Jazz dialogue: gary giddins in conversation with loren schoenberg (part two)

                                Gary Giddins, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Below is part two of Loren Schoenbergís free-wheeling dialogue with noted critic Gary Giddins. In this installment, they discuss a wide range of musicians and writers, look at the growing phenomenon of 'tribute' bands, speculate on the relationship between jazz and dance, and talk about the future of the art form as well as the challenges of exposing new audiences to jazz. For part one, click here.

Loren Schoenberg: Iíd like to ask you a question. We talked about Armstrong; now letís jump over to Gary Giddins, the writer. Let me ask you a question. What writers of any style, writing about anything, have motivated you and inspired you in your own writing in the way that Armstrong has in terms of jazz?

Gary Giddins: I guess that the first writer who really got me excited was a critic named Dwight Macdonald. He was sort of a lefty political writer, but when I was a kid he had started writing about movies for Esquire. When I was maybe 12 or something, my father used to subscribe to Esquire, which in those days had a reputation for being racy ó all I knew was he hid them behind his hat boxes. I think it was the girlie drawings by Varga. One night he and my mother were out and I pulled down some magazines and the first one had a letter complaining about Macdonaldís review of Ben Hur, which I had seen a year or so before. This woman was fulminating, which made me want to read Macdonaldís review and it is hilarious. I use it as a reading in my class at the CUNY Graduate Center. I loved his independence and wit, his refusal to accept received wisdom and I read everything of his I could fine.

The next guy who did it for me was Edmund Wilson, especially Classics and Commercials and The Shores of Light. Theyíve just come out in a Library of America edition, and stand up beautifully. By then I was 15, and I was determined to write ó I never considered anything else.

Jason Moran told me a few weeks ago that his parents had him taking classical music lessons. He hated it. He hated practicing. He had no interest in being a musician. He obviously had this incredible facility, but he just didnít grab them. Then one day, a relative died and at the memorial service they put on Monkís ďRound Midnight.Ē He was 12 and that was it. The other shoe dropped. For me, it was ó before I became enamored of criticism ó biographies and fiction. House of the Seven Gables was a revelation. I read everything, lived in the library, bought paperback books whenever I had change in my pocket.

After Macdonald and Wilson, there were many other critics I loved, including Max Beerbohm, and Shaw as a music critic and then, when I started reading about jazz, Martin Williams and Dan Morgenstern made me realize that jazz criticism could be an exciting literary pursuit.

Loren Schoenberg: To go back to my very first question when I was asking you to put something in five-year old terms, Iíll take the five-year old thing off the table, but Iíll ask you in the simplest terms, how can we understand what is a critic? Whatís the role of a critic?

Gary Giddins: A critic is a kind of diplomat, a liaison between the artist and the public. The critic doesnít work for the artists, who frequently have a hard time understanding that. It used to drive me crazy when musicians would thank me for ďgiving them ink.Ē I wanted to say my job is not to give you ink.

Youíre working for the art in a sense, especially if youíre a jazz critic Ďcause you want to promote interest in the art. You want to tell people what they should be listening to. But youíre really writing for the public. Youíre writing for yourself. I did a book called Weather Bird, and in the introduction explained that, at some point at the Voice I realized it didnít make sense for me to write 1,800 words telling you not to buy a record that you were never going to buy in the first place, that youíve never even heard of. In movie reviewing, you have to cover whatever opens. But with jazz there are so many clubs, so many new records, so many reissues ó why should I waste the space for bad stuff when there is so much good stuff I want to tell people about.

The wonderful thing about writing about jazz is that you have so many options. You feel like writing about swing? Go to the place where Loren is playing. You feel like writing about avant garde, go to the place where Ornette is playing. You always have these options, and thatís whatís exciting about jazz ó the changing history, the variety, the different ways of playing. It breaks my heart when I meet young critics who think jazz was invented in 1959 by Miles Davis. Itís not a job to find out who Duke Ellington was and if you donít, then youíre writing from a position of ignorance that would never be accepted of a classical music or literary critic.

Loren Schoenberg: Absolutely. Yes, sir.

Audience member: How will you explain the fact that jazz has been such a place of conflict?

Gary Giddins: Iím sorry. Jazz?

Audience member: Has been such a place of conflict among critics.

Gary Giddins: Why do critics argue about it?

Audience member: Yes.

Gary Giddins: Well, for one thing itís human nature for people to get very involved with the music that initially excited them. For people who grew up in the swing era, they had Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, I mean it was the circus every day. When bebop came along they didnít trust it, didnít get it. So instead of saying, ďIíll write about Benny Goodman and leave Charlie Parker to you,Ē they started attacking it. It was unbelievable, some of the things that were written.

But then what really was interesting was that the bebop critics who wrote beautifully about Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell, when they heard the new music of the 50s, the avant garde, they had the same exact response as the moldy figs and started attacking that. I realize now that I responded with knee-jerk disdain to the fusion period. Now I donít know why I was so upset. It was basically plugged in bop to some degree, with a back beat. But at the time I just wasnít hearing it and I shouldnít have written about it until I was.

Thatís the other thing. You canít write a negative review that has any value unless youíve spent as much time understanding the work as you would a work that you love. You have to spend as much time with it and figure out why it doesnít work.

Itís interesting. As a jazz critic when I go to a concert I trust myself. I always feel like Iím right on it, and rarely second-guess myself. I know a good solo from a mediocre one. And yet I never give myself that credit when I review a record. Iíve got to play the record a dozen times before Iím certain. I donít know why that is, but itís just always the way Iíve worked.

Loren Schoenberg: Interesting. You used the word record, which I use, too, which is a dating thing these days. If you say to somebody whoís under 30, if you say whereís the record store they just look at you like, ah ha ha ha.

Gary Giddins: Yeah; but where is the record store. Thatís another loss ó talk about marketing.

Loren Schoenberg: Itís on the Internet.

Gary Giddins: Thatís another problem. You can buy a record on the Internet and save money, but all of us who remember the record stores remember shopping and all the records we bought that we didnít go in for, but that we just happened to see when going through the racks.

Loren Schoenberg: Right. And also for me and probably for others, it was at the record bin at the Sam Goodyís near my hometown where I met jazz nuts.

Gary Giddins: Yeah; me, too.

Loren Schoenberg: And met the jazz people and talked about this and traded things and did you know this album. Thatís totally lacking. I mean I guess the best analogy is kids who look up words on the Internet for a definition as opposed to paging through a dictionary ó and the fact that paging through a dictionary; youíre going to wind up seeing all these other words.

We have in the audience this evening the author of the recent biography of Frankie Manning and thatís Cynthia Norman here, whoís a dancer herself.

Iíd like to ask Gary about dancing and jazz because you were lamenting before about the lack of jazz as a functional kind of music. In other words, something that people either screw up their intellect or thing that they have to know something about and they just donít Ė you could dance to Cecil Taylor. You could dance to John Coltrane. You could dance to Bill Evans. You could dance to any of it. Itís music with a beat and weíve gotten to this strange . . .

Gary Giddins: Cecil dances. He often begins his concerts by dancing.

Loren Schoenberg: But weíve gotten to this strange point now where jazz bands are trying to swing, in their own way ó no matter how they subjectively define swing ó trying to make it rhythmically interactive; and consequently we have an audience thatís strapped in their chairs and the one thing theyíre not supposed to do is move.

If they move they get this kind of psycho-drama thing that comes from middle class Germany in the 19th Century about people going to hear music as though theyíre going to church because they think that thatís how the aristocrats listen to it, which isnít how the aristocrats listen to it. And we still have it today when you go to classical concerts and you see the people sitting like that. They donít even know why theyíre sitting like that. I mean I really would love to stand up at one of those concerts.

Iíd probably get fired from my gig at Juilliard if I did, but just stand up in the middle of a symphony concert and say [Speaking loudly]: ĎExcuse me, why are we all sitting like this.í And the thing is is that they canít even answer the question because they donít know.

Now my question is what do you think?

Gary Giddins: About that?

Loren Schoenberg: Yeah.

Gary Giddins: I think that first of all thereís an issue of etiquette that youíre bringing up because you should be relaxed in a club. You should have a drink. You should be tapping your foot. You should be responding in any way you want to respond. If you hear something great you should yell out, cheer, get involved . . .

Loren Schoenberg: Right; but you shouldnít clap after every solo?

Gary Giddins: I was just going to say, we are a society that tips everyone. Even if the service was awful, we leave a tip. Thatís what happens now in jazz clubs. We applaud every solo no matter how indifferent. You may not even be listening, but somebody else started the applause so you add to it.

Applause in the middle of a performance is supposed to be an acknowledgment that somebody just played something that really got you going. But then thereís another kind of thing that people do that most musicians hate ó clapping in time, unless the bandleader encourages it. Sarah Vaughn told me once, ďEvery time they do that to me, I just change the beat until they realize theyíre not clapping on the right beat anymore.Ē

Herbie Mann, when he made that famous record of ďComing Home BabyĒ at Newport said that he had to keep walking backwards to the bass because he couldnít hear it over the clapping in time.

Loren Schoenberg: So, do you think that in terms of the future of jazz, I know once we start talking about the future of jazz itís time to haul out the Ouija board, but can you foresee a time when dance will come back into it?

Gary Giddins: Well you were part of that little moment, retro swing. I think that things get recycled. Thereíll be fads. But one thing about jazz is that no one in the entire history of it has ever predicted what was going to happen.

Nobody during the swing era could have imagined Charlie Parker. Nobody in Charlie Parkerís era could have imagined Ornette Coleman. Coltrane in 1956 could not have imagined Coltrane in 1961. Nobody would have predicted how many homages weíre hearing today.

Loren Schoenberg: Oh, isnít that horrible?

Gary Giddins: Itís really getting to be a drag.

Loren Schoenberg: Itís killing jazz music. They call it an homage because these jazz clubs now instead of booking so and so, they book the Dizzy Gillespie tribute or the Count Basie orchestra. When the Count Basie orchestra plays, I bet you that thereís 27 percent of the people in that audience who think that Count Basie is up there. Iím serious. They donít know.

Gary Giddins: You know Daryl Sherman. She's a very talented pianist/singer. She plays at the Waldorf and she always announces that sheís playing Cole Porterís piano. She says every week at least one person says, ďWill Mr. Porter be performing this week?Ē

Loren Schoenberg: Yeah; so itís a funny anecdote, but what it speaks to is the fact that the jazz business in a sense is being killed by this thing. But on the other hand, let me make a devilís advocate kind of argument . . . Louis Armstrong is this over-powering figure and all these people and it came out of something that was directly related to 19th Century America and early 20th Century America, the great migration and the social values at those times and all these . . .

Gary Giddins: And the dancing and the nightclubs and people getting together . . .

Loren Schoenberg: Just the whole thing. Thatís gone. That happened. It was a wonderful moment and some great music came out of it, but in a sense what youíre seeing whenever you go to a jazz club or a jazz festival or go to a jazz event, youíre really seeing like the last disciples of Christ or somebody. . . . I think Neil Leonard wrote about it a long time ago, but we do get almost messianic about it, like when we talk about Armstrong and we talk about these epiphanies. Things that just donít resonate anymore because that time is gone.

Now this is a devilís advocate argument but Iíd just like to hear your ó Iíd like to hear your response to it.

Gary Giddins: Ornette once said Ė he started his own record label and he was putting out a record and he said, ďThis is going to sell a million copies.Ē I said, ďOrnette, how do you figure itís going to sell a million copies?Ē He says, Well, there are 400 million people in this country and surely one out of every four hundred or something is going to like this music. Heís absolutely right.

The problem is that 350 million will never even know that it exists. Thatís the issue that weíre facing. You can travel around this country and never hear jazz.

Loren Schoenberg: Okay; but to get back to my question.

Gary Giddins: Yeah; but thatís an important issue. No, the question is, I assume, that nobody likes everything and that even if you took the most popular, the greatest Count Basie or Coleman Hawkins record ever made and play it for a group of this size, maybe only two people will come over afterwards and say, ďTell me about that record.Ē

But you have to have the ability to market it to a large number of people so that the smaller number of people can be turned on to it. Thatís what no longer exists. In the 60s there was commercial jazz radio. Not much; maybe a few hours a week, but we all knew where those few hours were.

Loren Schoenberg: Yeah; but weíre still dancing around my question because basically okay, letís say that you get your druthers and everybody in America hears jazz. Somehow itís promoted like other niche musics are promoted.

So, itís promoted; okay, fine and the number goes up this much to two percent of record sales. Now itís six or seven, which is pretty damn good and more people know about it. But that still doesnít answer my question ó because you talked about Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie. They were born when Orville Wright invented the airplane, okay? 1903-1904. Thatís when theyíre born. My question, which I want to get you to address is that . . . Thereíll always be a little bunch of people like us and like you and like other people around the world who love this music from a certain time and for us itís a great experience. But in terms of any relevance to the culture at large outside of this hermetically sealed concert experience ó itís gone?

Gary Giddins: Itís been moved outside the mainstream of the culture. . . . Ken Burns got this wrong and we argued about it. He had the whole country dancing to jazz in the Ď30s, and then bop killing it off in 1950s. But jazz was a huge business in the 1950s. It was Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Ellingtonís biggest hit records . . .

Loren Schoenberg: Sarah Vaughn.

Gary Giddins: And also the LP sold in numbers that the 78s didnít sell because it was during the Depression and spending a dollar on a piece of vinyl with two tracks was not something everybody could do. When the LP came out, it offered for two and a half dollars 12 tracks or 16 tracks. Those records really sold. Those jazz musicians, a lot of them became celebrities. People knew who Gerry Mulligan was. People know who a lot of musicians were in that period.

Look how many of them were signed up by the major labels. Columbia didnít recruit Monk out of charity. Thelonious Monk was selling big-time numbers. Mingus was selling big-time numbers. And I think that today, despite all those homages, jazz is really a lot of fun. When I go out, I almost always come back in a good mood. Almost any night you go to the Vanguard or Jazz Standard, there are just so many great players out there. The overall level of musicianship is amazing.

Loren Schoenberg: But how about if part of the experience is turned into some-thing? Not only for you, but maybe for most of us, in which thereís something almost self-validating about the experience and we no longer look to the fact that when Coleman Hawkins and all these people we idolize were out there . . .

Gary Giddins: Letís only talk about living musicians and see where the conversation goes.

Loren Schoenberg: What Iíll say is those people that we idolize from the early days, one of the things that they were doing was breaking the barriers and playing something new to challenge the listener. Sometime when you go to the Vanguard and the other clubs, you hear inspired, at best, versions of whatís been done.

Gary Giddins: Well, I donít know. I went to see a band. It was Bill Frisell and Don Byron and Paul Motian and they were doing arrangements of things like Bob Dylanís ďMasters of WarĒ and it was fantastic. I donít know how many people knew what the tunes were. I didnít know a lot of them. Iím sure there was probably something by Joni Mitchell. All I knew is they were really playing.

Loren Schoenberg: But Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and these are things from the 1960s . . .

Gary Giddins: Well, whatever it is, itís stuff thatís outside the conventional jazz repertoire.

Loren Schoenberg: But what Iím wondering is that has it become for most of us something that is validating, something that we know is going to be, as opposed to something thatís truly challenging.

Gary Giddins: Okay; two fast anecdotes. I was at a festival in Ouro Preto in Brazil in September. Joshua Redman played. His regular drummer couldnít make it so Greg Hutchinson sat in.

Now Greg Hutchinson, you know him; unbelievable drummer. I think heís one of the most exciting drummers alive and he goes back with Joshua, long time. Theyíre old friends, but he hadnít played with him in Ė I donít know Ė 15 years or something. So this was only the third gig they played together. Hutchinson just decided that he was tired of the arrangement and he was going to shake it up. You could see Joshua responding physically at one point after he played an unbelievable solo. He said to the audience, ďI donít know; maybe itís the altitude.Ē But it was really coming from the rhythm section and its willingness and ability to respond to the moment.

Anyway they played an hour that was the best that I ever heard them play. The place went crazy. These were not jazz fans. They were Brazilian music fans. They were people from the town, the college. Itís a tiny little mining village inland; long way from San Paulo or Rio. They just knew that something on that stage was thrilling.

Now the other anecdote is harder to explain in a way, but at Columbia University, David S. Wareís quartet was on a bill with Cecil and Max ó Max Roach and Cecil Taylor played duets, but before that David S. Wareís quartet came out.

Now this was definitely not a jazz audience. These were thousands of Columbia students and anybody who was in the neighborhood, because it was free and the field was filled. It was like an old rock festival. There were that many people. David Ware killed. The audience was on its feet after every number, cheering.

Now I wonder if 20 of those people went out and bought a Ware album because the guy never sold records in his life. Thatís why the group just split up.

Loren Schoenberg: So, is what Iím to take from your response that that experience for those people was not a regurgitation or a validation because they had never had that experience. They viscerally responded to something that they didnít know.

Gary Giddins: Exactly right, but unlike you or me. The first time I heard a Louis Armstrong record I wanted to hear all of Louis Armstrong, all of Sonny Rollins. The Ware concert was just their adventure for the day. It didnít make many convertsó maybe a few people.

Loren Schoenberg: Okay. Did you have a question, a comment?

Audience member: I wanted to make in response to your question, piggy back on it. Classical music is still selling records from the 13th, 12th Century. Dizzyís concept was that the new classical music was what they called bebop . . .

Gary Giddins: Yes, but first of all the classical music that is still selling is mostly before the 20th Century for the most part; Stravinsky, the Russian and French modernists and a few others are exceptions. But theyíre not selling that much anymore because most people after they buy a couple of sets of Beethovenís Nine, donít need every version that comes out.

The problem with jazz is that it covers a lot of history, which can be intimidating and confusing. When we were growing up and I walked into a record store after I heard about Coleman Hawkins, I might buy one of his records, but I was also there to get the new Sonny Rollins or the new Miles Davis.

Now, enough history has passed that when young people who are trying to learn about the music decide theyíre going to buy something, are they going to buy Jason Moran or the legendary guy, Monk, they keep hearing about. The fact is that people are buying reissues. Thatís whatís keeping the record companies alive.

Loren Schoenberg: I think weíre living in a time of a paradigm shift when it comes to how we view the commercial marketplace, especially how we view record album sales. I mean the whole thing of even buying things and the relationship of being sponsored by a company and advertising for it, I mean thatís a thing of the past frankly. . . .

Gary Giddins: My daughter tells me that nobody buys an album. You go to iTunes and you take the track you want.

Loren Schoenberg: Right.

Gary Giddins: They listen by the track.

Loren Schoenberg: So itís back to like 78s because thatís what people did with 78s .

Gary Giddins: Exactly right.

Loren Schoenberg: So that whole way of looking at things that we all look at it I think is ultimately a thing of the past.

Gary Giddins: I was just going to say that one of the reasons that people started turning against CDs is because one thing that has not changed in the 200 or so years that music has been an art form in concert halls is that we can only listen so much music before we start to fade out. The time limit is usually 50 to 60 minutes. Thatís what a set is. Thatís what the longer symphonies are, with few exceptions. The 75 minute CD was not a favor to anybody. People didnít play them the way they played an LP, listening intently to a 15 minute side. They started to zone out. So youíd listen to a few tracks at a time, but you would never quite get the intimacy with that CD that you got with LPs, let alone 78s.

Loren Schoenberg: Consequently with those days, I guess the people bought the 78s, they got to know every . . .

Gary Giddins: Every note.

Loren Schoenberg: So consequently they became so much more informed about the subtleties and the specificity of that one three-minute record. Itís like you mentioned Benny Goodman. When I worked for Benny Goodman I had a bunch of ratty looking clothes. Benny came up to me and he said, ďYou know, itís better to have one good suit than three horrible things like you have right now.Ē So I went out and I bought one suit. I guess itís better for the person who wants to get into an art form to really know one thing well and forget all these CDs.

I remember once when I was going to music school, I was going to Manhattan School of Music. There was a young baritone sax player. He was about 19. He really didnít play that well. I was 20 and I said to him, ďMan, you really got to check out some of the swing era players if you want to play this music.Ē He says, ďMan, Iíve done swing. Iím doing bebop this week.Ē

But anyway the bottom line is somehow I think ó I want to go back and ask you one question from the past. This is an area which Iím ignorant and so I donít know.

So Iím asking for instruction. . . You mentioned Ulysses, Herman Melville, Moby Dick or things like that, pieces of literature that are very sophisticated in a sophisticated dialogue with the past, the present, Shakespeare and all this kind of stuff. Do you think that they thought that you had to have a key to unlock that thing or do you think that you could pick up Ulysses or pick up Moby Dick not knowing any-thing and enjoy the experience?

Gary Giddins: With Ulysses we know that Joyce said that itíll be years before people have figured out everything in this book. What I discovered about Ulysses after trying to read it many times and getting only part way, is that every time I said Iím going to read it, I would prep myself.

Iíd re-read Portrait of the Artist and the Odyssey and I would get all these notes together and what should have been pleasure became an endless homework assignment. One summer Debbie and I went away for a month and I was really in the mood to read Joyce. So I took Ulysses with no notes, no dictionary, nothing and it was one of the greatest monthís reading Iíd ever spent, because thereís some stuff youíre not going to get, but the hell with that. Youíll get most of it. You will get 80 percent and it will change your life.

Audience member: Do you think that familiarity is really the key for people understanding jazz? Familiarity with anything will bring understanding, but it wasnít allowed so we can become familiar with it. Thatís my point. I donít know if youíd like to make some comment about it.

Gary Giddins: You know one of the most successful music events is the Visions Festival downtown, which is all avant garde. That audience has been going there year after year. They know every musician. They love it. Itís very successful.

Loren Schoenberg: Well, you know, we live in a country in which at the Olympics every year they talk to the gold medal. By the time they get to the silver medal winner, that personís kind of crying. Then the announcer says [in a somber voice], ďNow we have the bronze.Ē

Listen, speaking of third best in the world, we have one of the best in the world writers who has modestly for the last 90 plus minutes just talked about other people and other things. . . . We havenít even started to talk about your books. I would urge every one of you to go out and read something by Gary Giddins. If you havenít, read the New York Sun where youíre part of, I think, the best arts, page in town.

Again, thank you so much, Gary. Thank you all for coming.

Gary Giddins: Thanks for having me.


May 22, 2008 · 3 comments

  • 1 fan // May 22, 2008 at 05:11 PM
    critics are like uneducated astronomers, watching the universe.
  • 2 Walter Kolosky // May 24, 2008 at 12:36 AM
    This was a very interesting discussion. But part of the problem with many of us jazz fans is that we have too many of these intellectual discussions instead of taking action. When you are talking about trying to save something Ė it is already too late. Instead we should build something. We need to realize that there is much more music that should be considered under the jazz umbrella these days and jazz should take credit for that. A few comments regarding some of Garyís points: 1) Gary is quite right about how jazz critics should take a different role these days. What good does it do to write a negative review of some album that may sell 750 copies? Why not instead focus attention on writing about really good jazz music with the hope it promotes it. At the very least, this would preserve your job. 2) Gary misses the good record stores. I sure do too. That moment of discovery can never be replicated on the Net. That being said Ė record stores are over. We must live with it. 3) Finally, I couldnít agree more with Garyís comments about the 74 minute CD! The extra minutes are like a vacuum that artists feel they need to fill-up. Attention musicians: Please, I say, spare me the filler. Give me a great 45 minute CD so I can sit down and absorb your best work without having to cancel supper! 4) Now, this is really finallyÖ.so Gary admits he shouldnít have been denigrating fusion in his writing over all of these yearsÖ He feels he may have been too harsh because he didnít really have a full understanding of it. He suggests that he would write differently now. That's all well and good Gary. But where were you when we needed you? ;-) Regards, Walter
  • 3 wendy // Feb 13, 2009 at 08:58 PM
    i read that Loren had bid on a saxaphone thought to be that of charlie parker a while back. i have a saxaphone i purchased 35 yrs ago at a garage sale. the name of charlie parker is embedded in the case. it has this info on the sax elkart Ind usa c.v.conn ltd patd.lcc 1914 1119954 a m19 2551 L. I know he occassionally pawned his sax and wondered if there is any way to find out if this could actully be one of his saxaphones?