'Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics'
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John Gennari's new work shouldn't be the first jazz book you read, but once you've stepped hip- deep into the waters of jazz writing, this is a well-written overview of many different perspectives of a rich and engaging music.
By John Gennari.
University of Chicago Press ($35)
The writer is a cultural anthropologist with an affinity for both the music and the many different voices of its critics who were writing in the past century. His knowledge offers readers the space to interpret the stories and the criticism in context.
Gennari's central theme is to chronicle jazz's canonization as an art, but he admits that his book is limited to a comprehensive beginning of a deeper study of the story of the music, racial justice, politics and sexuality.
This book is not just rich in information and storytelling, but also in the ebb and flow of the passions that underpin jazz. In the process, Gennari finds decades of discourse and disagreement, alliances and arguments.
Along the way, many different jazz writers weigh in on their devotion to "real jazz," and their concerns over jazz "selling out" to whatever might be the latest musical or cultural distraction.
Gennari's perspective is mostly as an interested observer in the lives and writings of John Hammond, Leonard Feather, Rudy Blesh, Ralph Ellison, Stanley Crouch, Amiri Baraka and scores of other writers and proponents whose names will be familiar, and others who may not be as well known.
There isn't room in this book for a complete jazz history -- nor for some of the music's greatest cities. The focus is on New York, Chicago and a touch of Boston.
Legendary newspapers of the black press, such as the New York Amsterdam News and the Pittsburgh Courier, get a brief mention, as the author sees their role in jazz writing as mostly dedicated to the promotion and encouragement of successful performers, not musical criticism.
"Blowin' Hot and Cool" talks at great length about the paucity of black writers in much of the history of jazz writing; the implicit racism of omission of blacks in the music magazines in the middle part of the century and of the complex associations that developed between writers, record producers, collectors and concert presenters with often blurred lines of distinction and editorial independence.
The book is filled with rich stories and anecdotes, many of them not commonly told. One tale is of a "press conference in reverse" held at Miles Davis' apartment in New York City.
Critics and writers such as Ira Gitler, John Wilson, Stanley Dance and Nat Hentoff were assembled before the likes of famed musicians including Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, Billy Taylor, Horace Silver and Davis himself. The musicians asked, the critics answered.
After Hentoff stumbled through a response to the vexing question, "What is jazz?" Silver followed up with, "What qualification does a jazz critic need?"
Hentoff is quoted as admitting, "Anybody can be a jazz critic. The standards are very low."
But the hopes and aspirations of the best of jazz critics are remarkably high. Jazz criticism is a part-time job at best, a labor of love and devotion to explain sound and feeling, to save fleeting moments of creativity and spontaneity for others to understand and relive later.
It is in part because of the writers and storytellers described in "Blowin' Hot and Cool" that jazz's rich and passionate story can be retold today.
For those who felt that Ken Burns' noteworthy PBS miniseries on jazz gave short shrift to jazz after 1960, the three final chapters of the book try to address the many shifts and changes in jazz writing (and the music) in the past 40 years.
The author notes that, after all these years, while jazz has at last received much of the respect and cultural significance that generations of critics had hoped it would receive, jazz criticism itself shows as much dissension as ever.
Contrasting and blending together the perspectives of many different critics over three quarters of a century, this book is a truly fresh look at the history of jazz.
First Published September 10, 2006 12:00 am