going on in America and the world during and after World War II.

He has transcribed his interviews and reproduced them with painstaking accuracy, down to jazz vernacular (which he occasionally explains in footnotes), bad grammar, pauses, changes of thought in mid-sentence, and so on. This, along with many personal events and experiences not related directly to the music, add flavor to the book and help put the reader right into the middle of the jazz scene.

The inclusion of little known or unknown figures from the transitional period between swing and bop is helpful and interesting, along with the realization that the recording ban imposed at that time by the Musicians' Union was responsible for the anonymity of many of these figures.

We're also given some clues as to how the beboppers felt about themselves, the music, the times -- why they used drugs, and why they lost the audiences.

It all makes one pause and realize that jazz really hasn't yet recovered from its transition from pop to art, and that the United States still needs to wake up to the fact that her own kind of classical music has indeed ``grown up.''

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Amy Duncan writes on jazz for the Monitor.

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