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.