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Race and Jazz

Race and Jazz Criticism

By Published: October 3, 2011
He had a bibliography on the syllabus that was an excellent history of jazz letters. Everything from Nat Hentoff's The Jazz Life (The Dial Press, 1961) to Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues (McGraw-Hill, 1976) to Marshall Stearn's The Story of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1966). It gave me more grounding in what I had proposed that I'd be doing in graduate school. But I was still kind of floundering, and thinking about other possibilities as well.

Sometime in the late 1980s, I had finished my coursework and had moved out of Philly. I was in a relationship with a woman who was working in the dance world in New York. We moved in together in Jersey City. I got some adjunct teaching around New York. I didn't have any funding so I had to support myself through the adjunct teaching. Somehow I had to find the time to launch a dissertation.

Around that time, Neil got in touch with me and said that he'd been asked to write an article about the history of jazz criticism for a special issue of a journal, which at that time was called the Black American Literature Forum (now it's the African American Review). This special issue was called something like "The Literature of Jazz." Neil, in those two books I mentioned, has sections that touch on critics and the history of criticism. But he would leave the topic dangling, saying here's an area that deserves a lot more scholarly attention. So, in that sense, I can be seen as a protégé of Neil Leonard.

So I got to work on this essay. The editor, a guy named Gary Carner, was originally calling for something like 30 manuscript pages, somehow covering the whole history of jazz criticism. This was a big kind of leap for me to be taking at this point but I knew that this was the testing ground. Would I be able to make it as an academic? If I could do this, maybe I'd be able to follow through on that dissertation I'd gestured toward coming into grad school. But it was all very speculative.

It took me about a year to finish the piece. It turned out to be 120 manuscript pages, and about 75 pages in the journal. To me it now reads as a very sprawling, unfocused kind of essay. But it turned out to have been the blueprint for the dissertation and then the book. So I had this publication even before I started a dissertation. The dissertation was kind of a mess, but I finally got it passed in 1993. And then went on this itinerant journey all over the country teaching in non-tenure-track jobs for a year or two here and there.

It took me a while to get back to the project. I finally got a tenure-track job in the late '90s, and then moved to Vermont in 2001. And then I took another couple of years, once I finally got back to the project, to turn it into the book.

AAJ: Your book begins in the 1930s, but let's give a background frame by beginning earlier. In cultural historian Lawrence Levine's essay, "Jazz and American Culture," he relates how in the early part of the 20th century, the American conception of "culture" was derived from a European, hierarchical model, which here became High, Low, Highbrow, Lowbrow, and Popular.

Jazz was the opposite of the high and the highbrow at that time. Writes Levine:

"Jazz was, or at least seemed to be, the product of a new age; Culture was, or at least it seemed to be, traditional—the creation of centuries. Jazz was raucous, discordant; Culture was harmonious, embodying order and reason. Jazz was accessible, spontaneous; Culture was exclusive, complex, available only through hard study and training."

Levine argued that jazz musicians helped revolutionize the notion of culture by "transcending adjectival cultural categories and insisting that there were no boundary lines to art." One of your central themes is the canonization of jazz as art. What role did critics play in that process?

JG: Levine's piece was very important to me and others working in American Studies and history during the time I was in graduate school. He was really an eminent American historian. He had written this great book, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1977). The truth of the matter is that there was not a lot going on at that time in American Studies around jazz. Cultural history in general was still a real undeveloped field.

AAJ: That's not to say that the field of anthropology wasn't developed; are you talking about Cultural Studies as we know today as influenced by the British Birmingham school in which Stuart Hall is a major figure?

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