Monday, April 11, 2005

Jazz as art form- disconnected from society?

Talking/Writing "Voices" series at New School in New York
Gary Giddins (author, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century), interviewed by Robert Christgau, March 30th

Before covering the state of jazz journalism, one of its top practitioners had some good anecdotes:

  • Coleman Hawkins- his famous recording of “"Body and Soul"” was actually just an off-the-cuff session, meaning much more than the pain-staking recordings he did with string sections.
  • Benny Goodman in the Soviet Union- jazz was illegal there and fans didn’t want to be in trouble so they referred to singles and albums by their catalog numbers. When they had the chance to meet Goodman on a visit, they asked him questions about certain records, referring to them by catalog number. Needless to say, Goodman was baffled (though you had to hope that he was impressed in some way).
From there, Giddins went on to relate his own difficulty with finding sympathetic editors and how that was the general experience with jazz journalism now. He had left his Weather Bird column at the Village Voice because he didn't feel that was a place to pursue the essay format anymore (Christgau, a long-time editor there, agreed). Nevertheless, Giddins recounted that when he was first offered the column, he didn't like the idea of having to write 300 words about every show he saw. Nowadays, he's grateful to get good advances for his books: the usual is about$5000 but he managed to get more for his latest one.

He went on to lament the problems that he sees in music criticism now. One problem he notes is that critics themselves are weak on the history of criticism- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Biographia Literaria), Dwight McDonald (Against the American Grain), Martin Williams (The Jazz Tradition) to name a few. This is important as he notes a quote from Albert Murray: a writer's ambition is reflected in what they read. That alone should give some people pause.

Giddins went on to say: "Music criticism is a writer's art, a form of literature... Your primary obligation should be to your readers, so you should be entertaining and enlightening as possible." But beyond these lofty things, he admitted, "even before I'm a writer, I'm a fan," which is good to know because enthusiasm does go a long way in this trade.

In terms of writing style, he explained "having an opinion is hard work," which may not seem like much at first but if you consider it to mean a real, defendable opinion, then you realize that it's not an easy task. As far as criticism being a 'dialog between writers and readers,' you can take that not just to mean the endless cycle of commentary that you can now find on the Net (i.e. blogs) but also the way that good critical writing can inspire the same in others. As for personal narrative, Giddins didn't have a problem with it as long as it served an illustrative function (i.e. it holds some purpose beyond pumping yourself up).

For jazz criticism in particular, he worried that this was a terrible time, especially as there are so few writers out there, especially compared to writers covering other musical styles. Particular problems he's seen in the field was how many writers would avoid writing about Louis Armstrong for a long time because he was seen as too pop and too minstrel. Also, a popular tirade in jazz circles was to dismiss cross-over music while at the same time, some of these same complainers would then go on to wonder why jazz isn't more popular. When someone in the audience asked if writers should have musical knowledge in order to write about a style, Giddins admitted that he had little and went on to quote a writer who was well-versed in music but also made numerous factual errors in some of his writing (initials D.M. I believe).

During some of the other Q&A period, Christgau chimed in about writing and editing experiences. Ideally, he hoped that his audience wouldn't need every little thing explained to them but unfortunately, many editors do need this and even then, they are confused. He recalled one of his least favorite writing assignments was also one of the best paying ones- he hoped to write for the publication again even though the editing experience had been like "being nibbled to death by ducks and date rapped" (ouch). Giddins went on to tell about an experience where another editor said that readers wouldn't know who Blake or Rossini were so he needed to give out their first names in a review. Giddins reluctantly agreed and then the editor went on to ask "And what ARE their first names...?" As for blogs, Christgau complained that he found them to be too self-referential and impenetrable (hopefully excluding present company).

The one quote that seemed to stand out was from Christgau: "jazz has less sociological context than pop." Could this be so? He later explained, "Currently, of course it does. It's almost a pure art music. Rock's not there yet." Yet. Giddins agreed with this: "He's right about it being less verbal--also, in his defense, jazz critics other than Marxists often avoided social context until long after the war." Even if it was true, it was one of those things that you DIDN'T want to believe. Can jazz be so far gone that it doesn't have any social context to it anymore? What would William Parker say or for that matter, Wynton Marsalis? The two probably don't agree on much but here, they surely would.


Sad to say, I'd have to disagree with them. If we're talking about American society at large, then jazz does seem to be missing a wider context today. Maybe you could say that it started once R&B splintered off from it in the 1940's. Even the days of freakish one-shot hits was as far back as the 1970's (technically, Herb Alpert's "Rise" or Chuck Mangione's "Feel So Good" were 'jazz' but they were really light dance fare). When Ken Burns tried to perform a revival act with his PBS series, the related CD compilations ate up the jazz charts, not the pop charts. Which isn't to say that the music is dead (even though it gets last rites on a constant basis) but that it isn't a cultural phenom as it was in the days of big bands.

But could it be again? As always, its practitioners today want to play their music, earn a living from it and thrive. Taking it to the next level requires not just boldness but also cunning, vision, some measure of respect (but hopefully not a whorish embrace) of pop culture, style, luck and (this is very important) good marketing. It could happen, really. Maybe a high-priced tag, multi-special-guest extravaganza that Clive Davis could cook up. Don't laugh- once upon a time, he helped push Miles Davis into some of his most daring and misunderstood music. It sold a lot in terms of the standards of jazz (though not as much as they had hoped) and shaped the whole frontier of 70's jazz (for worse and better).

This bold new leader today could be Greg Osby, Graham Haynes, Jason Moran or more likely, someone we don't know about yet. In the 90's, there was a stronger connection with hip-hop (i.e. Guru) and from then up to now, indie rock has embraced its edges (Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo). These kinds of foot-in-the-door moves could mean more mainstream attention and could provide a springboard. Granted that these are all pretty hypothetical longshots we're talking about here but even the promise of such a thing is intriguing. Many jazz fans would say that as long as it stays true to its essence, the style doesn't have to worry about lifting itself up in terms of mass media attention. But then, remember Giddins' words about the twisted hypocritical complaints leveled at cross-overs: they get lambasted constantly and then we go back to bemoaning its sad fate. We can't have it both ways and I'm all for the risk-takers. Many and most will fail but we should salute and cheer anyone who makes a go of it without trashing their roots. What would this then mean for jazz or for a society that embraces it with both arms? I'd love to find out.




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