A good music critic can make readers recognize the way something sounds. A great one illuminates this acknowledgement with something readers didn’t notice or hear beforehand. The latter quality made Gene Santoro not only an outstanding music critic but also superb reporter whose journalism will remain a vivid and reliable record of its time.
Santoro, who died April 27 of esophageal cancer at 71, wrote about jazz and popular music for such publications as The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, the New York Daily News, The Village Voice, DownBeat, Musician and the luxe stereophile magazine FI. However, his friends and fans believe he did his most important writing for The Nation—to which he contributed dozens of music columns between 1987 and 2005. Many of these pieces were collected, some in revised form, in Dancing in Your Head: Jazz, Blues, Rock, and Beyond (1994), Stir It Up: Musical Mixes from Roots to Jazz (1997), and Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Country Music (2004).
Those subtitles tell you everything about Santoro’s life’s work: For him, American music was a sprawling composite of collective and individual voices, fashioning distinctive artistic identities, each disclosing new ways to think, act, believe, and behave, regardless of genre. In fact, “genre” to Santoro was all but meaningless except as a marketing tool. What was far more important was how everything in the national sound came together: what connected, say, country and western to rhythm and blues rather than what separated them (one hint: the white light of gospel music emanating from both white and Black churches). Santoro also relates in the introduction to Highway 61, how a “complex pair of geniuses” named Louis Armstrong and Woody Guthrie, “represent[ed] the headwaters of significant and twisty currents flowing through the last hundred years of American pop-music history.” His impulse to accumulate as many contexts and nuances as he could and make the necessary connections reached its apotheosis with his 2000 biography of Charles Mingus, Myself When I Am Real, which received renewed appreciation for its definitive portrait of the mercurial and protean bassist-composer just this past month as the centennial of Mingus’s birth was observed.
Santoro’s instinctive and deeply embedded sense of history was the magnifying glass he carried into his inquiries like a 19th-century detective. He had an affinity for such seeming (and relatively unsung) anomalies as guitar virtuosos Oscar Aleman, an Argentinian who was Django Reinhardt’s closest competitor in Paris’s 1930s jazz scene, and Oscar Moore, who was almost as seminal an influence in the Nat King Cole Trio of the 1940s as its leader. Speaking of whom, here’s Santoro’s justly celebrated description of Cole’s inimitable vocal style: “His baritone/tenor is so airy and elemental, so palpably physical, it invites you in, then surrounds you glowingly like the lit cave of a magic mountain emanating song from somewhere deep.”
For contrast’s sake, here’s how Santoro nails down the essence of Neil Young, an artist he wasn’t quite as enamored with, but who nonetheless comes through loud and clear in this evocation of “one of the scariest rockers around”:
It’s not just his screechingly inventive torture of the electric guitar. It’s not just the seized-up quaver of his thin nasal voice as it wobbles precariously around notes. It’s not just his willingness to shift (with wildly uneven notes) from grungy rocker to delicate folkie to technohead. It’s the truly frightening intensity those qualities grow out of. Even at his worst—which he often is—Young is always emotionally naked, and he doesn’t care who’s looking.
Whether you were a Neil Young acolyte or couldn’t abide him, you couldn’t listen to him in the same way after reading a summation like this.
“With Gene, it was about discovery more than anything else,” Elizabeth Pochoda, his first editor at The Nation recalled. “It wasn’t about showing off his erudition or showing up other critics or musicians. He was more interested in sharing the things he found out and making you hear what he heard. And his enthusiasm was genuine. I loved working with him and learning from him.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Santoro was a quintessential working-class New Yorker with keenly honed street smarts, shrewdly combative towards his antagonists, selflessly protective towards his friends, whether they were musicians or fellow writers. That he played guitar professionally for a while gave him an edge in assessing other musicians. Whether in admiration or disdain, Santoro’s observations were backed by intricate detail, grounded empathy, and, whenever appropriate, caustic wit. A Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree from Stanford, Santoro wore his erudition lightly. If he brought up Dante, Thomas Pynchon, or the Firesign Theater (about all of whom he was fluently knowledgeable), it wasn’t to show off or show up but to amplify a point.
He and I were friendly enough to joke about not only sharing the same first name but the same initials. I was among many writers he edited, mentored, and encouraged. (I can’t think of anybody he discouraged.) In good times and bad, even toward the end of his life, “the Other Gene” (as we called each other) kept listening, watching, remembering, and writing things down. The best way to remember him, I’m thinking, is keep doing as he did: Listen. Make the connections. Tell people what they’re missing, and never mind whether they want to know or not. Have faith. Someday they will.