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Race and Jazz

Race and Jazz Criticism

By Published: October 3, 2011
But on this question of musical authority, Balliett played drums. I've looked pretty closely at what he wrote about drummers, thinking about this question that you're asking. His hero as a drummer was Big Sid Catlett. He writes beautifully about Catlett, and writes beautifully about Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
Philly Joe Jones
1923 - 1985
drums
. That style of swing drumming is what he was really drawn to as an adolescent, what he tried to play himself. He does not like Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
. He writes about Max Roach, to me, in a way that's closed-eared and closed-minded. I think that has to do with his own experience as a musician—an amateur, to be sure, but when I interviewed Whitney I was really impressed by how much technical detail he brought to our discussion of drumming. But I think he was wrong about Max.

AAJ: So that points to how, perhaps, being a musician can be a limitation for a critic.

JG: If you're a musician, or an artist of any kind, to really create, there's almost necessarily a kind of dogmatism, and a kind of closing off that you have to engage in, in order to get your work done. That's not to say that you don't want to be well-read, if you're a writer, or if you're a musician, that you're not going to want to listen to everything that you can. When it comes to making your own art, if you're trying to be scholarly, trying to only pay homage to others, or trying to cover as much ground as possible, you're probably not going to be creating something that, finally, is going to be your best work. You've got to find your own signature, your own voice.

So, you have to be closed-minded about the kind of music that you're going to situate yourself in at a certain point. That might close down an ability to hear certain things that fall outside of that range.

AAJ: Another critic you deal with in your book, and who's been discussed thus far in the series is Stanley Crouch. He also played drums. I once asked him, "If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently in terms of actual knowledge of music?" He said that he'd have learned to play the piano.

I minored in Music at Hamilton College, so I took piano lessons there, but I mainly played saxophone. I find that it helps to have had that experience, especially in terms of relating to the artist, and what it takes to be an artist. My playing the saxophone, learning scales, chords and patterns, and trying to improvise, gave me a heightened appreciation when I heard Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
Julian
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
1928 - 1975
saxophone
, Phil Woods
Phil Woods
Phil Woods
b.1931
sax, alto
and others.

JG: But here's something that it didn't help you do better: write better prose. And it didn't help you to hone your voice and style as a writer. Now, to be sure, there's no reason that a musician can't have a critical sense, or can't write. And a musician who has those skills might turn out to be the best critic of all. And critics who are not musicians better be damn sure to listen to musicians when they talk about what they're doing. The best criticism comes about when the critic listens well—to the music, and to the musicians.

AAJ: You're right. When I started playing, I decided fairly early on that I wouldn't try to be a professional musician. But I had such a passion for the music that I found other ways to stay involved, and ended up writing about it. Yet when I played as a teenager, I didn't think that I'd be a critic or someone who wrote about the music. It became a foundation for what has blossomed since.

Let's go on. What prompted your focusing on jazz criticism for your dissertation?

JG: I went to the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s to do American Studies, which at Penn used to be called American Civilization. My application actually said that I was interested in jazz. This was a couple of years after I graduated from college, Harvard. I was living in New York, working as a paralegal in a law firm. I was thinking about going to law school. I was going to jazz clubs; I was developing my record collection. I thought that this is something that I want to be part of somehow. And American Studies emerged as the field where I might be able to do something with jazz.

At Penn, there was a professor named Neil Leonard who had been teaching a history of jazz course for many years. He had written his Harvard doctoral dissertation in the late 1950s on jazz. That was published in 1962 by the University of Chicago Press as Jazz and the White Americans. When I got to Penn he was just finishing a book, Jazz: Myth and Religion (Oxford University Press, 1987). He was someone doing jazz studies, and cultural history, in the context of American Studies. I started taking courses in the history of American culture and civilization. I got interested in other things, but I was a teaching assistant for Neil Leonard for a couple of semesters in his History of Jazz class. That allowed me to read pretty deeply into the writings about the history of jazz.


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