Blowin' Hot And Cool: Jazz And Its Critics
Cloth; 494 pages
University Of Chicago Press
There is a fascinating Trojan horse aspect to this magnificient study of the roles jazz critics have played in the shaping of jazz over the past century. As clear, fair-minded and comprehensive as John Gennari, an English professor at the University of Vermont, is in writing the first comprehensive study of jazz critics, the book is really a heady meditation on the fundamental question: what is jazz?
It's worth emphasising this half-hidden central theme, because it's hard to imagine any reader coming away from Blowin' Hot And Cool without new perspectives on that question of questionswhich might more accurately be expressed as: what exactly is this music I love? Unfortunately, there's a danger the book might go unnoticed by non-academics. Its title, as well as the academic approach suggested by the author's profession and the publisher, could suggest a book aimed at an ivory tower audience.
Gennari dives into the issues of race (mostly white critics writing about mostly African-American music), and politics (the identification of jazz with leftist agendas), by showing how various jazz critics brought their own racial and political beliefs into their writing. For anyone who thinks the controversies surrounding Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns' Jazz documentary, and Jazz at Lincoln Center programming are new issues, Gennari reveals the long history of the complex racial, political and cultural clashes undergirding such present day headline grabbers.
Jazz critics of a century ago, as now, grappled with issues of authenticity, and it is very much to Gennari's credit that his vision is generous enough sympathetically to portray critics whose definitions of "real jazz" rage across a massive spectrum: from New Orleans traditionalism to rock-flavored, multicultural musical hybrids. By being this broad minded, Gennari can appreciate critic Greg Tate's hip hop-hyped up, postmodern prose as much as he can Ralph Ellison's classically measured writing. He is able to show how the styles of critics as diverse as Gene Lees and Gary Giddins reveal affinities to the sounds of the music they celebrate.
Best of all, Gennari maintains a remarkably free-thinking stance when examining the covert political agendas attached to the jazz criticism of John Hammond and Amiri Baraka. He is as acutely thoughtful in tracking the dogmatically narrow, more-Communist-than-thou gospel of Frank Kofsky (who attempted in a Coltrane interview to have Coltrane sound like a proto-Marxist), as he is dispassionate in questioning the assumptions of arch-conservatives like Ralph de Toledano. How welcome would be books on modern art, architecture, and other musical styles if they were created by writers as agenda-free as Gennari.
Thoughtfully questioning one's taste in jazz is like cleansing your palate between the courses of a rich meal. Only the very best writing can provoke such fundamental questioning. Count Gennari among the very best jazz writers. He can provoke you into listening to albums by Anthony Braxton and Wynton Marsalis albums on the same day, in order to sort out the virtues in both. If you're ready to open your mind, this book is for you.