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Race and Jazz Criticism

Race and Jazz Criticism
Greg Thomas By

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When I began this Race and Jazz series several months ago, I knew the topics I wanted to touch upon, and the general culture vs. race point-of-view I intended to pursue. With those chord changes (topics) and that melodic perspective (pro-culture, anti-race) in mind and at play, I figured I'd proceed with the rest by ear. As it turned out, the most recent column featured an interview with premier jazz critic and book author Gary Giddins, in which he discussed disparities in the recognition and acclaim attained by certain black American jazz critics/journalists compared to some so-called "white" jazz critics/journalists over the past generation of jazz criticism.

Yet since jazz criticism has a history that can be tracked and traced right along with the growth and development of the music, there's no need to stay confined to the past 40 or so years. "How has race played into the way jazz has been covered over the past 100+ years of the existence of the art form?" is one question that has now arisen.

Fortunately, there's a scholar who has researched jazz letters and the history of jazz criticism and has written the thus far definitive work on the critical discourse of jazz from the 1930s to the turn of this century: John Gennari. His book is Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (University of Chicago, Press, 2006.) He's an Associate Professor of English and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont.

John Gennari and I first met in the late 1990s through the Jazz Study Group (JSG) at Columbia University. I was a grad student in a doctoral program in American Studies at New York University at the time. The Jazz Study Group was founded by Robert G. O'Meally, an English and Comparative Literature professor at Columbia whose scholarship has included a focus on jazz since he earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1975. From 1995-2006, the Jazz Study Group held quarterly meetings, mostly on the Columbia campus. Personally, I most enjoyed the occasions when the small group of about 30 of us would meet in the spacious yet cozy book- and CD/LP-lined apartment of Prof. O'Meally and his wife Jacqui Malone, a historian of American dance.

Very relevant to the conversation you are about to read is the following goal of the JSG: "to cultivate and strengthen the then-budding interdisciplinary field of jazz studies at a crucial point in its emergence as a discrete area of scholarship within the context of African American and American Studies."

Gennari's Blowin' Hot and Cold is a prime example of this interdisciplinary direction of jazz studies.

In this introductory discussion of what will be a multi-part interview, you'll discover: how and why Gennari came to focus on jazz in his academic career; the crucial importance of the rock-jazz-pop group Steely Dan to our teen experience; why jazz journalists/critics from Gary Giddins to Stanley Crouch to yours truly all tip our hats to the talents of rock critic Bob Christgau; Gennari's take on the issue of whether jazz criticism is better served by critics who have experience as a musician; the fundamental tools essential for good jazz criticism; why the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine and Neil Leonard are so crucial to Gennari; and how jazz critics became central to the canonization of jazz as "high art."

All About Jazz: Tell us about the first time you ever wrote about music.

John Gennari: I was in high school, and I wrote a piece about a Steely Dan album, Aja (MCA, 1977), for my high school magazine, called The Cracker Barrel: The Lenox Magazine of Student Commentary. I think this was 1978. I had really been deeply into Steely Dan for a few years, and had been writing for this student magazine, and wanted to take a crack at a record review.

What I remember about the experience was just how difficult it was to talk about the music. I ended up writing a piece that mostly talked about my experience buying the record, a kind of silly story about my experience in the record store. I look back at it now as an attempt to position myself or paint myself as a record collector, a record buyer, as much as anything. Because the stuff I ended up writing about the music was just awful. By this time I had begun to think of myself as a writer, as somebody who might have some talent in that direction. I was encouraged to think that way by my English teachers and the people around this magazine.

Initially, I thought this would be kind of easy, kind of fun. And it turned out to be just an overwhelming challenge. I'm pretty sure that I'd never read any music criticism, pop music criticism, jazz music criticism, anything like that. I had read a lot of liner notes, in the record stores. Maybe I had read the local newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle. My town was Lenox, Massachusetts, in the western end of Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. There was a lot of music up there: Tanglewood, and the old Music Inn which had jazz in the 1950s, and then later rock music in the '60s and '70s. Both of those places would have rock and pop acts in the summertime. I'm sure I read the concert reviews but I wasn't reading any of the music magazines or any of the publications in which I would have found jazz criticism. It wasn't until college that I began reading someone like Bob Christgau, writing on rock music in the Village Voice.

So I went into this kind of blind, but coming out of it wanting to read people who did this for a living, to see what it would look like on the page. I started to read that kind of stuff in college. We're talking about people like Christgau in the Village Voice, Gary Giddins in the Voice on jazz. Bob Blumenthal, at that time in Boston, was writing for the Boston Phoenix; later he moved to the Boston Globe. I was astonished at how they did it. That sort of got me interested in the whole field.

AAJ: I'll say a couple of things in response. First, the group you wrote your first review about, Steely Dan, was also a favorite of mine back then. I still dig them. The time that you're talking about, in the late '70s, I really immersed myself in the music. I would listen to a station like WRVR, here in New York, that would play straight-ahead jazz but would also play fusion. The Tottenville high school Stage Band, in which I played second alto sax, would perform Steely Dan music from that classic Aja recording.

We played "Deacon Blues" and "Peg" from Aja. That recording had some heavy musicians on it: Joe Sample, Pete Christlieb (one of my favorite West Coast saxophonists), Plas Johnson (who influenced Christlieb), Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd. It had some cats on it—Victor Feldman....

JG: Larry Carlton.

AAJ: Lee Ritenour.

JG: Not to mention Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

AAJ: Exactly; Steely Dan themselves.

Second, I started to write about jazz in the late 1980s, but my career as a journalist really began at the City Sun in Brooklyn. I eventually ended up writing for the Village Voice. My editor was Bob Christgau, who's still the greatest editor I've ever had, though my current editor at the New York Daily News comes close.

JG: That's what everybody says about Christgau.

AAJ: Yes! For him to shepherd you to that level of writing; it was like going to school, man.

JG: I read his column in those years. And the consumer guides.

AAJ: Pazz/Jop.

JG: Yes. Christgau as a writer, how much he could get into a sentence, into a paragraph. There's a real electricity, and a hipness to the voice, but with such a sophisticated level of insight, and in such a condensed space.

Later, just reading acknowledgments in books by Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch, they would pay tribute to Christgau as an editor. It seems that there's something about his ability both as a writer, and probably as an editor—you could tell me better than I know personally—to get to the essence of it. I'm sure that a part of that was space limitation.

But also because I think there was some kind of aesthetic being developed there, around cultural journalism, not just music journalism. I've talked about some of the jazz people in my book, but there's a lot more scholarship to be done about just how important that period, in the late '70s to the early '80s, was at the Voice.

AAJ: You're absolutely right. What a fecund period there.

OK, let's talk about a current issue. Lately, the jazz blogosphere has been afire about whether a jazz critic or journalist should also have experience as a musician. This is a question of musical authority. Since you've written a crucial contribution to the history of jazz letters and jazz criticism, what's your take?

JG: My short answer is I don't think that a critic has to be a musician, or necessarily should be a musician. On the other hand, I would say that oftentimes, the criticism that comes from people who have experience as musicians, that experience can make an important, positive difference. But I probably say this because I'm not a musician; I'm just a dabbler, a home basement drummer.

To me, criticism is a form of writing, a branch of literature. I think the most important tools that a critic has have to do with the ability to write; you've got to put sentences and paragraphs together (with the good help of editors, obviously). That's an absolute necessity in the tool kit of a critic. I think you have to have a background in the history of criticism. I think you have to have read a whole lot of criticism, and not necessarily just in your field, but across the arts: literature, film, music, art, mass media.

I do think there is such a thing as a critical sense. I think there is a certain kind of person who develops an ability to experience a work of art in such a way that they can understand its formal aesthetic properties, they can make sense of how it works, they can put it into historical context. Most importantly, however, they can write about it in an interesting and engaging way. They may not be right.

The history of jazz criticism and all arts criticism is littered with examples of what, retrospectively, seem to be the wrong evaluations of the music, or the play, or the literature. I don't think you would put together a reader of the best criticism in history, and start by seeking out the pieces that seemed to be rendering what turns out to be a correct thumbs up or thumbs down opinion about something in a review. I think you're going to go for the stuff that seems to help a reader understand something about the experience of listening to the music, or seeing the play, or reading the book.

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