John Gennari, author of Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics

August 21st, 2006

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. The music itself is prominent in his account, as are the musicians — from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Roscoe Mitchell, and beyond. But the work takes its shape from fascinating stories of the tradition’s key critic s— Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins, and Stanley Crouch, among many others. Gennari shows the many ways these critics have mediated the relationship between the musicians and the audience — not merely as writers, but in many cases as producers, broadcasters, concert organizers, and public intellectuals as well.

For Gennari, the jazz tradition is not so much a collection of recordings and performances as it is a rancorous debate — the dissonant noise clamoring in response to the sounds of jazz. Against the backdrop of racial strife, class and gender issues, war, and protest that has defined the past seventy-five years in America, Blowin’ Hot and Cool brings to the fore jazz’s most vital critics and the role they have played not only in defining the history of jazz but also in shaping jazz’s significance in American culture and life.#

In an August, 2006 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Gennari discusses his book, described by Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn author David Hajdu as “groundbreaking and essential.”

 

 

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“The Giants of Jazz,” by Jazzamoart

“Jazz and its history are full of dislocations, heresy, iconoclasm, and stupendous feats of imagination. Jazz criticism should be no less gloriously messy.”

– John Gennari

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Giant Steps, by John Coltrane

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JJM  The history of jazz criticism is a huge topic, and one we will only be able to scratch the surface of. You wrote, “It has taken me quite some time to untangle the dynamics of influence, affiliation, and antagonism between these writers…” How difficult was this assignment?

JB  It was a huge challenge. It originated in the early 1990’s as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. I finished it in 1993, and then took the better part of the next decade to put it into book form. I decided to do the book because an essay I wrote in 1991 on jazz criticism got a huge amount of attention. It was published in Black American Literature Forum — a small journal now known as African American Review — as part of a special issue called something like “The Literature of Jazz.” One of the other essays was a brilliant piece on jazz historiography by Scott Deveaux that is probably the most important writing on academic jazz studies of the last 20 years. At the time, Scott was already a tenured professor, while I was a student struggling to get through graduate school. So it astonished me that I could be published alongside Scott, providing me with the legitimacy of a scholar. When I read that essay now, it seems lacking in so many respects, but the reason it got attention was not because it was a great essay, but because there hadn’t been any effort to systematically study the history of criticism — this was happening at a time when Jazz Studies was just making its way into the university curriculum. The success of the essay made the book that much more difficult to write because I was laboring under the expectations that I would really tell this story in a comprehensive kind of way.

Since then, this field of study has really grown up, and there’s so much excellent work out there — and not just from academics, but from critics as well. To take one example: when Gary Giddins publishes a collection of essays or biographies of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby, these are major works of cultural criticism and American cultural history.  I knew this was a big topic, and all the research was taking me in different areas. All along, I had the sense that I would have to define the borders so I could create a narrative and tell a story. And, because the topic is so big, I know there are many stories I have not told, and hopefully those will be told by others who wish to dig deeper than I was able to.

JJM  You make the case that jazz critics are more crucial to its music than rock and roll critics were to rock music. Why?

JB  In part it has to do with the differences of the two music types. During the 1930’s swing era, jazz was popular music in a way that rock became the popular music of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and on down to this moment in time. The fact there had been jazz criticism in the 1930’s helped the rock critics of the 1960’s do their thing. By the 1960’s, the idea that there should be criticism of something other than classical music — or what could have been conventionally coded as “high art music” — had already been started by the jazz critics of the 1930’s. I don’t know how familiar the important rock critics of the 1960’s were with jazz, but I do know that Greil Marcus worked with Ralph Gleason, and that Robert Christgau is an omnivorous cultural historian who knows a lot about Martin Williams, and that he also worked beside Nat Hentoff at the Village Voice for many years.

These rock critics knew of the tradition of jazz criticism, but jazz is both a vernacular music and an art music, which has been unambiguously true since the late 1930’s. Bebop and modern jazz — and even the swing music that got into Carnegie Hall — moved jazz into a different cultural sphere than the dancehall, parade, commercial, and folk music of the earlier period. So jazz has long been affiliated with modernism, which was always rubbing up against what had already been canonized as fine art. The challenge for jazz critics was to deal with the music’s vernacular sourcing and popularization, as well as its being an important art music.

JJM  Another major difference is that rock and roll came of age at a time when we could make our own judgment about the music because it was at our fingertips, exposed on radio stations up and down the dial, and, later, on television as well. Jazz, on the other hand, came of age at a time when the music was not as readily available, so fans were more reliant on reporters and critics who could bring the music and culture to the reader.

JG  That’s right. But it’s certainly true that, even though jazz had that kind of moment from 1935 to 1943 when it was this kind of huge mass cultural success, it was nothing on the same scale of what happened to rock music during the sixties. Part of that is due to corporatization and part is because of what you mentioned about the saturation of information in the media — it became a huge multi-million dollar international conglomerate.

In some respects there is a continuity between what jazz and rock accomplished, particularly if you look at it on an international scale. Jazz traveled around the globe from the beginning. There is some interesting scholarly work going on now that suggests there was a real appetite for jazz in Japan dating back to the 1920’s — until now we have thought about interest in jazz in Japan beginning post-World War II.

JJM  There were several major points throughout the development of jazz music that critics argued over. Addressing three of these points, you wrote, (1) “From the 1930s to the 1950s, critics like Roger Pryor Dodge, Rudi Blesh, and William Russell argued that real jazz had died, and the only question was whether this had happened when Louis Armstrong went to New York and became a star soloist, when Duke Ellington abandoned ‘jungle music,’ or when the big bands attracted a mass audience of jitterbugging teenagers.” (2) “When Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and their bebop revolutionary co-conspirators revved up jazz’s rhythmic and harmonic intensity and demanded to be called artists, many critics pined for the more pleasurably melodic, more evenly cadenced jazz — and the more publicly cheerful musicians — of the past,” and (3) when certain critics “assailed John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy for playing what they called ‘anti-jazz.'” I thought these points could be the framework for a conversation about the critics who were at the center of these arguments.

JG The first argument centered around what happened to jazz when it left New Orleans and landed in Chicago. Rudi Blesh was the strongest example of critics who could be called “New Orleans absolutists” — writers who built an elaborate argument about jazz being a music that took root in New Orleans among black musicians, and then saw it dying already by 1927. Blesh thought Louis Armstrong’s recordings with Earl Hines, for example, introduced harmonic ideas that were alien to this kind of purely African-American, Afro-New Orleans form of jazz that had very specific instrumentation and very specific rhythmic figurations.

It is interesting how Chicago figures into this. What we now call “classic New Orleans jazz” was actually played and recorded in Chicago. Part of that has to do with the contingencies of the recording industry during that period — New Orleans just wasn’t the place where recordings were made — and Chicago soon developed its own style in the form of a small group, collective improvisational aesthetic that Blesh, Roger Pryor Dodge, and, to a certain extent, John Hammond rallied around. Hammond is obviously a very important figure in big band music who had a major influence on Benny Goodman and Count Basie, but his aesthetic for the big band is very much tied to the idea of small group collective improvisation.

JJM Hammond’s opinion about the work of Duke Ellington is also a dividing point among critics…

JG   That’s right. The critics I have mentioned so far — Blesh, Dodge, Hammond — felt that Ellington was moving jazz in a different direction, although I would argue that Ellington was really working very much in the tradition of jazz, that he was just coming up with new concepts of blues and swing. Blesh believed that Ellington was imitating European Impressionist composers — music that he was certainly familiar with and which comes out in his concertos that spotlight the soloists and build orchestral texture behind them. He showed that he absorbed concepts of orchestral concert music, and arguments among critics were made around this. Critics like Leonard Feather, and later, Martin Williams, Nat Hentoff and others made the case that Ellington’s work had essentially further developed the original jazz idea. Blesh, on the other hand, made the argument that you simply can’t get a sixteen-piece aggregation of musicians to swing. Well, obviously Ellington, Goodman, Basie, Woody Herman, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis, and even an avant-garde big band like William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra these days can really swing. But I could sympathize with what Blesh was arguing because if you listen to some of the Basie band’s pieces of the late 1930’s against the music coming out of New Orleans ten years earlier, it was a difficult thing to get a larger group of musicians into a kind of rhythmic groove in the same way that it was possible for the best of the musicians in the small New Orleans groups to.

JJM Barry Ulanov was among the early critics who felt that experiment and change are in the essence of jazz…

JG  That’s right, as are Leonard Feather and Marshall Stearns, who becomes an important person in this story as well. These critics argued there was a through-line — a continuity — that connected King Oliver to Louis Armstrong and, ultimately, to bebop and small ensemble jazz. Ultimately, Rudi Blesh comes around to this view as well, and, quite interestingly, he eventually became very interested in the late 1950s jazz avant-garde. He actually felt musicians like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, in their way, resurrected the early small group collective improvisational spirit.

In the 1940s, Feather and Ulanov were best known for their work as co-editors of Metronome, but they were also writing in other places as champions of bebop. Of course, this is actually more complicated than that because they had to weigh in on the question of big band swing well before Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came along. Ulanov and Feather differed from someone like Hammond and lesser known critics like Eugene Williams and a young Ralph Gleason, who became known as “moldy figs” because they were somewhat suspicious about the ascent of big bands — although Gleason sort of broke from that group fairly early, having been particularly enamored with Jimmie Lunceford. Feather and Ulanov, on the other hand, felt that what Ellington was doing with the more complex orchestrated techniques was part of an organic development of the jazz tradition.

JJM You suggest in the book that there is a social dimension to this argument…

JG  Yes. Blesh’s work is extraordinary to read now because you can see how it connects with things that come much later. For example, I note that there are certain ideas about blues tonality and blues swing rhythm that appear in Blesh’s work that are quite similar to what one reads in Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, and, later, in Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues — books that make the case for a kind of Afro-American aesthetic. Blesh is remarkably original for his time in advancing those ideas. But tied up with that was Blesh’s view about the Negro as a kind of primitive soul, which he wrote about in language that today sounds very backwards. He talks about the purity of this “primitive soul” that made somebody like Armstrong so great that he really didn’t think about what he was doing, that there was a kind of a subconsciousness about it. To people like Feather and Ulanov — liberals who were very much involved in NAACP-style racial uplift during the 1940’s — this kind of argument sounded very suspect, almost like a more sophisticated Jim Crow, where the culture celebrated the genius through this unsophisticated and unmannered “noble savage” persona rather than taking them seriously as artists who developed their own ideas and moved the art in their own direction based on many artistic and cultural influences they absorbed.

JJM  So this becomes an important part of the argument among critics as well…

JG  Yes, white liberals in particular connected the argument for a kind of aesthetic experimentalism in jazz with the intellectual creative agency of black musicians — and these critics were very tight with some of them on a personal level. For example, Ulanov traveled on the road with Ellington, and, before that, Feather served as Ellington’s publicist. I was able to speak with Ulanov about Ellington, and he talked about how awed he was by him as a thinker, and by his creative spark and range of artistic cultural reference — rooted in his own black experience, but very cosmopolitan as well.

What Ulanov was hearing from the traditionalist critics — those he referred to as “moldy figs” — sounded to him like a kind of condescension toward black musicians. This became a very interesting cultural debate that took place right around World War II, when black participation in the armed forces and labor politics led to the civil rights movement. Many of the cultural debates of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were not just about laws and legal structure of race in America, but also about black culture and black ascendancy in the jazz world of the 1930’s and 1940’s. It’s a very interesting debate, and many of the creative aesthetic choices that musicians were making were being responded to by critics in a way that had to do with the culture as well as the music.

 

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