[JPL] Blowin' Hot & Cool...Jazz & Its Critics...review in The Nation

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 25 18:31:31 EDT 2006

This article can be found on the web at 


Music of My Mind

[from the October 2, 2006 issue]

Amiri Baraka, in his 1984 Autobiography, recalls a
fistfight with the legendary composer and bassist
Charles Mingus outside the Five Spot, one of
Manhattan's hippest jazz clubs in the 1950s and '60s.
Mingus took one look at the jazz critic and slugged
him, only to have Baraka slugging back in his best
Sugar Ray imitation. "I'm sorry," Mingus said. "I made
a mistake. I was wrong." As Baraka explained with more
than a touch of self-flattery, "I guess he meant
because he thought he could just slap me and walk
away, having chastised some jive intellectual. But I'd
ducked and dodged around some much meaner with they
hands mf's than Charlie Mingus." 

At least the two men came to an understanding, even if
it was unclear how, after their scuffle, Mingus
assessed Baraka's chops as a jive intellectual. Not
all conflicts between jazz critics and their subjects
have been resolved so easily, as John Gennari points
out in Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics. The
book includes a few other moments when the musicians
turned the tables on their professional scrutinizers.
Pianist Cecil Taylor, after being outed by his onetime
champion Stanley Crouch, responded with an equally
ferocious poem. Mingus, in his memoir Beneath the
Underdog, imagined how pathetic a group of ofay jazz
critics would sound jamming on the bandstand. And in
1961 Miles Davis hosted an extravagant "press
conference in reverse" at his Central Park West
penthouse, in which he, Cannonball Adderly, Horace
Silver, Philly Joe Jones and other legendary musicians
engaged in a playful but revealing interrogation of
Martin Williams, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern and
other notable tastemakers. "What qualification does a
jazz critic need?" asked Silver. "Anybody can be a
jazz critic," Hentoff admitted. "The standards are
very low." Hentoff, whose own jazz criticism has set a
particularly high standard for more than half a
century, had a good point. 

Gennari, an assistant professor of English at the
University of Vermont, has not been living in jazz's
most exciting moment, but he has come along at a
fortuitous time for jazz studies, a growth industry in
the academy. The book had its origins as an American
Studies dissertation, and was then revised and refined
over more than a decade. Jazz critics usually scribble
notes in dark, smoky clubs and then hastily turn in
copy in a caffeinated rush of deadlines, cobbled
anecdotes and many, many adjectives. With a few
exceptions, they tend to be neither technically
proficient musicians nor credentialed scholars but
former English majors and sometimes lapsed humanities
graduate students--a venerable tradition in cultural

There are a few PhDs discussed in Gennari's book, but
none did their scholarly work on jazz, which was an
impossible pursuit until relatively recently: Marshall
Stearns taught medieval literature at Hunter while
founding the Institute of Jazz Studies; Barry Ulanov
taught theater history at Barnard while editing
Metronome; and Albert Goldman, after receiving a PhD
in English at Columbia, fled academe for hired hackdom
after learning that an entry-level Brooklyn College
instructor made less money than a subway conductor.
Williams received a master's in English from the
University of Pennsylvania, and Gennari, who received
his PhD from the same institution, demonstrates that
the lessons of New Criticism weren't lost on the most
influential jazz critic of his time. Hentoff, for his
part, left Harvard's American Civilization graduate
program after a year when he met resistance to the
idea of taking black artists seriously in general and
writing a Duke Ellington dissertation in particular.
He may have bemoaned the standards of jazz criticism,
but higher education was not exactly friendly to it
back in the 1950s. 

And so Gennari's book does for jazz critics what most
of them were unable to do for themselves, but with a
postmodern twist: The scholar demystifies and
historicizes the journalists. The first sustained
scholarly book exclusively about jazz criticism--and,
not least, about the passions that have driven and
surrounded it--Blowin' Hot and Cool is thorough,
absorbing and original, an obsessive study of
professional obsessives that will circumvent the need
for any other. 

In the introduction, Gennari cites Thelonious Monk's
maxim that "if you want to know what's going on in
jazz, ask a musician." Yet Monk's statement doesn't
necessarily undercut the need for jazz critics--or
even a book about jazz critics. What it implies is
that the best jazz criticism--really, like the best
criticism of any art--has to be informed by the
artists. This may seem like an obvious point, but
considering that jazz was in its most vital periods of
development during segregation and the early,
tumultuous years of the civil rights movement, it
required a considerable cultural crossing among the
people who wrote about it, many of whom were white men
from privileged backgrounds. 

Of all these privileged white men, none were more
influential, or more stricken with racial and class
guilt, than John Hammond. To call Hammond a man of
wealth and taste would be an understatement on both
counts. An heir to the Vanderbilt fortune, Hammond
grew up with every extravagance offered to the most
well-heeled beneficiaries of the Gilded Age. Armed
with a trust fund to get him through the Depression
years, he started out as a jazz critic, but his real
legacy was as a legendary Columbia Records producer
and talent scout who counted among his discoveries
Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Benny
Goodman, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin and
Bruce Springsteen. 

All of these artists could have been recognized
without Hammond, but he managed to get there first. He
championed racial integration back in the 1930s
(reporting on the Scottsboro case for The Nation), but
when he persuaded Benny Goodman to break the racial
barrier by including Charlie Christian and Lionel
Hampton on his session, he wasn't doing it merely out
of political principle; he knew it would be good for
music, which for him was also good for business. He
was notoriously wrong about Ellington's politics and
high-art aspirations, and idiotically forbade Billie
Holiday to record the lynching dirge "Strange Fruit"
for Columbia (he thought it was "artistically the
worst thing that ever happened to her"), but it was
extraordinary that this company man to the manor born
was right as often as he was. (Hammond is also the
subject of a new biography, Dunstan Prial's
serviceable but hardly revelatory The Producer: John
Hammond and the Soul of America.) 

Gennari's first chapter opens with Hammond acting as a
jazz Virgil for the English critic Leonard Feather on
Feather's first trip to New York. The pairing of the
two men in 1935 not only consolidated the two most
influential jazz critics of the decade but also set
the tone for what Gennari calls the "Ur-stance of the
jazz critic: poised on the seam between artistic
creation and popular consumption, close to but also
crucially distinct from the dancing mass body, caught
up in an imagined sense of privileged intellectual and
emotional communion with the music." Hammond and
Feather were, in other words, the original jazz nerds,
or as the section heading calls them, "White Guys
Without Dates." But while their detached scrutiny may
have seemed unduly removed from the physicality of the
jitterbugging around them--something about white
critics that was not lost on Ralph Ellison, Albert
Murray and Stanley Crouch--their geeky pose also had a
serious purpose: They were determined to make the case
that this mass entertainment was also high art. In the
1930s, this stance was as counterintuitive as it was

Before jazz acquired mainstream respectability in the
1980s (and various alternative monikers, such as
"America's classical music" and "black art music"),
jazz criticism was an adventure, a hierarchically
indeterminate project of discovery--and
self-discovery. Leonard Feather and Stanley Dance
leapt across the pond for Ellington, Hammond migrated
from New Haven to Kansas City juke joints to spread
the word on Basie, and Williams and Hentoff fled
academe to raise intellectual standards in jazz
criticism. Just after the publication of Norman
Mailer's notorious 1957 essay in Dissent, "The White
Negro," Hentoff wrote that Mailer's statement that
"jazz is orgasm" "is not too far from the legend that
'all God's chillun got rhythm,' particularly the
darker ones." Getting jazz right was an aesthetic
matter, but for Hentoff it was a moral one as well.
Baraka, when he wasn't dodging punches from Charles
Mingus, summed it up back in 1963 as the critic
formerly known as LeRoi Jones, then a necessary black
voice in a largely white domain: "Most jazz critics
have been white men, but most important jazz musicians
have not been." Gennari is keenly attuned to this
fact, not only when critics like Hammond and Hentoff
were politically engaged but also when The New
Yorker's Whitney Balliett confected elegant metaphors
and when Williams defined a tradition of universal
transcendence; being postracial in the 1950s was a
luxury African-American musicians couldn't afford.
Gennari searches high and low for these cultural
divides and finds that while Ralph Gleason had high
intellectual aspirations for jazz criticism, he was
also at his boldest and funkiest in obscure girlie
magazines like Rogue and Gem. 

The 1960s divided jazz critics like everyone else in
that decade, and what had been a problematic crossing
became a war zone, as Gennari describes in his
fascinating chapter "The Shock of the New." Martin
Williams liked Ornette Coleman but not later John
Coltrane. LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka, left his
Jewish wife, Hettie, and their two daughters and
spouted anti-Semitic agitprop from the Village Gate.
Gleason became, as Gennari described him, the "Dutch
Uncle" of the hippies and helped found Rolling Stone.
Dan Morgenstern tried to find virtues of the "new
thing" of 1964 while still drawing lines in the sand.
And for Frank Kofsky, a Jewish Trotskyist historian
who heard the sound of the coming black revolution in
Coltrane and Archie Shepp, if you weren't part of the
solution, you were part of the problem, even including
SNCC organizer Jackie McLean, whom Kofsky dismissed as
"another one of the Establishment's good niggers in
jazz." The one thing, it seemed, that nearly every
jazz critic held in common was a contempt for the 1965
Moynihan Report, which Albert Murray called "the
folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black

Between the 1920s and the '60s, jazz criticism was a
topical subject, but by the '70s, notwithstanding the
splendors of the loft scene, the debates became more
archival, and Gennari's finds in this area are
formidable. He digs up a well-meaning but shoddy 1960
journal essay by Jack Kerouac, who wrote that Quincy
Jones was a bass player and described Red Garland,
somewhat vaguely, as "a strange thinker, actually."
Jazz critics can be strange thinkers, too: In the
book's central coup, Gennari unearths the
correspondence between Ross Russell and Albert Goldman
on Charlie Parker, housed in archives at the
University of Texas, Austin. In these letters, written
while Russell was working on Bird Lives!, his Parker
biography, we get critics unfiltered, and Goldman
gives a sense of what some of the white hipsters were
saying about their black fetish objects behind closed
doors (or, in this case, excavated from vaults).
Russell, whom Miles Davis once likened to a vampire,
was given the following writerly advice from Goldman:
"I feel that for such a great cocksman your treatment
of [Parker's] sex life is disappointing.... How about
the faggot angle? You told me that Bird was intimate
with [singer] Earl Coleman.... Please make sure you're
not copping out in this area. It's a very important

After a thorough, engrossing investigation of about
half a century of criticism, Gennari's final chapter,
"Tangled Up in Blues," charting the more recent
debates in jazz criticism, feels oddly tame. The jazz
wars of the 1990s revolved around a single
musician--the trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis, who
has excoriated anything that veers from his particular
take on the jazz tradition--and the institution that
he directs, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Gennari shows his
hand in the conclusion, counting himself "among those
aggrieved by the Lincoln Center jazz program's
denigration of the post-1958 avant-garde." But he's so
determined to be fair to all sides that his true
polemic never quite comes across. Having traversed
fifty years of rancorous debate, the book lands in the
present--and takes a polite dodge vis-à-vis the
conflicts in jazz today. 

Gennari begins the final chapter with a perfect setup
for irony: Gary Giddins thanking Crouch for his
generosity in his acknowledgments to Celebrating Bird,
the short book on Parker he completed while Crouch was
working on a longer--and still much anticipated--Bird
biography. He then lays out Crouch's idea of the jazz
tradition, influenced by Albert Murray and Ralph
Ellison, one that venerates Armstrong, Basie,
Ellington and Bechet, and expands (beyond Murray's and
Ellison's predilections) to a canon that includes
Parker, Monk (Wynton Marsalis's favorite musician),
Mingus, Ornette Coleman (when acoustic and
appropriately swinging), John Coltrane (up to
mid-1965) and Miles Davis (up to 1968) but not fusion
or anything too European (including most ECM
recordings and anything involving Cecil Taylor) or too
rock-influenced, and definitely nothing that has the
faintest whiff of hip-hop. 

There are, of course, plenty of jazz critics with a
broader musical palette, like Francis Davis, a protégé
of Pauline Kael, and Greg Tate, whose post-hip-hop
black and cross-racial aesthetic Gennari praises for
its originality. But when Gennari discusses the
"strongest critics of the Murray/Crouch jazz model,"
he devotes his attention to writers who have held out
the torch for allegedly marginalized white musicians:
most notably, Richard Sudhalter, James Lincoln Collier
and Terry Teachout. What about Gary Giddins, who has
no racial ax to grind? Giddins (who is discussed
elsewhere in the same chapter) shares many of Crouch's
passions but has also championed many of the musicians
whom Crouch either disdains (Dave Douglas, Don Byron,
Matthew Shipp) or repudiated after years of fervent
advocacy (Cecil Taylor, David Murray). And when he was
a staff writer for the Village Voice, Giddins
published blistering attacks on Marsalis, reprinted in
two essay collections. (Crouch gives his account of
the jazz wars in his recent collection Considering
Genius.) But the chapter shies away from the feud
after nearly setting the stage for it. 

Still, this shying away from confrontation--in the
last of eight chapters--shouldn't detract from the
overall achievement of Gennari's thoughtful, original
and impressive book. Jazz is not only in need of
serious criticism, it is in need of serious criticism
of its criticism. The best critics are self-critics as
well, and are often the first to defer to the
musicians. The mind of Martin Williams may have done
much to canonize the mind of Ornette Coleman, but is
it nearly as interesting a place to dwell? Surely not,
just as writing The Jazz Tradition is less notable
than recording The Shape of Jazz to Come. Williams
himself would have certainly agreed. "I've often
considered writing a column dedicated to the
proposition that musicians are the only qualified
critics," he wrote in Down Beat, undercutting his
authority from his own perch. 

Williams was, of course, overstating the case, and he
wasn't about to give himself a pink slip (though he
did end up spending his final years at the
Smithsonian, a move from criticism to curatorial work
that reveals much about what was happening to the
music). Even so, his invitation for the musicians to
have the final say makes sense, and after spending all
these pages with jazz critics, even more of a musical
response would have been welcome. Many books have been
written from the musicians' point of view (A.B.
Spellman's 4 Lives in the Bebop Business, Valerie
Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life, Arthur Taylor's
Notes and Tones, the memoirs of Ellington, Mingus and
Miles), and this is the first serious consideration of
critics, but those moments of reverb between musicians
and critics were so tantalizing, I wanted to hear a
few more bars. "Jazz speaks," writes Gennari in his
eloquent introduction, "through means that can make
post-performance written accounts seem secondary or
even superfluous." Indeed, but who gets the last word
in the book? "May the noise forever clamor, and may we
listen and learn," says Gennari, seemingly optimistic
about the current state of jazz writing. But does jazz
really get enough of the criticism it deserves?
Hentoff was certainly right to defer to the musicians
in Miles Davis's living room, and his point about the
low standards in jazz criticism is still worth
pondering. If only more of it was up to Gennari's
impeccably high standards. Gennari writes about jazz
critics with an impressive scholarly command, but I
wanted the musicians to speak back a little more, even
if it meant getting a little roughed up by Charles

Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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