Reviewed in the United States on July 15, 2012
As one might expect from the author of the recent and superb biography of Thelonious Monk, Professor Robin Kelley has given us a fine, if smaller, book, an offshoot of the Nathan Huggins lectures. The subject here is the modern, rather than longer historical, interplay of American and African jazz music, focusing on the Ghanaian drummer Guy Warren, the great American pianist Randy Weston (who deservedly gets the lion's share of attention), the South African singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, and what we learn here is the American oud and bass player Ahmed Abdul-Malik, despite his lifelong claims to be Sudabese. Kelley questions neither his nor the others' musical credentials, nor their earnestness in spreading the music across the Atlantic in either direction. I should clarify that while Kelley does not re-inter the longstanding debate of the African roots of jazz, or AfrAmerican culture more generally (his conclusions in that regard are clear), his treatment of mid- to late-twentieth century history, particularly of South Africa, and its context for the music, is outstanding and welcome.
One of the most fascinating phenomena of jazz in recent years has been the cross-pollination of jazz with various forms of world music--- Latin American, Asian, even Klezmer--- in terms of style, rhythms, and instrumentation. Of all these, though, the African/America connection has, for historical reasons, the most resonance, and Kelley convincingly explores this, for want of a better word (and it is my word, not his) symmetry. It is elegantly written, informed, useful, and very entertaining, and adds (along with his own recent memoir) to what ought to be Mr. Weston's growing esteem and importance, which is not to denigrate the others covered here.
My minor quibbles--- and they are indeed minor--- should probably be laid not at Kelley's doorstep, but at his publishers', of all places, Harvard University Press, and its copy-editing department. It is one thing to transpose the author David Hajdu's name as "Hadju", but quite another in a book and by an author of this stature to repeatedly add an "s" to the surname of music producer and pioneer John Hammond. This is, however, the merest tiny burr under the reader's saddle, and in no real way detracts from the quality of this wonderful book.