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 journalism.

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 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.

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 Mingus.