No one knows the rules of jazz like Gary Giddins. No critic has written so voluminously about jazz. No critic since Nat Hentoff in the post-bop 1950's has been as big a booster of our national art form, working diligently to put before the public this style he loves, believing despite evidence to the contrary that we as a people will fall in love with it with the same fervor if we would only give ourselves to it the way he has. The long-time jazz critic for The Village Voice, Visions of Jazz:The First Hundred Years, publish by Oxford University Press in 1998, is Giddins magnum opus, the attempt not so much to tell the story of jazz but to give, as the title suggests, his "vision" of jazz, defending his positions with the accumulated knowledge of decades combined with a musical acumen one finds in abundance among jazz critics.
The story of jazz, like all music, is complicated, rooted in social, political, economic, and our peculiarly American racial matters. Born in clubs in the most dangerous part of America's most multicultural city, New Orleans, most chroniclers, Giddins included, date the music to a single performer, the trumpeter Buddy Bolden. In many ways, Bolden's story - one of legendary prowess on an instrument; of uniqueness of style; of the excesses of a life spent too long in quarters harboring vice - is the story we know not just from the long history of jazz, but popular music in general. It has been repeated ad nauseum, become a cliche so scripted we have our current crop of public figures - Lindsay Lohan being the best example - ready to play their designated roles if only they would allow themselves.
Giddins is both wise and thoughtful, along with knowledgeable of this particular music's provenance. He doesn't start with Bolden. In fact, he starts with the longest-lived form of popular entertainment, one wiped from our collective consciousness precisely because of its association with our racist national id. I am speaking, of course, of minstrelsy. The very first essay - and this book is little more than the collection of 79 essays - pairs two seemingly unlikely gentlemen: Bert Williams and Al Jolson. Bert Williams was one of the first popular African-American recording artists, putting songs on record while the First World War was breaking out in Europe. He was also one of the last great and popular minstrel performers. What makes this latter so troubling for so many, however, was the fact that Williams was black. He just wasn't black enough, forced in all his public appearances to darken his skin with burned cork, a humiliation he accepted with increasing rage over the years.
Jolson became famous both as "The Jazz Singer", which he never was, and as part of the last gasp of minstresly, which he never was. The first performer to sing in what had been a silent medium, Jolson did so in black face, becoming at once the focus of much attention and the icon of a half-century of American popular performance. The thing is, Jolson's appropriation both of the skin color and the music of his more talented and original partner in this essay adds yet another layer to the story of jazz - the uneasy, sometimes hostile, always freighted with America's sad history, dance between black and white performers. Like the best musicians in jazz, Giddins doesn't so much come out and pound the theme in to our heads as he does show us, giving to the listener the work of figuring out what's going on based upon the evidence.
Giddins's book won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, the Bell Atlantic Jazz Award for Book of the Year, and it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1998). One can be forgiven, then, if as a reader you come to it expecting greatness. Like a jazz fan listening to a new piece of music from a favorite performer, a reader who scans the following among the blurbs on the back jacket, would be excused for believing Giddins has written something masterful: "A remarkably nonideological critic, Giddins has long demonstrated a passion for jazz in all its guises. . . . His writing, like the music he loves, is joyously polyphonic, with history, legend, musicology, biography, and performance all rising out of the mix." This was from an uncredited review in The New Yorker. My problem with this description, however, is it gets pretty much everything wrong.
Giddins is profoundly ideological, if by ideological one means taking sides in the many debates and discussions that surround jazz. On the other hand, if by "ideological", one means "racial" - taking sides in the debate that has been around since the music was first recorded and disseminated to the broad public that jazz is primarily an African-American art form, one few whites can penetrate well - then being "nonideological" is not necessarily a good thing. This is not an inconsequential matter, and discussions, debates, arguments, even the occasional knife-fight that break out over it are rooted precisely in that very first essay described above: white folk stealing and making their own this beautiful, sad, joyous, raucous art form is yet another indignity African-Americans have had to bear. One can acknowledge that there have been white jazz musicians of uncanny beauty and power; one must always, however, note these are like Samuel Johnson's walking dogs and preaching women. It is one thing to "play around" the melody of race, as Giddins does several times although not as beautifully as in the first essay; it is another thing, however, not to state that melody clearly.
Another thing that made this book a far more difficult read than it might otherwise have been is Giddins style. If one spends one's life as a critic, being limited by editorial insistence to 800-1,000 words, it might demonstrate one's acquiescence to this habit that creating a longer work benefits from writing a series of critical-style essays. Yet, at times Giddins attempt to write either cogently or clearly about his subject matter fails so utterly, one wonders if he will find it again. The best example comes from what seems to me to be a too-long attempt to give Coleman Hawkins's 1940 recording of "Body and Soul" its due. Giddins sets the scene like any master story-teller would, noting that, like so many great moments, it was born of the humdrum of a musician's life, i.e., yet another recording date, and one song among several scheduled for that day's studio time. The following is from p. 127, one of four or five paragraphs in which Giddins attempts to talk about what can only be heard listening to the song, after having acknowledged both the originality of Hawkins's accomplishment and the fact that, despite its popularity (the record sold quite well), it changed little to nothing in jazz.
If Hawkins's "Body and Soul" isn't the single most acclaimed improvisation in jazz's first hundred years, it is unquestionably a leading contender. Nothing was changed by it. Hawkins's station had long since been established, and Lester Young's time was at hand no matter what. At least one critic professed not to understand the hoopla - Hawkins played like that all the time, he made fifty records as good, didn't he? Not quite. What elevated "Body and Soul" was its purity, its perfection; here, in one spellbinding improvisation, was the apogee of everything Hawkins achieved thus far, an uncompromising example of his gift, a work of art. In his own way, he demonstrated what Lester Young was also in the process of demonstrating: a scheme to penetrate the presumed boundaries of conventional harmony. And he did it with his patented arpeggios, compensating for the absence of identifiable melody with his drive, warmth, and coherence. The public approbation was significant, if puzzling. The record was a sophisticated abstraction of a popular song, yet Hawkins's variations were embrace to the degree that he had to memorize them to satisfy clubgoers, who insisted he play the famous solo, not a fresh improvisation.Here we have everything that makes this work so difficult to work through, distilled to one paragraph. How can arpeggios be "patented"? In what way is "Body and Soul" "pure" or "perfect", beyond a description of the recording - an abstract meditation on a popular song? If nothing was changed by it, is it well known just because of its beauty, its simplicity, its "perfection"? If nothing was changed by it, why does it stand out so much? None of the questions raised by this particular paragraph receive any answers in Giddins's text. And this is just one of a couple dozen examples where Giddins's prose fails not so much himself as the reader.
Which leads me to the title of this post: One of the things about jazz, at least in its past half-century or so, is the cliqueishness that seems to surround the music. Its most ardent publicists and fans insist at one and the same time its accessibility and its complexity; its familiarity (if one is "American" enough) and its strangeness. Giddins is no less given to betraying this particular vice (if it is one), in particular demonstrating a willingness to toss out terms from musicology that, it appears, he assumes his readers will understand. This tendency becomes blatant in two esssays, the one on Charlie Parker and the one on Dizzy Gillespie. Giddins includes transcriptions of music from each man, and attempts to use them to demonstrate . . . what, precisely? Musical scores should illuminate, giving the reader a sense of what the performer is playing, even if the casual reader can't read a note of music. One problem, however, is that notating a jazz solo illuminates nothing. One in particular is more confusing the more one looks at it, or listens to the solo so notated while trying to follow along: Parker's solo from "Koko", one of the gauntlets bebop threw down before more traditional jazz in the year or two after the Second World War. The notation lacks both the underlying chords Parker was soloing over as well as an explanation of the rhythmic subtlety that made Parker singular in his approach to the music. Giddins does little to dispel the sense that, to "get" jazz, one needs access both to a vocabulary and a personal style that elevates one above the normal run of music listeners. The picture of a bunch of white hipsters, berets at jaunty angles, sitting in a smoky club snapping their fingers carries throughout the book.
Yet, these frustrations hide many virtues, not the least of which is Giddins's utter lack of sentimentality. Scanning the late decades of his story, Giddins finds much to recommend to the reader. While dismissing fusion as an attempt at broad popularity this particular style failed to achieve, he nevertheless grants to some musicians who included electric instruments in their ensembles pride of place as he places before the unknowing reader performers as diverse as Henry Threadgill, Gary Bartz, Dave Murray, and the great Cecil Taylor, whose virtues require attentiveness to appreciate. While far too many writers and fans yearn for the "Great Men" who have passed and whose like we won't see again, Giddins is insistent that jazz still lives, thriving in a variety of musicians who continue the music's individualistic ethic while navigating the waters between a stale traditionalism and the outer reaches of the avant garde that left too many listeners wondering if such things as harmony or rhythm would remain.
Despite its faults, I would recommend Giddins's book, with some provisos. Listen to jazz first. Familiarize yourself with the standards, the men and women who shaped the music in the past, their idiosyncrasies and personal touches that make it easy to tell the difference among so many performers using the same instruments. To get used to Giddins's style, get a hold of Weatherbird, a collection of Giddins's review essays from the late 1980's, 1990's, and early 2000's (also published by Oxford University Press). Finally, open yourself to the possibilities that exist within and through the music - the possibility not just of freedom and joy, pain and tears; but the possibility that you, dear reader, might become one among the initiates, a hip gnostic who understands that, in the words of British drummer Bill Bruford, "America is jazz and jazz is America."