Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Jazz Criticism

June 20th, 2003


JJM   Martin Williams wrote, “We have a favorite pastime in jazz — we musicians, reviewers, historians, journalists, fans. When we get together in almost any combination, the conversation will sooner or later turn to laments that jazz is not understood, does not have the respect, the prestige, the support that the music has rightfully earned and that our symphonies and opera companies have.” How important is it to a critic that jazz be respected or “understood?”

GG  I remember the period when a statement like that would have been true. It is certainly not true now. Maybe we have become, not cynical, but too accepting of the situation. We know jazz is going to be passed over by the Pulitzer and trivialized by the Grammy, and so forth. In other ways, jazz is too respected. Now conversations are usually about whether anyone is excited about a new recording or recent performance, and who’s new on the scene. The question about prestige is an old one, and I think it has largely disappeared.

JJM  Many of us are attracted to jazz not only because the music reaches us, but also because it resides outside the mainstream culture. Isn’t that part of the appeal and would we be as excited about the music if it were a more integral part of the popular culture?

GG  I don’t know. I don’t agree with that. There are certain recordings I listen to that still amaze me because no one knows about them. When I listen to a Count Basie record, and my heart is fluttering along with Lester Young, I catch myself thinking that maybe two percent of the nation’s population knows this music. Yet it was popular in its day, and I have no doubt that if it had more exposure, it would find a level of popularity in our day as well.

I will tell you something that jazz critics used to talk about all the time. “How did you get into it?” In no other field do people say that. “How did you get into books?” or “How did you get into film?” How could you not get into them? But in order to appreciate jazz, most of us had to step outside the boundaries of our regular lives, because it is not readily available. It is not a question of whether it becomes a popular music. The question is whether it is allowed to reach its potential. One thing we learned from the Ken Burns series is that people all over the country watched it. They got involved with some of the stories and artists. Jazz record sales doubled in February of that year and declined when the show finished. I was on a book tour immediately after the Burns program aired, and every place I went, people would want to tell me about their experiences with jazz. A guy in Chicago told me, with astonishment, that his fourteen-year-old daughter came home from Tower Records with two CD’s — Britney Spears and Louis Armstrong. So, even kids were responding. You just have to assume that if the music were available on radio and television, and not just as homework in survey classes, that a lot more people would awaken to its pleasures.

People forget that in the early and mid sixties there were many jazz hits. There was “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Desifinado,” “The Sidewinder,” “Hello Dolly,” “Take Five,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “The In Crowd,” and others. There was a real window for jazz producers to take advantage. Few of them did.

JJM In the introduction to Visions of Jazz, you wrote, “A jazz classicism that can keep alive the music of Ellington and Basie and Lunceford and Gil Evans, yet fails to coexist with the most vital of jazz traditions — its inventiveness, irreverence, and canny involvement with other musics and life as we live it — will produce a dozen lovely plaster busts for home or school and a gorgeously ornate headstone.” Does the past become so mythologized that the present holds little luster with critics and fans?

GG  The jazz audience is generational. People like the music that aroused their interest when they were young. They don’t necessarily follow it into the next period. At the JVC Festival recently, there was a Bix Beiderbecke concert, and some guy told me that this was the best jazz band he had heard in forty years. I couldn’t even respond to that. Clearly he only wanted to hear this kind of music. There are a lot of people like that. I have met people over the years for whom jazz ended with Bird or Stan Getz or Ellington. Critics are often generalists who try to follow the entire development of the music. Most listeners do not. In downtown New York, the avant-garde fans pay lip service to the earlier players — they know and love some of them — but that is not where their focus is. People who listen to traditional jazz basically ignore what the avant-garde does. That’s the way it’s always been and always will be. Most people who buy subscriptions to Mostly Mozart do not support The Kitchen.

There is a mainstream sound now that can be characterized as a “post-Miles Davis sound,” and when concerts feature musicians who came up in the generation of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and the Breckers, an audience is there for them. For many people jazz begins with Miles. I recently received the souvenir book for the Playboy Jazz Festival, and would you believe there was not one Louis Armstrong performance among their list of the twenty-five essential jazz recordings? That’s insane.

JJM  Do people concern themselves too much with trying to define what is and isn’t jazz?

GG  I don’t like the idea of trying to put a button on jazz, strictly defining the parameters, saying, “If you don’t do this you are not playing jazz.” I don’t think it is true of any art form. I remember a writer in the Times saying once that not being able to define jazz was like not being able to define baroque. The guy was an idiot, because, of course, you can’t define baroque. Baroque is a very large category in which all kinds of aesthetic worlds co-mingle. That is also true of jazz, and I certainly don’t think somebody should be penalized for attempting to stretch the music in a different direction. When people try to stop the clock, they stop artistic pursuit, they limit the emotional response that we have to art. If stopping the clock is what gives them pleasure, fine, but I don’t think that’s good for the art, and it certainly has no appeal to me.

JJM  In addressing that, you wrote, “Spoilsports emerge who want to establish more exclusive laws of jazz immigration. Unlike Ellington, who reveled in diversity and abhorred restrictions, the guardians of musical morality are appalled by such latitude, and mean to cleanse jazz of impurities transmitted through contact with the European classics, American pop, new music, and other mongrel breeds.”

GG  Well, Ellington was attacked for “Reminiscing in Tempo” for the same reasons that musicians are being attacked now, whether it is Dave Douglas for playing Balkan rhythms or Don Byron for mixing classical and jazz. In a sense, that is the obligation of the artist, to play what he knows. That’s an old literary cliché. What do you write about? You write about what you know. You play what you know. You paint what you know. You give free reign to your imagination. No artist abides by a rulebook. Why would critics want to imagine that a rulebook could or should exist? It never has, it never will.

JJM  What do you make of Stanley Crouch’s argument that there is an attempt by certain critics to downplay jazz music’s African American heritage and stretch the jazz idiom to include more white, European in-fluenced musical explorations?

GG  There may be, I don’t know. If he is upset because there are a few writers writing like that, then I agree with him — there are fools in every idiom. I don’t know a serious jazz critic who would want to argue that jazz is not at its base an African American form. At the same time, we also know that there have been great white players from the very beginning, and that there have been great players in Europe from almost the very beginning. If it was just a black music it would be a folk music and it would have had no more international impact than bluegrass. But jazz is an international art. It is bigger than any one artist or any one people or any one nation. Nevertheless, we all know where it comes from. We know that most of its great artists have been black and continue to be black, but I think you want to be very careful about how far you go with that. I don’t think you want to sit in the theater and say, “Well, I don’t know, can Bill Charlap really play?” I know Stanley would never say something like that.

It seems to me that the great white players are the ones who don’t imitate their black idols. For example, Stan Getz was not an interesting player when he was just playing Dexter Gordon and Lester Young licks. It is when he discovered who he was and started playing himself that he became a truly great jazz musician. To achieve anything of value you have to show who you are. Louis Armstrong said that jazz is what you are. The saxophonist Brew Moore once said that if you don’t play like Lester Young, you are playing wrong. That is why most of the people reading this conversation never heard of Moore — a very good tenor player if you want to hear somebody playing Lester Young riffs. But he never went much further than that. The great players play who they are, where they come from, what they know.

The foundation of the music, in terms of swing, timbre, blue notes, harmonies, melodies, riffs, call-and-response — well, we know where that comes from. It comes from the church, created in America by Negroes. As Art Blakey never tired of saying, it did not come from Africa. There are elements that come from Africa but the genius of Louis Armstrong is American — it may be America’s saving grace. It certainly did not come from Europe, even though he uses a European system of harmony. At this point, after one hundred years, if people in Europe decide that instead of wanting to learn the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, their real gods are Ellington, Armstrong and Parker, who will complain about that? Let them work in that idiom. If they produce something good, cool. If not, then, good try. What else is there to say?

JJM   The critic Martha Bayles said in a recent Jerry Jazz Musician conversation on jazz criticism that art evolves, and its evolution doesn’t mean that the next generation’s art is going to be better than that of the previous generation, it just means it is going to be different.

GG  Yes, and that is what critics do. Critics chronicle and evaluate the music as it comes to them. That is pretty much the limit of what we do. I don’t think that at our best we are proselytizers waging arguments about who is legitimate and who isn’t. Everybody has to be taken on their own speed. I have often said, and I think I said this to you in our conversation about Cecil Taylor, that if Taylor had been white and had come out of a different background, he might have been playing to a different audience.

JJM  Yes, and he would have been recording for Deutsche Gramophone.

GG  Exactly. For whatever reason, Taylor came into my life; I was pursuing jazz and I stumbled across him and I am grateful I did. Now, if you want to argue that on some level it is not jazz, I would be happy to debate you on that subject. But I don’t really give a shit. As I’ve said before, you can call it whatever you want. All I know is that his music fills me with joy, and so does Bud Powell’s and Fats Waller’s. I am glad that they exist.

The name “jazz” simply cannot contain all the music that exists under the umbrella — and that is a tribute to jazz, a tribute to the African American achievement, a tribute to a music that has survived for over one hundred years without much support from the establishment, without a majority audience. Yet it continues to attract young musicians of great talent. I am sure Jason Moran could find a lot of ways to make bigger bucks, going on tour as many of his predecessors did, supporting pop and soul groups. Instead, he comes to New York to contribute something to this great tradition. In every generation we get those kinds of artists. The other night, with Gerald Wilson, I heard a gifted young trumpet player named Sean Jones. I guarantee you will be hearing a lot from him. Thank God for these guys.

JJM  Francis Davis writes in “Advertisements for Myself,” the introduction to his collection of essays called Like Young, “I admit to addressing my fellow critics as well as potential record buyers.” Do you ever find yourself addressing your fellow critics in addition to your audience?

GG  I don’t. I never do. Unless I am taking on another critic, which I try not to do unless I read something that really really pisses me off. When I go into the alternative universe of writing, the person I mostly write for is me. I am writing in part to the kind of fan I was when I was sixteen or seventeen, reading jazz criticism. I’m writing the kind of work that I like to read, writing to explain to myself what I’m hearing and thinking.

I was a substitute movie critic for Jim Hoberman in 1990, and during that time I discovered that even though I was writing the same amount of words every week, I was doing it in half the time. One reason is that so much of film writing is concrete — that is, it deals with plot and material that you have to put in about the acting, photography, and so forth. There is far less of that when you write about music. So much of it is abstract. You are looking for concrete terms to describe the ineffable, especially when, like me, you can’t rely on the specifics of musicology. There are times when I would love to be able to explain why a particular chord moves me, or write about the way a sixth chord works in a certain context, or understand a particular cycle of harmonies. I don’t know any of that stuff so I am forced to rely on more traditional literary means. Writing to other critics doesn’t interest me at all. What am I going to tell a Francis Davis or a Dan Morgenstern or Stanley Crouch? I’d be scared to death if every time I started typing I imagined them looking over my shoulder.

JJM  Not being a musician, I have often had trouble maintaining an interest in a musical biography where the music is discussed in detail.

GG  I love that stuff, actually. I enjoy putting on records and then reading the musical transcriptions. That’s great fun. As a critic, I have been very grateful to Gunther Schuller for his Early Jazz transcriptions. I function in a different world, as most critics do. If you are writing in a popular journal for a mainstream audience, you can’t do musicology — even if you have the ability. Something else I have discovered over the years is that people who have that ability very often don’t have ears. I was so intimidated once, meeting a music professor after I did a lecture at his university, and then he told me that the greatest trombonist who ever lived was Bart Varsalona. This guy could listen to a J.J. Johnson or Jack Teagarden solo and write it right out, but not necessarily feel it. It’s a separate talent.

JJM  Before we get to the “Blindfold Test,” I know you want to say something about the state of the art of jazz criticism.

GG  Yes. I often read people complaining about how bad the state of jazz criticism is. There was an article in The Nation about how low the level is. Yet no school of criticism from my generation — the baby boomer generation — has shown more talent than the jazz guys. Not in film, literature, dance, or classical music criticism can you find as many solid and devoted critics as Stanley Crouch, Bob Blumenthal, J.R. Taylor when he was writing, Don Heckman, Francis Davis, Scott DeVeaux, Peter Keepnews, Larry Kart, Will Friedwald, John Litweiler, Gene Santoro, John Corbett, Gene Seymour, Kelvyn Williams, Steve Futterman, Ben Ratliff, Ted Gioia, Bill Milkowski, Howard Mandel, Eugene Holley, Bill Kirchner, Ashley Kahn, Fred Kaplan, Ted Pankin, Lewis Porter, John Szwed, and others. There are so many critics out there who have their own voices. The field of jazz criticism is very much alive, and a lot of important work has been done over the past thirty years. When I was growing up, jazz biography was almost unheard of. The few that existed were crap — they read like ersatz novels. Now there is an upsurge is real scholarship. Are there idiots out there too? That goes without saying. But on balance, I’d be very proud to be counted among those I’ve mentioned.

JJM  We are living in the days where everyone can be a critic. “Do it yourself” reviews are available on and on many popular web sites, jazz sites included. How do you feel about that?

GG  There used to be a magazine that did that. I think it was called Different Drummer. It was inexpensive looking, all white with black print, and very little art work as I recall — all amateur stuff. I hated it! Criticism isn’t an amateur pursuit, it’s a serious craft, sometimes raised to an art. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very interested in opinions — I get letters all the time from readers who know a lot more than I do — but criticism goes beyond opinion. It’s a literary, not a musical pursuit, and something you have to work at.

You know, a Stanley Crouch may say something you think is preposterous, but he has earned the right to say it, if for no other reason than because he has lived his whole life inside this music. He has spent more time in clubs than almost anybody else I know. If this is a conclusion that he comes to, he has the right to say it, and you have to give him respect even as you disagree. I don’t feel that way about some guy who owns eleven records and once went to a show at the Village Vanguard. I am just not that interested.

One difference between professional and amateur critics is that amateurs almost always prefer to write about themselves — “the first time I heard this record” kind of thing. Jesus, sometimes I’m tempted to do it myself, and I go a little overboard in that direction in the intro to my next book. Maybe it’s a consequence of getting older. But you do try to keep a lid on it; when a writer begins to see the artists he writes about as supporting characters in his own life, he’s in trouble. Perception outweighs memory.


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