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Gary Giddins on Ignored Black Jazz Writers

Gary Giddins on Ignored Black Jazz Writers
Greg Thomas By

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In the first essay for the Race and Jazz column, I gave a first-person account of how my love and appreciation of certain "white" saxophonists served to safeguard me from the temptation of racism back in college during the early-to-mid-'80s. My second essay privileged culture over race, and told the story of how attorney and constitutional law professor Charles L. Black's love of Louis Armstrong's genius from the early '30s gave him a way out of the morass of Southern racism, a better appreciation for the culture he shared with Southern black folks, and a foundation for his legal brief in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case.

This third piece for the column is smack dab in the here and now.

At the time I attended the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) award ceremony at the City Winery in Tribeca, on June 11, 2011, I had intended to write my next article for the column about the charge levied by some musicians that the recent Grammy category cuts were in some way based on race, or, rather, on the claim that whether the intent of the cuts were race-based or not, the effect skews against more artists of color.

But after first lounging in the back of the venue, facing the raised stage where Candido Camero, Randy Weston, T.K. Blue, Gregory Porter and others performed, and from which the categories, nominees and award winners were announced, I decided to walk over to where the action was—stage left, by the long bar you see up and to the right when entering the sizable venue owned by Michael Dorf. That's where the journalists, musicians, and others in the jazz artistic and business community were largely huddled, standing rather than sitting, enjoying conversation, appetizers, and free-flowing drinks.

I walked over to greet Joe Lovano, seated nearby with Pat Philips, Terri Hinte and Todd Barkan. I joked with him, saying that if you had to lose to anyone in the Musician of the Year category, if it turns out to be Sonny Rollins, then, my man, you ain't got nothin' to be ashamed of. Joe laughed and agreed. Not only is Lovano an innovative, soulful saxophonist; he's such a warm, good guy. Interviewing him last summer for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem's series Harlem Speaks—a public program that I co-produce—was an experience of simpatico and swing in conversation that I'll always treasure.

Then, if I remember correctly, the nominees for Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism were announced by Howard Mandel, President of the JJA. They were: Amiri Baraka, Ben Ratliff, Bill Milkowski, and Stanley Crouch. The winner: Bill Milkowski.

Shortly thereafter, Gary Giddins, one of the premier jazz critics of past 30+ years, pulled me to the side and pointed out that in the 15 years of JJA awards, a black writer has never won in the Lifetime Achievement category.

At that moment, I switched award ceremonies.

Bobby Sanabria and other musicians protesting the elimination of 31 categories are bringing a suit against NARAS, and have initiated a boycott of CBS, the network that airs the Grammy Awards. That controversy should have legs for awhile, and I may well return to it in a future column.

But this particular story of race and media, jazz and journalism, is of special importance to the community of jazz musicians, writers and critics also. Whereas some might prefer to sweep race discourse under the rug, we launched this column to deal with—straight-up and straight-ahead—the issue of race and jazz not only in the past, but now.

To that end, Giddins and I spoke over the phone, to go into some detail about his observation of how race plays into not only awards given by an association of jazz journalists, but also into the very "national newspaper of record," The New York Times.


All About Jazz: Didn't you tell me that a black writer has never won the Jazz Journalist Association's Lifetime Achievement Award?

Gary Giddins: That's correct. And I don't think that a black writer has won the award for best jazz review and feature writing either. Before we go any further, I want to underscore that Bill Milkowski totally deserves the award. He's a terrific writer, someone I've learned a lot from. I'm not saying that anyone who has received it was undeserving.

I understand that obvious candidates among black writers have disappeared in the last several years. Gene Seymour, at Newsday, would have been an obvious candidate. But Gene's not there anymore. I would think that Gene would even be considered for lifetime achievement, even though he spent as much time writing about movies as writing about jazz. He was still a very good jazz writer, he did it for a very long time, and he wrote a very good introductory book on jazz for young people.

In the '70s, when I was coming along, I thought one of the best jazz writers in the country was Hollie West. You remember him?

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 and everything Charlie Parker represented, and I find that even the essays on Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing are more sentimental than insightful. But how do you ignore Murray?

AAJ: Look at Ellison and Murray in Trading Twelves (Modern Library, 2000), their letter correspondence in the 1950s; that's a real revelation of what they thought of bebop back then. But by the 1970s Murray, in Stomping the Blues, had placed Bird and John Coltrane firmly within the whole context of his aesthetic.

GG: Right. I used to argue about Bird with Stanley Dance. He was sort of Ellington's Boswell, and he was notoriously anti-bop. I said to him, "Man, your wife just wrote this great book on T-Bone Walker, you love the blues, as few white writers do. How can you not concede that Charlie Parker is one of the greatest blues players that ever lived?" And he'd just nod his head, and shake it off. He'd come up with some reason, like "I don't like his intonation." But we're getting too far afield.

People talk about it being a virtue to be color-blind. I don't know if, in this world, that's as great a virtue as being conscious of inequities that arise when you're only thinking in terms of the people you know, who are your friends.

The reason why the Woody Herman band stayed mostly white and the Basie band stayed mostly black is because every time someone leaves the band, it's his job to find a replacement. They almost always recommend someone they've roomed with, went to school with. So if it's a white guy, it's a white guy, it's a white friend. If it's a black guy, it's a black friend. It's not a racial thing per se, it's just who you know. And that, I think, is what animates a lot of what goes on in this category.

And, you know, Stanley Crouch is controversial. So what?

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