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Music of My Mind | The Nation

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Music of My Mind

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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.

About the Author

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

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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 Mingus.

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