Race and Jazz Criticism
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.