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Music of My Mind | The Nation

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Music of My Mind

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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.)

About the Author

David Yaffe
David Yaffe is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown (Yale). 

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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 radical.

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 pathology."

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 theme."

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.

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