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Jazz with Mr. C: The Revised Definitive Jazz & Blues Encyclopedia

A Revised Encyclopedia Offers an Historic and Generic Education: Howard Mandel Talks Editing and the Publishing World.

By Jeff Cebulski

The revised Encyclopedia, published by Flame Tree

Until several years ago, the jazz world was rife with publications that had encyclopedic value. I regularly dipped into the All Music or the Penguin Guide jazz series for reference information and critical commentary about albums and their players. I am staring at an earlier edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, a warehouse of biographical information given to me by a librarian friend.

Those days are seemingly gone. All Music has retreated to their comprehensive website. Penguin’s last jazz series edition, the ninth, was published in 2008. The last New Grove jazz dictionary was released in 2002.

Meanwhile, one publication has pressed on, albeit with editions that reflect the publishing woes of the Internet age. Late last year, the new and expanded edition of the Definitive Jazz & Blues Encyclopedia, formerly the Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, was released. Its consultant editor is Chicago’s Howard Mandel, who began back in 2005 when he edited what was then the Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues.

The main difference, besides size, is in the title: “Illustrated” doesn’t quite cut it anymore. In order to create space for the “expansion” of information and keep the volume from becoming too unwieldy or expensive for postmodern readers, the publisher, Flame Tree, has removed practically all the predominant images from the new book, and everything left is smaller black and white.

While that might be less appealing to those of us raised on screen images, what replaces them is a better, deeper treatment of genre and subgenre, courtesy of wise coverage from Mandel, whose breadth of knowledge contributes meaningfully to a book that is as educational as it is recognizably less than exhaustive. His up-to-date categorization and inclusion of recent artists makes this book a rich resource for people wanting to learn the historical and generic breadth of America’s two original musical art forms. An educator wanting a text to guide students in this fashion would do well to consider it.

The Encyclopedia basically expands on the original format, which parses the wide range of material into decades and significant performers within those decades, providing a context for the musical evolution. Of course, certain artists will bridge two, even three decades, and part of the rhetorical value of the book rests in the decisions as to whom to put where in terms of significance. For this new edition, it was Flame Tree’s idea to mix the genres within each decade, something Mandel was not in agreement with.

I asked Mandel about that. Was there any such debate or give-and-take to that kind of decision-making as he edited this edition?

Not much, said Mandel in an email. Really the issue was how much or how little the publisher wanted it expanded, pagewise. I worked with Polly Prior of Flame Tree (in London) and she was sort of a managing editor, a good sounding board, but left the direction of the expansion to me. Hence, perhaps, an essay on Western swing but not on, say skiffle. The aspects of jazz I’m not interested in as a listener—like “smooth” or I don’t even know what to call it, commercial instrumental pseudo R&B or R&R “jazz”—I wanted to be responsible to its existence and try to highlight the best or most representative of the subgenre. Aspects I AM committed to, I just had to keep myself from overemphasizing while slipping into the rather institutionalized narrative. The other writers were on the same page.

The main problem, as usual with books that have to stick to a page limit, is what to include, what to excise, what to tone down. Mandel said that striking a balance was “very” difficult:

The most germane fact to me about jazz over the past twenty years has been the explosion of activity worldwide, coupled with new understanding that there has been “jazz” ideology, culture, and music almost globally since the idiom was first identified and disseminated, via piano rolls, sheet music, and performances even prior to the early 1920s. Also trying to rebalance coverage of women in jazz, about which we had not shined what I thought of as sufficient light upon in the first edition (I discovered when I started work on the second) was an issue to contend with. I originally proposed four times as many new biographical entries (by musicians’ names) than the new edition could accommodate. Hard to imagine how the volume can be contained in any future updating.

Mandel’s job as consultant editor took many shapes:

I proposed who we should cover, and corrected or updated info already published; I had to accept we could not be nearly as comprehensive and all-encompassing as would have been ideal. Again, I wrote entries (overviews of Latin jazz and Western swing, neither of which had been separately considered in the first edition), and edited the updating by other authors.

Fifteen veteran jazz/blues writers and media types, including Mandel, contributed to this volume. Those authors have impressive credentials; I recognize, especially, Ted Drozdowski, John McDonough, Bill Milkowski, and Bob Porter. The drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts wrote the foreward and is the “name” personality used to sell the book.

Broken into decades and then sections, the treatment includes Sources & Sounds, Key Artists, and an A–Z of Artists representing the era. It begins in The Early Years and lands in the 21st Century. Then come sections on style and instruments. An instructive glossary follows a comprehensive, alphabetical listing of artists mentioned in the book. The print gets smaller, but the detail is welcome.

The Encyclopedia avoids covering recordings, though they are referenced; the aforementioned All Music and Penguin publications are dedicated to that.

I asked Mandel, if he had his way, what else would be included. He said he would include

. . . much more comment on music called jazz and contributing to jazz from other continents than North America and Western Europe; consideration of advanced improvisation for techniques and dimensions that have been practiced for sixty years; deeper dive into interaction of jazz with pop music (like since Irving Berlin and the Gershwins) and classical forms or ensembles; something in jazz songwriting and lyrics jazz singers have enriched or created; jazz education; jazz in films and video; jazz in commercial applications (advertisements, Muzak-like services); use of the imagery of jazz (as distinct from the music); overviews of jazz radio, jazz festivals, jazz venues, record companies, producers, support organizations (non-profits), musicians’ unions and associations, jazz AUDIENCES (emphasis intended), philanthropic and governmental support of jazz. Those all seem like topics worth considering, noting there are many more that would round out our understanding of how jazz operates and the places it holds in our societies.

In other words, the whole gamut of jazz, which would be encyclopedic, indeed.

From my view, when I saw people like Jason Lindner, Dafnis Prieto, the Siegel-Schwall Band, Tyshawn Sorey, The Black Keys, and Jazzmeia Horn listed, I knew I was reading the work of trusted observers.

But one listing made me pause. Mandel decided to list the Rolling Stones’ longtime guitarist Keith Richards in the 21st Century. My sensibility would place him much earlier, in his prime, in the ’60s or ’70s. Turns out Mandel was impressed with Richards’ work on the Stones’ more recent blues album.

We hadn’t covered Keith in the first edition, he explained. The Stones had recently released Blue & Lonesome, which I thought was a very credible return to Chicago blues material, the kind of stuff they started with. I think he’s a stinging blues guitarist who deserves at least as much recognition for that as, say, Eric Clapton. Now Richards is no Hendrix, not a visionary or great innovator, but he has the feel and carries the torch, without self-consciousness or pretention.

As for me, I argue for Richards’ work on Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, but it’s not a big deal, even if Mick Taylor is not included and John Mayall is limited to his time with the Bluesbreakers (his Turning Point is a classic melding of blues and jazz). The great bassist Dave Holland is listed in the ’70s (associated with Miles Davis), while he was a dominant leader and composer in the late ’90s and early 2000s. And I’d like to have seen the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin in the mix. And no Mark Murphy or Kurt Elling? If you include Gregory Porter, you got to include the two predecessors, in my view. And . . . where’s Vonski? I know there are an abundance of great tenor saxophonists, but no room for him? One can argue for a while, and that is a fun aspect of projects like this one.

Many Chicago artists do get their space. Among them, Muhal Richard Adams; Fred Anderson Jr.; the Art Ensemble; Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and the Blues Band; Willie Dixon; Buddy Guy; Sam Lay; Magic Sam; Nicole Mitchell; Roscoe Mitchell; and practically everyone associated with the famous Chess-Chicago blues scene involving Muddy Waters.

Ultimately, given the refined scope of coverage, there’s not much to quibble about. I think Howard and his associated contributors get more right than not. His goal?

I hope that the book could be considered educational and reliable, informationally, but I hope it’s not overly serious, abstract, or pushing its points pedantically, academically. It’s intended to be a popular encyclopedia—it does not bear much in the way of scholarly apparatus.

And about its future? I am one that enjoys the hard copy. Mandel thinks

. . . this encyclopedia could/would be infinitely expandable and updatable if online, and significantly more useful if links to performances on video or recordings could be tapped while reading. I think that kind of evolution of e-books into multimedia is inevitable, although the rights issues stand as a challenge.

Jazz and blues educators and young, interested aficionados-to-be would do well to check out this new, updated reference work. The book can be purchased through,, and

On the side, I asked Howard for his view regarding a bounceback of the Chicago jazz scene, post first-wave Virus. He said,

Chicago musicians have the talent, and I assume younger musicians and veterans, too, will still have ambition and drive to play. Whether or when audiences will feel comfortable about attending public events is the question, I think. Personally, I doubt there will be much return until fall. I am afraid the Chicago Jazz Festival and Hyde Park Jazz Festival are vulnerable to cancellation. But like everyone else, I don’t know. And I wouldn’t believe anyone who told me they do know.

One can only hope for better times. Meanwhile, we can read, research, and listen, can’t we?


“Jazz with Mr. C” is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at

Jeff Celbulski

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