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 Davis’ 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 (along with Amiri Baraka) flexed hardest to shape the contours of the 1960s cutting edge.” Gleason wrote when music was not as readily available to the consumer — it was an age when fans were reliant on reporters and critics for bringing us closer to the culture, and few did this as well as Gleason. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay area, I was exposed to Gleason’s cutting edge work regularly, and his literary (and political) soul helped shape the way many of us have lived out our own creative lives.
For a wonderful example of Gleason’s work — and a representative view of how he aesthetically connected the creative worlds of the era’s jazz and rock — check out his December 7, 1972 Rolling Stone review of Miles’ On the Corner and Carlos Santana’s Caravanserai, in which he writes that “Both albums express a view of life as well as a way of life through the construction of sounds, some improvised and some deliberate and pre-considered. We may never know (and I am not sure it makes a difference) which sounds are which. All that really matters is the music itself.”
Gleason talks about jazz
A 1961 broadcast of Gleason’s Jazz Casual, featuring Dave Brubeck
Live performance of Miles Davis, November, 1973
Live performance of Santana playing “Just In Time to See the Sun,” from Caravanserai
Read our interview on jazz criticism with Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics author John Gennari