Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Conversation About Jazz with Gary Giddins

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“… if Bix, Bird, and Cecil were all jazz, then this was a world without end. I had to hear everything by the artists I loved, especially Armstrong and Ellington. The lack of repetition was addictive, invigorating. I loved the fact that I might hear a few bars of, say, trumpet and know “that’s Clifford Brown,” long before I understood why I knew it….”  

“Criticism is as personal a field as singing and, beyond the fact that a lot of practitioners in both fields aren’t particularly good at it, the reasons readers respond favorably to one and not to another are just as personal…. Most of us become critics because we venerate critics. We try and measure up….”

“A writer writes about what he or she knows, wants to know, and wants you to know. I thought I had something to say about jazz and that through jazz, I could speak to every issue that interested me….”  
- Gary Giddins

There is no one on the subject of Jazz than I would rather read than Gary Giddins.

His Jazz writings are unsurpassed, they are matchless.

Reading Giddins on Jazz is like sitting down to three scoops of your favorite ice cream with a liberal topping of chocolate sauce – you never want it to end.

It has been said that God sprinkles a few artistic geniuses into each generation to inspire the rest of us.

For me, Gary Giddins has always been one such inspiration.

I asked Gary if he would consent to a JazzProfiles interview.

As you will no doubt note when you read through the following “conversation,” he more than generously responded to my request.

You can review Gary’s many awards and achievements by visiting him at I have re-posted two, earlier JazzProfiles features about Gary and his work to the blog's sidebar.

- How and when did music first come into your life?

My parents bought me a plastic phonograph when I was three — they were amused that I could identify the songs on my mother’s 78s or my aunt’s 45s by the labels and print, before I could read. On a few occasions, my father and I walked to Coney Island and I’d cut a plastic record in a phone-like booth. Eventually, he bought our first hi-fi (monaural, of course) and a few LPs, mostly Sinatra-generation pop, but also the Readers Digest classical music box-sets and that really did it: I was over the moon playing my way through them. 

- Did you play an instrument?
Piano, accordion, clarinet, bongos, guitar, alto sax, each under a separate tutor who took my parents’ dough and stared at me balefully, wondering why we bothered to go through the motions. My instrument was turntable. I didn’t want to be Sonny Rollins or Pablo Casals; I just wanted to listen to them. On the other hand, learning the rudiments of an instrument gives you useful insights into the labors they demand.

- What are your earliest recollections of Jazz?
I’ve written about this, and refer anyone interested to Weather Bird, pp. xiii – xx, and pp. 208-210.
- Conversations about Jazz invariably turn to “impressions” and “favorites.” So let’s turn to “impressions;” who were the Jazz musicians who first impressed you and why?”

Louis Armstrong changed everything. The longer answer is in Weather Bird, but a short one is this: after years of listening to 1950s rock and roll, a limited library of 19th century and early 20th century classics, folk music, and blues, the one piece that absolutely owned my Jewish soul was the [Johann Sebastian Bach] B Minor Mass, and Armstrong’s 1928 recordings replicated that kind of power, a discovery that simply blew my mind. At the same time, Ray Charles, whom I adored, made a record called Genius + Soul = Jazz and that perked my curiosity about that mysterious word. Others in the first years (1963-65) were Ellington (Masterpieces, In a Mellow Tone), Dizzy (Jambo Caribe, Something Old Something New), Miles (In Europe, Walkin’), Monk (Criss Cross, Thelonious Alone) Brubeck (At Carnegie Hall) Sonny (Work Time, Our Man in Jazz), Coltrane (Ballads, Live at the Vanguard), Getz / Gilberto, Bill Evans (Waltz for Debby), Hawkins (RCA Vintage anthology and At the Opera House with Roy), Mingus (Pre-Bird Mingus, The Clown), Billie Holiday (Columbia, Commodore sets), Pee Wee Russell (New Groove), Fats Waller (the RCA Vintage sets), Eric Dolphy (Out There), and Ornette (Ornette!) There were many more, though oddly I didn’t get into bop and the big bands until a little later. Bud Powell’s “Cherokee,” on a Verve collection, was life altering, as were the Parker Dials and Savoys and Verves (in order of encounter: Bird Symbols, The Charlie Parker Story, The Essential Charlie Parker), Tatum (This is Piano), Horace Silver (Song for My Father, Sarah (+ 2, No Count Sarah), Basie and Pres (The Lester Young Memorial Album, Lester’s Keynotes), the Django set on Capitol, Gil Evans (Out of the Cool), Barney Kessel (Workin’ Out) and on and on, as I grew determined to see everyone listed in Feather’s 1960 Jazz Encyclopedia still alive, and hear all those who weren’t. The cumulative effect and answer to your question lay in the wondrous variety and individualism they represented: if Bix, Bird, and Cecil were all jazz, then this was a world without end. I had to hear everything by the artists I loved, especially Armstrong and Ellington. The lack of repetition was addictive, invigorating. I loved the fact that I might hear a few bars of, say, trumpet and know “that’s Clifford Brown,” long before I understood why I knew it.   

- For reasons which you explain in the introduction to Visions of Jazz: The First Century, you did not include a number of “major figures…personal favorites … and popularizers” in the book. Continuing with your impressions for a while longer, what comes to mind when I mention the following Jazz musicians who were excluded from Visions of Jazz?

- Benny Carter
One of the wisest, most brilliant men I’ve had the honor to know. The first time I saw him play, in the 1970s, I understood the awe in which older critics and musicians held him. Before then, I had not heard most of his key recordings. His playing is beyond time, no matter the context. The other day I listened to his records with Julia Lee; to paraphrase something Benny once said about Ben Webster, you instantly know who it is and who he is. Working with him in the American Jazz Orchestra and seeing him every Labor Day weekend at the Gibson Jazz Party in Colorado over more than two decades was a kind of graduate school. I’ve written a lot about Benny, if not nearly enough; see Weather Bird.
- Ben Webster
He and Bud Powell were the two guys on my Feather list I never got to see so I took his death to heart. I had tried to find him when I studied in France in 1967, but no luck, though that was the summer I became friends with Ted Curson and Nick Brignola, the most important “studying” I did that summer. Ben was the most schizoid jazz player: supreme romantic, ferocious aggressor. Is there a better improv than “Cotton Tail?” Not that I knew of. Is there a more sublime encounter than Ben and Tatum? He’s one of the musicians I wrote about early on (Booker Ervin was another), including long liner notes, so by the time I started writing the column and books, I neglected him along with too many others. Never enough time or words. Mea bloody culpa! But I listen to him all the time. 

- Jack Teagarden
I like everything about Teagarden, the rippling trombone triplets, the insouciant voice (even Bing sounded taut by comparison), the bemusement (just look at him looking at Chuck Berry in Jazz on a Summer’s Day), the interplay with Pops and later with Bobby Hackett, and the perfect—as in P.E.R.F.E.C.T.—rendition of “St. James Infirmary” at the 1947 Town Hall concert. (Though Don Goldie, the trumpet player in his later band, wore me the hell out.) A 1977 essay on Big T, “The Best Trombone Player in the World,” is in Riding on a Blue Note.  

- Mary Lou Williams
Another spirit beyond time. Her first solo piece, “Nite Life,” was one of the first historicist jazz recordings in that, as, Jaki Byard would do decades later, she isolates and unites stylistic components of early piano, from Eubie to James P. to Hines. She was a marvelous composer and a genuinely great orchestrator, but it’s her piano I relish most, the free-floating harmonies and assertive time. She helped to revive the New York scene in the early ‘70s, when she convinced Barney Josephson to install a piano at the Cookery and then “embraced” Cecil Taylor—not a complete success musically but a true cultural occasion at the time. Mary asked me to deliver the eulogy at her funeral service at St. Patrick’s, a tremendous honor. I’ve written a lot about her, little of it in my books, though I compensated a bit by expanding a section on her in the trade edition of Jazz, the textbook I wrote with Scott DeVeaux. Carol Bash is now completing a long-awaited film about Mary.

- Tadd Dameron
If I could hear him now, I’d feel no pain. One of the tragically under-realized talents in jazz, the rare swing figure who understood bop before the boppers did. Blending Wardell and Eager and Navarro was pure genius; and the melodies and voicings unmistakably his own. Fountainbleau has transcendent moments. He helped posthumously to spur jazz historicism in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it’s ironic and sad to me that I wrote more about Dameronia than Dameron. 

- Mildred Bailey
A complex dazzling woman who, like Billie, had to completely reinvent herself. In return for helping to launch Bing’s career, when she was still an unknown working speakeasies, he arranged for Whiteman to hire her: the first woman ever to tour as a band vocalist. The combination of Mildred, Red Norvo, and the arranger Eddie Sauter is damn near sublime. She had a high girlish voice, insinuating style, occasionally arch phrasing, unwavering pitch; her taste in accompanists was beyond cavil. There is quite a bit about her in Weather Bird, but someone should write a biography. Her granddaughter Julia Rinker has been mounting a one-woman campaign to restore Mildred to the pantheon, where she ought to be. The Mosaic box is a treasure.

- Lennie Tristano
The early recordings are quick, surprising and provocative, a brief for free improvisation if not free rhythm, which he later attempted to cage. “Wow” is a genuine wow and “I Can’t Get Started” with Billy Bauer takes harmonic substitutions to the point of re-composition. But the Atlantics exemplify his gifts. The 1955 “You Got to My Head” is one of the great piano improvisations and “Line Up” and the later “Becoming” are endlessly mesmerizing. Just as you can hear vestigial elements of Hines in Nat Cole, you can hear vestiges of Nat in Tristano. I find myself rediscovering him, ignoring him, then finding him again, a relationship I have with several writers and with opera, but not much in jazz.

- Serge Chaloff
By all accounts a madman, but the two Capitols, Boston Blow Up and Blue Serge, are among the outstanding postwar albums. With due respect to Carney and Mulligan, no one explored the range of the baritone more completely and effectively than Serge, especially on ballads, of which his “Body and Soul” and “Thanks for the Memory” are incomparable masterworks.

- Django Reinhardt
Everyone loves Django; impossible not to — the later stuff with Hubert Rostaing as well as the classic Quintette and everything he did with visiting Americans, especially Eddie South, who never played better than he did with Django, Rex Stewart, Benny Carter, Hawk (“Out of Nowhere” is one of his very great solos, and has Benny on trumpet for lagniappe). “St. Louis Blues,” “Improvisation,” and his delirious adaptations of Bach’s D minor concerto, with South and Grappelli, are pure pleasure, and then there are his those lovely original tunes. I listen to Django a lot, but I seem to have written about him mostly en passim or by indirection, as in an essay on James Carter’s smart homage to him. (See miserable excuse under Ben Webster above.)

– Ted Heath
The supreme British bandleader, tremendously popular in his day, and at his best a stubborn defender of the jazz faith — though now sadly forgotten. I hadn’t played him in a while when something rekindled my interest, so I went to an old-vinyl store called Footlights and bought more than a dozen LPs, listened with much pleasure, made copious notes for an essay, and then get derailed by something else and never wrote it. You can see him and get a sense of how hip he was in the excellent 1949 Michael Powell bomb-defusing-thriller-meets-the-lost-weekend film The Small Back Room (based, incidentally, on a very good Nigel Balchin novel), when Kenny Baker and Johnny Gray were in the band and Tadd Dameron was one of his arrangers. I don’t believe Tadd wrote the music in the film, but it definitely reflects his influence. Heath, along with Louis Armstrong, recorded and had an international hit with “The Faithful Hussar,” the song that (a year later) Christiane Kubrick sang at the end of Paths of Glory.

- Dave Brubeck
Like countless other boomers, I found in Dave an early and irresistible conduit to jazz. I grew bored with his post Desmond, post Mulligan, post (for a very short time) Braxton band, and felt guilty about it because he was a wonderful and generous man. The first time I spoke to him, I wanted to interview him for a piece I was writing for Esquire about upcoming jazz talent. He was on tour and his office gave me the number of his hotel in Vancouver. We got into an animated conversation, when suddenly he said, “Where are you?” I said, “New York.” He said, “This is costing you a fortune, let me call you back.” He did and we spoke for an hour. When I worked on a documentary about Pops, he and Iola drove to New York to shoot an interview in the Armstrong house, though we would have been happy to do it anywhere at their convenience. (They loved Pops.) A couple of years ago, I interviewed him on stage at the Kennedy Center, and he was as forthright and funny as ever, and seemed genuinely moved when I told him afterward how much I liked his recent solo piano CD, which is all but antithetical to the usual stomping Brubeck style. I’m happy with the Brubeck essay in Weather Bird, and with one on The Real Ambassadors in my book Natural Selection. Billy Taylor once told me, “Dave doesn’t get the credit he deserves as an innovator.” He was right. Nor does he get enough credit for The Real Ambassadors, which along with Ellington’s Jump For Joy, is the closest we have to a Broadway jazz musical. Of course, neither of them got close to Broadway and they exist solely as recordings. But someday, a smart producer will see the possibilities!            

- Why were there such rapid developments in Jazz from 1946-1965? Did the speed of this revolution in the music sow the seeds for its own destruction?
What destruction? Every movement sows seeds of destruction and rebirth. It isn’t the fault of jazz  that people can’t or don’t want to keep up with it. That’s all to the glory of jazz. Besides, the further we get from 1965, or any other departure point, the more unified the development of jazz appears.

- Mike Zwerin has written that Jazz went to Europe to live [in many ways, literally] in the 1960s. Did you agree with this assessment?

Yes and no. It went to live there for about four years, the height of the rock juggernaut when jazz artists who knew better tried to fit it in by wearing bad haircuts, sporting funny clothes, and buying shares in Fender Rhodes. The middle ’60 were splendid years: in the space of four days in 1966, you could (and I did) hear Bill Evans at Town Hall, and Titans of the Tenor at Philharmonic Hall, not to mention the serious action at the Vanguard and Gate and Half Note. It crashed in the early ‘70s, but by 1972, the long exile was terminating and each week brought remarkable new talent from around the country—all those acronyms: AACM, BAG, AEC, WSQ—along with the triumphant returns of everyone from Ted Curson to Red Rodney, Red Norvo to George Russell, Helen Humes to Betty Carter, Dexter and Moody and McLean and Benny Carter and Don Cherry etc. Cecil came back from the academy, Mingus and Rollins ended sabbaticals, Al reunited with Zoot, Sarah re-launched herself, Phil Woods Americanized his rhythm machine. Even Don Byas came by for a snort. By 1975, jazz returned to New York to stay. Mike remained in Europe, and he made the International Herald Tribune worth reading.  

- In Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation you wrote: "My intuition tells me that innovation isn't this generation's fate...the neoclassicists have a task no less valuable than innovation: sustenance. [M]usicians such as Marsalis are needed to restore order, replenish melody, revitalize the beat, loot the tradition for whatever works, and expand the audience. That way we'll be all the hungrier for the next incursion of genuine avant-gardists..." (161) Is this still your assessment of developments in Jazz circa, 1970-2000?

Sort of, but the phrase “the next incursion of genuine avant-gardists” now strikes me as facetious at best and perhaps just plain stupid; and, in any case, it’s okay with me — tradition isn’t the enemy of novelty or vice versa. In recent weeks, I heard a magnificent concert by Josh Redman with his superb quartet (including Brad Mehldau) and strings; and an energizing bass recital by Charnett Moffett. Three of the best albums I heard in this period are Marc Carey’s For the Love of Abbey, a pianistic exploration of Abbey Lincoln’s compositions; Bob Dorough’s lavishly produced hommage à moi Duets (likely the best album ever released by a nonagenarian); and Chucho Valdés’s stirring Border-Free. Each is obviously steeped in traditions (Valdés call his band the Afro-Cuban Messengers), yet each is startling, fresh, innovative, and audaciously, shamelessly in thrall to melody. It’s a wise music that knows its father.

- Gene Lees observed: “Writers about jazz are often notable for an ill-concealed jealousy and a sullen conviction that they alone know anything about the subject, that it is or should be their exclusive domain.” What are your views about Gene’s statement?

If I say “Gene Lees is an idiot,” do I prove his point? I don’t think so. To my left is a wall of jazz lit, about 1200 volumes, many of which I relish. Martin Williams and Dan Morgenstern made me want to listen to music I had never heard of and later made me want to write about it. Jealousy? I loved the rhythmic elation of Baraka’s writing about the avant-garde and Ira Gitler’s bebop wit, Don DeMichael’s meticulous praise, Whitney Balliett’s watercolor prose, Ralph Ellison’s musical patriotism, Max Harrison’s Olympian acuteness. I read avidly the Chicagoans like John Litweiler and Larry Kart, and the measured sanity of John McDonough alongside the measured insanity of Stanley Dance, who nonetheless documented with enormous skill the musicians he loved. I was mentored by Albert Murray’s swinging so-and-so and so-and-so locutions. When I started writing, I was delighted to be part of a generation of critics I could learn and steal from, including JR Taylor, Stanley Crouch, Bob Blumenthal, and Francis Davis. And I love attending a concert or hearing a record and later reading Nate Chinen nail it in the Times or Will Friedwald in the Journal or Doug Ramsey online. The other day I read a genuinely original and moving piece about Bill Evans and jazz racialism by Eugene Holley Jr; I read illuminating stuff all the time by Bill Milkowski, David Adler, and others. Greg Thomas brought solid jazz coverage back to the Daily News and no one should fail to subscribe to the East Stroudsburg University’s The Note for Phil Woods’s column and the interviews. Howard Mandel succeeded in creating the Jazz Journalists Association because most of us respect each other. The existence in any literary field of fools does not undermine the presence of those who write with passion, humility, discernment.

          Having said that, there are plenty of critics I find useless for reasons that invariably have more to do with me than them. I found Gene Lees’s narcissism insufferable and his self-serving, conspicuously unsourced faux-biographies of Woody Herman and Johnny Mercer offensive. I often found Benny Green’s orotund eloquence pompously insincere. I owe a tremendous debt to Andre Hodier, whose early books I read and reread with Talmudic devotion; but the more I learned about music and myself, the less meaningful his work became to me. Critics aren’t simply vendors of opinion; as I emphasized repeatedly when I taught criticism at Columbia, opinions are the least interesting aspect of criticism, which must needs represent a larger gestalt, a way of seeing and understanding the world. It’s true that many critics are paranoid. Not long ago, I saw a not-very-bright film critic praise a great film critic, after noting that he didn’t always agree with him. Of course you don’t always agree with him; if you did, you would be him.

Criticism is as personal a field as singing and, beyond the fact that a lot of practitioners in both fields aren’t particularly good at it, the reasons readers respond favorably to one and not to another are just as personal. The first time I read an issue of Down Beat, when I knew absolutely nothing about jazz, I intuited that I could trust reviews that were signed Dan Morgenstern, and not reviews by two fellows named Harvey. I respected and admired Robert Palmer, but his take on music was so foreign from mine that even when we agreed we disagreed. But I’d bet the ranch that neither of us was jealous of the other. Most of us become critics because we venerate critics. We try and measure up.  

- Staying with your thoughts about another comment by Gene, he realized very early on in his career that he “…could never be a Jazz critic,” and yet, you’ve written Jazz criticism for almost your entire writing career. Why this preference on your part?

I wanted to write from the time I was eight, and write criticism from the time (six and seven years later) I discovered Dwight Macdonald and Edmund Wilson. I fully expected to be a literary critic. Long after jazz and Mr. Armstrong happened to me, I figured my ignorance of musicology cashiered any ambition in that area. But there was something liberating about what Martin Williams used to call his “amateur status.” And so when I’d read some clown opining that Sonny Rollins lacked imagination, or that Charlie Rouse was boring, or that Garner was as predictable as canned soup, or that Ellington’s Far East Suite represented a decline, or the late Billie is merely neurotic, or that Jabbo Smith was a superior musician to Louis Armstrong, whose artistry allegedly went downhill after 1928 (I am making none of this up), I felt compelled to offer my two cents. A writer writes about what he or she knows, wants to know, and wants you to know. I thought I had something to say about jazz and that through jazz, I could speak to every issue that interested me.  

- Although you write about many topics related to the broad category of entertainment, what made you decide to become primarily a Jazz writer and is there a form of writing about Jazz that you prefer: reviews, insert notes, articles, books …?

I’ve answered the first part. As to form, I prefer the medium-track essay, 1500 to 2500 words. I never wanted to write brief newspaper accounts and when I tried, I wasn’t any good at it. The Voice gave me a page and let me fill it as I pleased for 31 years. It was the best job in the world on many accounts, not least that it afforded me short rest periods when I felt stale and longer ones when I worked on books. For most of those years, I worked with the brilliant Bob Christgau, who among many other things taught me the discipline of backing up my ideas. Before the Weather Bird column, the one format that allowed me to write at that length was liner notes, but I soon grew to hate writing them; I always felt I was whoring or compromising to sell a product, and I pretty much cut them out by the early 1980s, except for occasional historical reissues or favors to musician-friends. And it infuriates me that record companies not only own them in perpetuity but feel free to edit and even revise them without asking permission.  Since 2003, when I left the Voice, I’ve worked almost exclusively on books (also sold one unproduced screen treatment), a luxury I never thought I’d have, made possible by my work as Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I am very lucky, and know it.

- Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz and American Pop [1981] is your first published book. What is the main theme of this work; how and why did this book come about?

At first, it had no theme. An editor asked me to consider publishing a collection of my essays. When I finished it, the editor said it was fine and took a pregnancy leave. The book then went to her colleague who hated it and demanded I return the paltry advance. Sheldon Meyer at Oxford had been asking me to do a book and we hadn’t come up with anything, so I asked my agent to send him the manuscript (originally called System of Ribbons, another Ellington phrase; my agent told me that a title with the word “system” sounds like an engineering manual). He bought it that week. What Bob taught me about newspaper writing, Sheldon taught me about book writing and over the course of 20-plus years, I did six books for him. Sheldon said I should delete two essays, one because it was the only one not centered on a particular individual. That was when I began to see the book as a book, with a unified approach and theme. We organized the pieces into four sections and underscored the jazz and pop theme. When I asked him why he wanted to cut the second piece, he said, “Because it isn’t worthy of you.” Right again. For Visions of Jazz, I wrote a better chapter on that same figure. 
- As stated in the introduction to Visions of Jazz, “In Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation, [published in1985], I posed the question as it related to jazz: ‘Few educated Americans can name even five jazz musicians under the age of forty.” What Jazz musicians under the age of forty do you listen to?

As a civilian, I’m no longer quite as conscious of age, but I think Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire, Darius Jones, Aaron Parks, Christian Sands, Esperanza Spaulding, Miguel Zenon, Eric Harland, Robert Glasper, Nathaniel Facey, Ryan Truesdell, Aaron Diehl, Christian Scott, Mary Halvorson, and Gerald Cleaver all make the cut.

- After Celebrating Bird in 1987 and Satchmo in 1988, why did you turn your attention to Bing Crosby as the focus for your next biography [Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, 2001]? Why not a Dizzy Gillespie companion volume to your work on Charlie Parker; a book about Miles Davis; a biography about Gerry Mulligan – each of whom were significant shapers of the music?

You write about what you find intriguing, and I have written extensively about Dizzy, Gerry, and Miles. In any case, Dizzy had just completed an as-told-to and Jerome Klinkowitz was working on Gerry, and everyone was doing Miles. I did agree to write Stan Getz’s autobiography, but he died the week we negotiated the contract. The two short books you mention are extended biographical essays that served as a kind of apprenticeship for a serious biography, and I had no intention of doing another one. I wanted to tackle a serious biography on Ellington. However, while I was working up a proposal, the Ellington papers were embargoed at the Smithsonian for “inventory,” which left me hanging. Paul Bresnick, with whom I did Satchmo, had repeatedly asked me to consider Crosby and I said no. In the absence of the Ellington project, I began looking at Bing. I always loved his jazz sides and had covered his Uris Theater engagement in 1976 (see Riding on a Blue Note). I was astonished to find that there had not been a serious book about him since two that came out in the late 1940s. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became with the themes of fame, persona, and the doppelganger effect: the person that the public creates as opposed to the person behind closed doors. I also found that I admired his pop work in the 1930s and 1940s more than I expected, along with his more obscure movies. Then there was his virtually forgotten contribution to modern technology, from popularizing the carbon microphone to the financing of tape to his decisive role in changing radio into a prerecorded rather than live medium. Finally, I was moved by his integrity regarding Civil Rights, especially in his relationship to Louis. Suddenly he seemed a perfect subject for me. Of course, it was supposed to be a 300-page book, requiring at best three years to write. After nine years, I published the first volume, 700 pages ending in 1940; I’m now closing in on volume two.

- In Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century [2004]you raise this question in one of its essays - “How Come Jazz Ain’t Dead?” How come it ain’t?  
You’ll have to read the essay to find out. Not much has changed.

- What books are you currently working on?
Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star. A revised edition of Celebrating Bird will be published by the University of Minnesota Press this fall and Scott DeVeaux and I are preparing a new edition of Jazz

Switching to the subject of “favorites:”

- What are some of your favorites books about Jazz?

Everything by Martin [Williams], especially The Jazz Tradition, Where’s the Melody, Jazz Masters in Transition, and Jazz Panorama, which he edited. Dan [Morgenstern]’s Living with Jazz and his amazing liner essays that remain to be collected. Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Marshall Stearns’s unjustly forgotten Story of Jazz and Jazz Dance, Sidney Finkelstein’s Jazz: A People’s Music. Bernie Wolfe’s Mezz Mezzrow book Really the Blues, and, among the novels, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn, Henry Steig’s Send Me Down, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Nicholas Christopher’s Tiger Rag, and the glowing jazz tidbits that run throughout John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick detective novels. Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues and Blue Devils of Nada, Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, Hampton Hawes and Don Asher’s Raise Up off Me, Art and Laurie Pepper’s Straight Life, Amiri Baraka’s Black Music, Laurie Wright’s King Oliver, Walter Allen’s Hendersonia, Ira Gitler’s Jazz Masters of the ‘40s and Swing to Bop, Whitney Balliett’s American Musicians, Jean Lion’s Bix, Harry Sampson’s Swingin’ on the Ether Waves, Geoffrey Ward’s Jazz, John Szwed’s Space in the Place, Anita O’Day’s High Times Hard Times, Stanley Crouch’s Considering Genius, Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop, Jack Chambers’s Miles, Don Marquis’s In Search of Buddy Bolden, William Russell’s Oh Mister Jelly, Laurent de Wilde’s Monk, Rex Stewart’s Jazz Masters of the ‘30s and Boy Meets Horn, Jelly Roll Morton and Alan Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll, Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff’s Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz, Ekkehard Jost’s Free Jazz, Duke Ellington’s Music is My Mistress, Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the 50s, Bobby Reisner’s Bird, A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business, Will Friedwald’s Biographical Guide to Singers, Stanley Dance’s World of series, The John Coltrane Reference edited by Lewis Porter, the 16-volume Italian discography Duke Ellington on Records, the Brian Rust discographies, Jan Evensmo’s Solography booklets, David Schiff’s The Ellington Century, Carl Woideck’s Charlie Parker, Doug Ramsey’s Take Five, the Leonard Feather encyclopedias and From Satchmo to Miles, Max Harrison’s Essential Jazz Records, Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious as Your Life, the collected Otis Ferguson, Milt Hinton’s Bass Lines, Jimmy Heath’s I Walked with Giants, Terry Gibbs's Good Vibes. and . . .  I had better stop. There’s a lot of great stuff out there. 

- What are some of your favorite Jazz recordings?
Surely you jest. I’ve written a dozen books in an attempt to answer that.

- Who are your favorite big band arrangers?

Ellington, Ellington, Ellington, Ellington, Ellington. Also Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Bill Challis, Mary Lou Williams, Eddie Sauter, Benny Carter, Sy Oliver (all the Lunceford writers), George Russell, Count Basie (all the Basie writers), Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Artie Shaw (all the Shaw writers), Gerald Wilson, Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, Nelson Riddle, Ralph Burns, Gil Fuller, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Neal Hefti, Johnny Richards, Chico O’Farrill, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath, Gary McFarland, Horace Silver, Muhal Richard Abrams, Charles Mingus (all the Mingus writers, particularly Sy Johnson), David Murray, James Newton, Bob Belden, Uri Caine, Butch Morris, for starters.    

- Who are your favorite Jazz vocalists?

Armstrong, Crosby, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Rushing, Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney, Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Ray Charles, Abbey Lincoln, Helen Forrest, Bessie Smith, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, Connie Boswell (and the Boswell Sisters), Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Lee Wiley, Harry and Donald Mills (and the Mills Brothers), Bill Kenny (and the Ink Spots), Joe Williams, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, B. B. King, Tony Williams (and the Platters), Louis Jordan, Maxine Sullivan, Jack Teagarden, Ivy Anderson, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Jo Stafford, Bob Dorough, Johnny Hartman, Bobby Bland, Anita O’Day, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Betty Carter, Peggy Lee, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Etta Jones, Julia Lee, Helen Humes, Kay Starr, Carmen McRae, Helen Merrill, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, Mary Cleere Haran, Dianne Reeves, Jane Harvey, Fats Domino, and Herb Jeffries for starters.

- Who are some of your favorite Jazz instrumentalists?
Can’t do it.

- Of all your writings about Jazz over the years, which one/s are you most fond of and why?
I like all my books: the best are probably Bing Crosby: Pocketful of Dreams and Visions of Jazz, though I suspect my best essay writing is in Weather Bird and Natural Selection. I have personal affection for Faces in the Crowd because it was written over a four-year period beginning shortly before our daughter was born, an extraordinarily happy time and I think the book reflects that. Celebrating Bird and Satchmo were well received and fun to do, and fun to revise! (You don’t often get that second chance.) Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema is my first book entirely about film, though quite a bit on jazz crept into it. Jazz, the book written with Scott, is the intro we wish we had had when we started listening.   

- What are your thoughts about blogs and websites devoted to Jazz?
Bravo to all! But I confess I read very little that doesn’t have pages I can turn and scribble on. Until The New York Daily News penny-pinchers caught up with him, I enjoyed Greg Thomas’ online and print weekly jazz feature stories on jazz artists and events in New York City.

- If you could host a fictional “Jazz dinner,” who would you invite and why?
Although I’d kill for a 30-minute interview with King Oliver, my dinner parties would include only the most entertaining and convivial artists I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, now gone and sorely missed: they would include (with their spouses and significant others): Roy Eldridge, John Lewis, Rosemary Clooney, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Ted Curson, Mel Lewis, Sarah Vaughan, Gerry Mulligan, Benny Carter, Gil Evans, Tommy Flanagan, Jaki Byard, Martin Williams, Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Steve McCall, Mary Cleere Haran, Pops and Bing (they make the cut as I met each of them once), and my indispensable assistant of 14 years Elora Charles. I’d add Artie Shaw, but no one else would get a word in edgewise.       

- Whose music do you listen to when you want to be alone with the music, so to speak; not to analyze it for the purposes of writing about it, but allowing it to reach directly into your emotions?
It varies, and any month would bring a different answer. Last week I listened to a lot of Wardell, Hampton Hawes, Sonny Clarke, and 1950s Duke. Then there was a day of Cecil Taylor. Last night: Tommy Flanagan. I doubt a week goes by that I don’t listen to Tatum, Nat Cole, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown. Armstrong is a constant tonic. So is Bud Powell. Revising the Bird book had me digging through obscure live performances I hadn’t played in years. I often jog to Ray Charles. The Joshua Redman concert had me returning to his early work. The great thing about leaving journalism is that I listen only to what I want to hear, which includes a lot of classical music as well. One thing I can tell you with certainty: when I’m alone with the music and my wife, we listen mostly to vinyl. I am so glad I did not unload my vinyl!   

- I realize that your interests are wide-ranging, but could you please conclude this “interview” by talking a bit about what excites you as you look out over the current jazz scene?
The incredible number of gifted, dedicated musicians (including the children of several close friends), who want nothing more than to master and play jazz, utterly resolved and unshaken by warnings from people like me that the work opportunities may be limited.      


  1. Thank you for a nice and informative interview. I've always appreciated Mr. Giddins work, but it has always seemed to me a bit NYC-centric, which is okay, but I think there have been some developments from the West Coast other than Brubeck that are worth his tasteful and informed observations as well. Maybe I'm too LA-centric!

  2. Nice interview. Thank you. My only exception is with some of the musicians he picked who make the cut, especially Mary Halvorson on guitar. There are so many more guitarists out there that have so much more to say.


Please leave your comments here. Thank you.