Kevin Whitehead

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Whitehead's articles on jazz and improvised music have appeared in such publications as Point of Departure, the Chicago Sun-Times, Village Voice, Down Beat, and the Dutch daily de Volkskrant.

He is the author of Why Jazz: A Concise Guide (2010), New Dutch Swing (1998), and (with photographer Ton Mijs) Instant Composers Pool Orchestra: You Have to See It (2011).

His essays have appeared in numerous anthologies including Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006, Discover Jazz and Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro-Black and Other Solar Myths.

Whitehead has taught at Towson University, the University of Kansas and Goucher College. He lives near Baltimore.

Drummer Chick Webb's 1930s orchestra terrorized competitors in band battles and sent dancers into orbit at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. They could be similarly explosive on record, but only rarely. Early on, they did have some hot Edgar Sampson arrangements that Benny Goodman would soon turn into hits, like "Blue Lou" and "Don't Be That Way." But the Webb band also had an old-school crooner, Charles Linton, with pre-jazz-age enunciation.

Steve Lacy used to say that the right partner can help you make music you couldn't get to by yourself. Take the quartet William Parker founded in 2000, for example. Parker's bass tone was always sturdy as a tree trunk, but power drummer Hamid Drake gives him lift. The upshot is that free jazz can swing, too. The quartet's front line is another firm partnership: quicksilver alto saxophonist Rob Brown and flinty trumpeter Lewis Barnes.

Tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin came to New York in 1958. Pianist Horace Parlan heard him and invited Ervin to sit in one night with a band he worked in. That's how Ervin got hired by bassist Charles Mingus, who featured him on albums like Blues and Roots and Mingus Ah Um.

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar grew up near Chicago, playing jazz trumpet. In the early 2000s, while in his mid-20s, he began investigating the music of his Iraqi heritage, studying in Baghdad and with expatriate musicians in Europe. Then he began combining the two.

Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal started playing when he was 3 years old in Pittsburgh, which means he's now been playing for 80 years. His new album, Saturday Morning, often recalls his elegant trios of yesteryear, with its tightly synchronized arrangements, plenty of open space and deceptively simple charm.

The quartet on jazz bassist Dave Holland's new album Prism is more electrified, and usually louder, than bands he's led before. Some reviewers see its music coming out of his early work with the electrified Miles Davis, but the parallel doesn't go far. Holland played bass guitar with Davis, not his usual bass violin. Plus, early electric Davis was gloriously unruly, while Holland loves the elegance of interlocking rhythm cycles, wheels within wheels.

Jazz pianist Art Hodes, born in Russia in 1904, grew up near Chicago. His recording career really took off in the 1940s in New York, where he also hosted a radio show and wrote for the magazine The Jazz Record. Later, he moved back to Chicago and the atmosphere that nurtured him.

In 1958, at an arts festival in Yorkshire, Duke Ellington was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. They tied up the reception line for a few minutes, exchanging royal pleasantries; our Duke politely flirted with Her Majesty. Soon afterward, maybe that very night, Ellington outlined the movements of The Queen's Suite. He recorded it with his orchestra the following year, sent it to Her Majesty, and declined to release it to the public in his lifetime. It's not clear whether Queen Elizabeth has listened to it.

On Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans' trio version of Ornette Coleman's "Blues Connotation," drummer Donald Edwards and bassist Eric Revis set a New Orleans second-line groove tinged with vintage hip-hop. A beat like that is catnip to Evans, who gets right down and rolls in it.

In jazz, the clarinet went into eclipse for awhile, drowned out by louder trumpets and saxes. The instrument has long since made a comeback, and the modern clarinet thrives in settings where it doesn't have to shout to be heard.

Take "Spindleshanks," a little out-of-sync boogie-woogie for Darryl Harper's clarinet and Kevin Harris' piano. It's from Harper's The Edenfred Files. In his long-running Onus Trio, the spare unit Darryl Harper features on most of his new album, he can sing softly as an owl in the night.

Portland, Ore. tenor saxophonist Rich Halley's quartet album Crossing the Passes on his Pine Eagle label commemorates a week-long trek over the Wallowa mountain range in Northeast Oregon, where Halley's been climbing since he was a boy. We could talk about his dual obsessions with music and nature as cultivating a love of wide-open improvisational spaces; he's got one band that only plays outdoors. But all that climbing also has practical benefits: It builds lung-power.

At the keys, Duke Ellington abstracted from stride piano, which modernized ragtime. Ellington's own spare percussive style then refracted through Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, as well as a generation of freewheeling pianists active in Europe, like Aki Takase. Her new solo piano album is My Ellington, on which she plays some stride bass herself, as in "In a Mellow Tone."

Singer Cécile McLorin Salvant was born in Miami to French and Haitian parents, and started singing jazz while living in Paris. Back in the U.S., she won the Thelonious Monk vocal competition in 2010. The 23-year-old's first album, WomanChild, is now out — and few jazz debuts by singers or instrumentalists make this big a splash.

Singer Sarah Vaughan came up in the 1940s alongside bebop lions Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, starting out in Earl Hines' big band. Hines had hired her as his singer and deputy pianist, while Gillespie praised her fine ear for chords as she grasped the arcane refinements of bebop harmony.

Woody Herman, who would have turned 100 on Thursday, bloomed early and late — and then later still. He turned pro by age 9, singing and dancing in movie theaters on summer vacation. He'd perform one song deemed too risqué for radio when he recorded it decades later: "My Gee Gee From the Fiji Isles."

Bing Crosby was the biggest thing in pop singing in the 1930s, a star on radio and in the movies. He remained a top star in the '40s, when Frank Sinatra began giving him competition.

By 1928, Earl Hines was jazz's most revolutionary pianist, for two good reasons. His right hand played lines in bright, clear octaves that could cut through a band. His left hand had a mind of its own. Hines could play fast stride and boogie bass patterns, but then his southpaw would go rogue — it'd seem to step out of the picture altogether, only to slide back just in time.

The release last year of a 2007 reunion by the late Sam Rivers' trio confirmed what a creative drummer Altschul is. He has been one for decades. Altschul was a key player on the 1970s jazz scene, when the avant-garde got its groove on. Now, as then, he's great at mixing opposites: funky drive with a spray of dainty coloristic percussion, abstract melodic concepts with parade beats, open improvising and percolating swing. He's a busy player, but never too loud — he's also busy listening.

Ben Goldberg has been a staple of San Francisco's improvisational-music scene ever since he helped put together the New Klezmer Trio two decades ago. More recently, as a member of the quartet Tin Hat, he's set e.e. cummings poems to music. In between, he's recorded in a wide variety of settings, sometimes including other prominent Bay Area players — as on two new albums for different quintets.

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's quartet can sound like it's cross-pollinating Indian classical music and vintage Captain Beefheart. That befits a bicultural saxophonist who grew up in Boulder, where his Hindu family had a Christmas tree. For a long time, Mahanthappa resisted combining jazz and Indian music — it was almost too obvious a trajectory. But then he got serious about it.

On a new box set collecting the first four albums of Jack DeJohnette and his band Special Edition, two discs are gems and the other two have their moments. DeJohnette's quartet-slash-quintet was fronted by smoking saxophonists on the way up, set loose on catchy riffs and melodies. The springy rhythm section could tweak the tempos like no one this side of '60s goddess Laura Nyro.

Grant Green, The Holy Barbarian, St. Louis, 1959 could be the name of a fine stage play, perhaps based on the actual circumstances of the recording. One musician on the way up, another past his moment in the limelight and one more who had his chance but never quite made it all convene on Christmas night, part of their week-long stand at the Holy Barbarian, a beatnik hangout replete with chess players and a local artist painting portraits.

Jazz lost many great saxophonists in 2012, including David S. Ware, John Tchicai, Byard Lancaster, Faruq Z. Bey, Hal McKusick and Red Holloway.

On a new box set from mail-order house Mosaic Records, Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65, the jazz legend's bands usually number between five and eight players. The bassist often made those bands sound bigger. He'd been using midsize ensembles since the '50s, but his new ones were more flexible than ever, light on their feet but able to fill in backgrounds like a large group.