Race and 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 itVictor 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.
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 editoryou could tell me better than I know personallyto 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.
I think when it comes to jazz criticism, you have to have ears; you have to be a great listener. You have to be able to write about sound. I'm not sure that being a musician or being trained in musicology necessarily trains you to do that well. In some cases it does. In my book I talked about how Martin Williams, one of the great jazz critics, even after he had consolidated his reputation as a great jazz critic with his book The Jazz Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1970, revised 1992), he continued to have anxiety about his authority as a critic. He wasn't a musician. He did not read music. He was always, in that period, hyping Gunther Schuller. He thought that Schuller's work would eclipse whatever he might've accomplished in The Jazz Tradition.
Schuller's work, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Early Development (Oxford University Press, 1968), had come out before that but Martin was always talking up the proposed three-volume history of jazz, the definitive work. So far there's been the early volume and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1991). I understand that Gunther Schuller is going to have a memoir or biography in place of a third volume. I think I heard that from his son George.
Now, there's some really important stuff in both those books. I think Early Jazz is probably the better book. But I wouldn't say that Gunther Schuller establishes himself as a better jazz critic than Martin Williams in those books, as a result of the fact that he is a musician himselfa French horn player.
AAJ: Well, we should make clear distinctions among the critic, the musicologist and the historian. I'd say, as you've alluded to, that a good critic will have a good grasp of the history of the culture from which the art form springs, and a strong familiarity with literary criticism, and criticism in other fields, other disciplines, other art forms. That allows a critic to have a more rich underpinning and background of reference.
One tool of any writer is the use of metaphor. So, just on a very basic level, the more references you have, the more metaphors you can use, and the more analogies you can make that help the reader to connect with what, in so many cases, is so hard to put into wordswhen you're talking about a non-textual and a non-narrative artistic medium such as music.
JG: And the kind of writing we're talking about, the target audience for it is not necessarily for people who are trained as musicians. And your job, nevertheless, is to make them hear the music somehow, or to convey your experience of the music as a listener of the music. As Whitney Balliett put it, "Music is not there." The architecture critic is looking at the building and the building is there. The literary critic, there's a text; in music, there's a notated score. But you don't want your criticism about the notated score, you want criticism about the sound in the air, and how do you talk about that?
Metaphor, and the ability to use metaphor, is absolutely indispensable. As long as we're talking about Balliett, metaphor was his thing. People who didn't like him thought his metaphors sucked. And the people who liked them thought they were really clever.
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. 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. 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 musicianan 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, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Phil Woods 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 wellto 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.
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, traditionalthe 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?
JG: Actually, I was talking about cultural history. What could you do in a history department as a young scholar with jazz? It was around this time that The Creation of Jazz (University of Illinois Press, 1994) by Burton Perettia student of Levine's at UC Berkeleycame out. That derived from his dissertation. That was an important book, one of the first of the newer American Studies, American History approaches. A few years after that, David Stowe out of Yale did this book on the swing era, Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America (Harvard University Press, 1996). These were excellent books, but such work was still kind of a new development within U.S. cultural history, which was still an underdeveloped area within American historiography.
What I'm trying to say is the Lawrence Levine's essay gave me hope that I might be able to get a job in a history department. That's the way that I was tilting in my development within American Studies. And here was this eminent historian who was also a path-breaking historian of the black experience.
Here he was putting jazz front and center. He was making the argument that jazz was hitting the ground at a time when a Victorian sense of culture was ascendant. Jazz was modern, and it helped to inaugurate the modernist cultural revolution that was moving away from Victorian cultural ideals: the evolution of culture as linear, rational and orderly, formal perfectibility. What Levine's piece, and the book that it ended up in, was talking about is how right up through the 19th century, the United States remained culturally subordinate to England and to Europe. Victorianism had totally implanted itself in American intellectual culture.
That was the culture that was not hearing jazz as music. And that explains the kind of pervasive anti-jazz attitude of the U.S. intellectual establishment well into the 1930s. So jazz and the things that defined jazz and appealed to its supportersimprovisation, formal flexibility, emotional expressivitywere considered the very opposite of culture. These were seen as anti-culture, even barbaric and threatening to the foundations of civilization [laughter].
Actually Neil Leonard's book, Jazz and the White Americans, is all about that kind of anti-jazz hysteria in the 1920s. But here's the irony: I think that what I show in my book is that the canonization of jazz, as a result of the work of critics in the United States, from the 1930s to the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s, was very much a process consonant with that Victorian, capital "C" Culture idea.
We mentioned Martin Williams and The Jazz Tradition before. He was probably the strongest, in jazz criticism, exemplar of a kind a Matthew Arnold, New Critical approach to thinking about what the critic should do with jazz, and thinking about jazz as an art.
AAJ: By doing the research for my essay, "The Canonization of Jazz and Afro-American Literature," I discovered that Williams had a very strong literature background based on his experience at Columbia University, right?
JG: Yes. And there was, in the 1950s, a lingering sense, among the critics, that they were part of a mission to get mainstream America to embrace jazz not just as American, but as high art. Bebop musicians of the 1940s wanted to be seen as something more than just entertainers. Ellington earlier had succeeded in getting the music into the concert hall, and had undertaken to write scored-through concert pieces, suites, etc. There's that way of thinking of jazz as art.
Then there's the way of looking at what Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans people are doing or what the Chicago jazz people are doing in those three-minute small-group recordings as art as well.
So, as Levine suggests, it was blowing the Victorian conception of culture out of the water, but the canonization of jazz rested on an approach to jazz that participated in that older intellectual tradition of searching for masterpieces. Like the suggestion that there was something really orderly and rational about a Louis Armstrong solo that can and should be studied with the same kind of analytical rigor that a trumpet concerto from a European classical piece could be studied.
You had to use the traditional tools of criticism and the propaganda of high art to make the case for jazz as a canonical American art form, but then also to build the American jazz canon. So you say these are the recordings, these are the performances you have to pay attention to. For Williams, that was totally parallel to what he had been taught was the right way to approach English poetry. These are the poems you take seriously, these are the masterpieces. And the criticism is going to explain why.
AAJ: Let's complicate this further. Let's bring race into this discussion.
To Be Continued . . .
Page 1, Donald Fagen/Steely Dan: John Kelman
Page 1, John Gennari: Courtesy of John Gennari