Jazz history is filled with great moments and musicians, reported on over the years by critics whose work influenced the music’s path. Rudi Blesh, Martin Williams, Albert Murray, Dan Morgenstern, Nat Hentoff, Gene Lees, Leonard Feather, Whitney Balliett, and Stanley Crouch are just a handful of the critics whose liner notes, columns, opinions and histories we read while deepening our desires to grow with the music. The writer whose work is perhaps most renown is Gary Giddins, the award-winning writer who for years wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, and who I was privileged to interview several times about a variety of interesting topics in our Conversations with Gary Giddins series.
In June, 2003, Giddins and I talked about his ascension as a jazz writer, and included his candid observations of other prominent critics. The discussion concluded with a unique “Blindfold Test” that asked Giddins to name the jazz writer responsible for the essay excerpt he is spontaneously shown. It is a timeless view of […] Continue reading »
“If you look at the Grove Dictionary of Jazz, it is three volumes of jazz history and it embodies a never-ending challenge to discover all those artists. I think the important thing is to look beyond the most celebrated names. In this regard, jazz is profoundly different from nineteenth century classical music, where the pantheon has proven remarkably stable. A jazz listener will want to hear Miles Davis — his reputation is there for a reason — but so much of the fun in jazz lies in finding those distinct personalities who were extremely individual and inventive, yet abide in relative obscurity.”
This comment was made by the most eminent jazz writer Gary Giddins during our “Conversations with Gary Giddins” series, in which he talked about underrated jazz musicians. This particular conversation — from 2004 — concerns underrated jazz guitarists.
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In 1960, Eric Dolphy told Down Beat magazine, “At home I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds.” This imitation of birds (who, according to Dolphy, sing in “quarter tones”) was embraced by none other than John Coltrane, who said that the addition of Dolphy — and his philosophy — to his quartet “turned [the quartet] all around.” Dolphy’s playing helped set the stage for the music Coltrane would create later.
Also critical was their friendship, which was especially important to Coltrane since he was so consumed at the time by his alcohol and heroin abuse. Quoting a Coltrane friend, John Fraim writes in his 1996 biography Spirit Catcher: The Life and Art of John Coltrane that “outside of Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy was his [Coltrane’s] only true […] Continue reading »
Few music writers had the resume of San Francisco’s Ralph J. Gleason: Columbia University School of Journalism; critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, where, in 1950, his criticism of popular music was the first such column in an American daily newspaper (before Gleason, newspapers regularly reviewed classical music only); produced the Jazz Casual television show for public television; witnessed and reported on all of the happenings of San Francisco during a time now known as the “San Francisco Renaissance,” when Gleason effectively connected the diverse endeavors of the era’s progressive musicians, literary figures, and comedians into an artistic aesthetic; co-founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival; writer on many a jazz record liner note (the next time you pull out Miles’ Bitches Brew, check out Gleason’s poetic description); contributing writer to Ramparts; co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine.
John Gennari, author of Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics – itself an important history of jazz journalism – described Gleason as “the jazz critic who […] Continue reading »
What was the essence of John Coltranes achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What was it about his improvising, his bands, his compositions, his place within his era of jazz that left so many musicians and listeners so powerfully drawn to him? What would a John Coltrane look like now — or are we looking for the wrong signs?
The acclaimed jazz writer Ben Ratliff addresses these questions in Coltrane. First Ratliff tells the story of Coltranes development, from his first recordings as a no-name navy bandsman to his last recordings as a near-saint, paying special attention to the last ten years of his life, which contained a remarkable series of breakthroughs in a nearly religious search for deeper expression. […] Continue reading »
Long recognized as America’s most brilliant jazz writer, the winner of many major awards — including the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award — and author of a highly popular biography of Bing Crosby, Gary Giddins has also produced a wide range of stimulating and original cultural criticism in other fields. With Natural Selection, he brings together the best of these previously uncollected essays, including a few written expressly for this volume. […] Continue reading »
In a wide-ranging conversation, Gary Giddins — for many years the country’s most eminent jazz critic whose most recent collection of cultural criticism is titled Natural Selection — talks about his recent trip to Brazil’s Ouro Preto International Jazz Festival, the business of jazz festivals and touring, jazz education, and the debate concerning where today’s cutting-edge of jazz resides. […] Continue reading »
Stanley Crouch — MacArthur “genius” award recipient, co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, National Book Award nominee, and perennial bull in the china shop of black intelligentsia — has been writing about jazz and jazz artists for over thirty years. His reputation for controversy is exceeded only by a universal respect for his intellect and passion. As Gary Giddins notes: “Stanley may be the only jazz writer out there with the kind of rhinoceros hide necessary to provoke and outrage and then withstand the fulminations that come back.” […] Continue reading »
In the illustrious and richly documented history of American jazz, no figure has been more controversial than the jazz critic. Jazz critics can be revered or reviled often both but they should not be ignored. And while the tradition of jazz has been covered from seemingly every angle, until now, nobody has ever turned the pen back on itself to chronicle the many writers who have helped define how we listen to and how we understand jazz. In Blowin Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics, John Gennari provides a definitive history of jazz criticism from the 1920s to the present. […] Continue reading »
The world of jazz criticism is enriched every time Gary Giddins brings out a new book, and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century, bulges with riches. The collection is mostly drawn from his recently-ended Village Voice column (also called “Weather Bird”), with the addition of significant essays published elsewhere. Even faithful readers of the Voice will find ample new Giddins material here. […] Continue reading »