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Race and Jazz

Gary Giddins on Ignored Black Jazz Writers

By Published: July 11, 2011
AAJ: Not at the time, because I was pretty young then. But after immersing myself in the thought and writings of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, I became familiar with his work. He did a lot of good writing for the Washington Post.

Amiri Baraka

GG: That's him. He was at the Post, and he had a lot of nerve. He called it the way he saw it, he was very smart, he knew the subject. He was a solid writer. I got to know him a little bit, and I just thought his stuff was terrific. He left, I don't know what happened. He was replaced by Richard Harrington. Maybe he got some kind of academic appointment. But my point is that there have been significant black writers. But most of them haven't been as visible, at least in the newspaper world, in the last few years.

AAJ: Well, I have you to thank for suggesting that I attempt to make inroads into the New York Daily News, the largest circulation daily in the city. Since January of this year, they have published over 15 features by me and one set of monthly jazz CD reviews. I'll always be grateful to you for urging me to go for that spot, Gary.

GG: You're welcome, Greg. It had been years since the Daily News had someone covering jazz. But the New York Times has never had a black jazz writer. That's amazing to me. It's been like a revolving door there to some degree. I'm not saying anything against Ben [Ratliff] or Nate [Chinen], I think they're great. I think that Nate is the best jazz writer to come along in the last decade. In addition to his reviews, his listings are a reliable guide to what's going on in the city. Ben's got his own way of saying things.

AAJ: And Nate's a stylist.

GG: Yes, they both are. But here's the thing: after Don Heckman left, there was a position. It went to Robert Palmer. After Palmer, there was a position open. It went to Peter Watrous, who I think was pretty dreadful. When Watrous left, there was a position and it went to Ben. In those 30 years, they never think, hey, shouldn't we look for an African American writer to write about African American music? They did have George Goodman writing occasional jazz pieces in Arts and Leisure, but that didn't last long, I'm not sure why, and they never offered him the gig in the daily paper. I don't think they had a black staff writer in music until they started focusing on hip hop.

I want to emphasize that I have no complaints about the staff they do have, but this is not about quotas, this is not about affirmative action, this is about just being fair, I think.

AAJ: I'm glad you put it in a larger context than just the JJA, because the JJA is just one example among many. Some publications seem to have a one-Negro-allowed rule. Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books are two publications that readily come to mind; the former has Ta-Nehisi Coates, the latter Darryl Pinckney.

GG: Right. But for the most part, at least in my experience, the jazz critics who have been really out here, living hand to mouth, forcing themselves on the scene, have been largely, white. At the Village Voice, when they were constantly looking for black writers, when they found someone good, he or she was immediately hired away. So a lot of people were looking for black writers then. Usually, they got hired by the New Yorker.

But in terms of the lifetime achievement, there are a lot of people you can argue about. But I don't think you can argue about Amiri Baraka. I don't think you can argue about Stanley Crouch. I'm not saying that anyone who got the award didn't deserve it. But a lot of guys who got the award, including me, are a lot younger than Amiri Baraka. We could have been pushed down the line a bit to make room. All the white writers of his generation have been acknowledged, why not him? Baraka is somebody that my generation really grew up with. Because he was the first guy to write about the avant-garde in a way that got everybody excited. He was a famous playwright and poet. He wrote Blues People (William Morrow, 1963), which I have to say is a book I never liked. But the Black Music (Akashic, 1968) essays? They were a revelation. And he hasn't abandoned the music. He's put out at least two collections that I know of since then. He's written notes, he's been around. He's an important person in jazz historicism and criticism. I don't see how you can get around that.

Another guy I think they should have expanded the definition for is Al[bert] Murray. Ok, Al Murray's not primarily a journalist. Baraka was. But Murray's writing about jazz is extraordinary, as an essayist and the music's most original aesthetician, even the way he uses jazz in his fiction. The Omni-Americans (Outerbridge and Dienstfry, 1970) and Stomping the Blues (Da Capo, 1976) were game-changers for everyone. He wrote the Basie book, Good Morning Blues (Da Capo, 1985). He's kept his hand in with The Blue Devils of Nada (Vintage, 1996) and From the Briarpatch File (Pantheon Books, 2001). Now he's in his middle '90s and can't really function. But his Papa Jo Jones interviews, Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (University of Minnesota, 2011), with editorial work by Paul Devlin, are about to come out. I think that's wonderful. Ralph Ellison was dead, so okay. And I'm not as high on Ellison's music writing as I used to be. He is a surpassingly great novelist and essayist, but he ultimately distrusted Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and everything Charlie Parker represented, and I find that even the essays on Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
and Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing
1903 - 1972
are more sentimental than insightful. But how do you ignore Murray?

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