Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Gary Giddins - "Rhythm-a-ning" [From the Archives]

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


“The most stimulating young Jazz journalist to surface in years. Giddins combines and exhilarating style with rare insight, standing nearly alone in relating Jazz to allied fields of pop and rock. Highly recommended.” 
-Grover Sales commenting on Gary’s Riding on a Blue Note

I was reared on the Jazz of what was then referred to as the “modern era” - the music as played from about 1945-1965 - so it was not easy for me to transition to the Jazz of the 1980’s.

It didn’t help that I was otherwise preoccupied and essentially away from the music for much of the intervening decade-and-a-half [1970-1985].

What helped me get “caught up,” so to speak, was a beat-up edition of Gary Giddins’ Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation [1986 Oxford University Press] which has since been replaced by a new Da Capo paperback version of the book [2000].

Gary’s many chapters on the musicians he saw in performance, primarily in the early 1980s and reviewed for his column in the Village Voice, retrospectively guided my way back into the music. His work along with the then burgeoning CD reissue industry afforded me an opportunity to fill-in-the-blanks and to move forward with some newfound favorites.

His stated purpose in writing Rhythm-a-ning can be found on page 279:

“Critics should be chroniclers and not prophets. It's not our business to predict trends and scout rookies, praising or damning them in an instant, and taking sides on the future as though art were a sport, and arts critics a breed of scoop-crazed journalists. When I assembled the essays in Rhythm-a-ning, my intention was to make the diversity of subjects illustrate what seemed to me the central phenomenon of jazz in the past decade or so: a neoclassical groping for form that rejected the romantic expressionism of the 1960s, raised the composer to at least a level of parity with the improvisor, and sparked a degree of receptiveness to the music of previous generations that had no precedent in jazz's short history.”

With Gary’s writings, one is always going to school about Jazz. He takes this stuff seriously and gives it much thought before he writes about it.

And how well he writes about it is evident in what his colleagues have to say about him and the book:

“A brilliant collection …. With refreshing insight, wit and a readable style much too rare in this field, Giddins has assembled delightful and instructive pieces that can be returned to again and again.” [Grover Sales, The Los Angeles Times]

“Giddins is the John Updike of Jazz criticism, a writer whose descriptions are so precise and evocative that he enables you to hear the music as you read about it.” [Ken Tucker, Philadelphia Inquirer]

“Giddins writes about Jazz as music, and he gives everyone who loves music a little pang in the interior of the belly which can only be interpreted as a hunger for Jazz.” [Evan Eisenberg, The Nation]

Gary not only hears Jazz in a very discerning manner, he has the ability to convey in writing what he hears in such a way so as to enhance your appreciation of it. The music is ephemeral but the written impressions that Gary forms about it are enduring.

And then there is the snap-your-head-around wit which adds a touch of spice to his reflections and helps keep them from becoming pedantic and lifeless.

Jazz is about excitement and emotion and so are Gary’s observations about the music. They are full of juice and passion - just like the best Jazz.

"Where other critics see deadness in jazz, Giddins sees the youthful spirit of revision and revolution. Giddins is a minutely sensitive listener, and brings to his analysis of new jazz a sweeping sense of historical recall matched by a gift for making imaginative leaps in rhythmically charged prose." [Norman Weinstein, Idaho Statesman]

"[Giddins] is thoroughly at home with virtually the entire jazz tradition. His writing is lively, sophisticated, opinionated yet generous, without eccentricity and with a minimum of nostalgia. . . Rhythm-a-ning is a most stimulating book."                                           [John Litweiler, Down Beat]

"Gary Giddins is the best Jazz critic now at work. . . Giddins's loving, encyclopedic knowledge of the past makes one trust him: ….  I read him to correct my ignorance and for his prose. He's an elegant enthusiast." [Walter Clemons, Newsweek]

"Whether describing a concert, defining a style, or tracing an artist's evolution over several decades, his essays are as pithy as a blues by Thelonious Monk, and every bit as persuasive." [Dean Robbins, Isthmus]

"Rhythm-a-ning has verbal wit and vision and, while deadly serious, it is also infinitely entertaining. . . The reader is enhanced." Roberta Metz Swann, The North American Review]

The following introduction to the book which Garry entitles Jazz Turns Neoclassical was particularly helpful as a point of departure from which to view what Jazz had become in the decade of the 1980s.


© -  Gary Giddins, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“We hear frequent talk of a renaissance in jazz. Musically, the signs are unmistakable; nevertheless, jazz remains nearly subterranean, a thing apart, a private cultural zone. Its state of alienation is frequently blamed on the Hydra that is variously known as the avant-garde, the new thing, the new wave, and free jazz—that is, the contemporary post-modernist jazz of the past twenty-five years. Avant-gardists are depicted, not always inappropriately, as musical Jackson Pollocks spewing sounds into the air without benefit of formal or narrative guidelines. Their music is considered esoteric when it isn't impenetrable, and erstwhile jazz fans, now repulsed by the gladiatorial anarchy that used to attract them, ask accusatory questions: where's the beat, the melody, the beauty? Musicians and critics continue to wonder when free jazz (allowing the supposition that free jazz is jazz—the debate here is unceasing) will be assimilated into the mainstream. In other words, when will Joyce become Dickens, and Bartok Mozart?

As I see it, the avant-garde has been studiously aligning itself with mainstream jazz for some time. The resurgence of jazz means in large measure the resurgence of swing, melody, and beauty, as well as other vintage jazz qualities such as virtuosity, wit, and structure — not that they've ever been entirely absent. If jazz, like other fine arts, had to be relearned in a period of avant-garde extremism, it has long since—and with a vengeance—turned neoclassical. Musicians weaned on the free jazz of the '60s now sift '20s’ classicism, '30s' swing, '40s’ bop, and '50s’ soul for repertoire and expressive wisdom. They are, in effect, going home again.

From 1960 to 1975, adventurous jazz often meant indulgences on the order of 20-minute solos, or freely improvised polyphony, or endlessly repeated ostinatos layered over a single scale. Though the great figures of that period — John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and a few others — could bring off the most demanding improvisational conceits, at least as far as the knowing, sympathetic, and determined listener was concerned, they spawned imitators who mistook freedom for license and justified excess with apocalyptic rhetoric. A backlash was inevitable. Not only were many listeners yearning for restraint but a younger generation of jazz musicians, many of them trained in conservatories, expressed horror that formalism appeared to be vanishing. Jazz has always been a dialectic between improviser and composer: when the improviser gets out of hand, the composer emerges with new guidelines, sometimes borrowed from the distant past.

A couple of years ago, while teaching at a university, I found— for the first time—a way to kindle students' interest in the new jazz players (they need only exposure to appreciate classic players). The course began with a survey of such jazz precursors as spirituals, marches, blues, and ragtime; I simply provided symmetry by concluding the course with treatments of those precursors by avant-garde musicians, including Arthur Blythe's version of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," Anthony Braxton's march from Creative Orchestra Music 1976, "Blues," by Leroy Jenkins and Muhal Richard Abrams, and Air's arrangement of Scott Joplin's "Weeping Willow Rag." Nor was it necessary to stop there. Having traced the evolution of jazz from the beginnings to the present, I might have retraced it with modernistic but idiomatically satisfying interpretations — all recorded since 1975 — of nearly every school and style. Indeed, I might have brought the course full circle by playing the Art Ensemble of Chicago's avant-garde parodies of the avant-garde. Jazz is so eclectic these days that you can find in it almost anything you please.

Jazz modernists rarely investigated the music's past before the avant-garde blew the old jazz truths out of the water. The composers and players of the era immediately following World War II ignored the traditional repertory, and when they did pay homage to the ancients (ragtimers and New Orleans-style players), whatever regard they may have felt was often soured by condescension. Modernism, after all, was a rallying point, and a political movement — a transformation of mere entertainment into art. The genius-leaders of the movement — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk—knew better, of course; the traditions live in even their most volatile experiments, whereas their disciples, more obsessed with the propaganda of the new, were inclined to dismiss as pass£ the sweetness of Johnny Hodges or the showboating of Louis Armstrong. Still, what both the geniuses and their disciples propagated was new. By comparison, the neoclassicists of the '80s may seem to be offering, at worst, nothing more than half-baked historicism or, at best, an inventive reappraisal of the jazz repertory. In this regard, it's useful to remember that one saving grace of neoclassicism is its impatience with nostalgia. Whereas a modernist of 30 years ago might have used a plunger mute to demonstrate bemused affection for an outmoded style, a neoclassicist of today uses the mute because he knows that it can convey singular and immediate passions.

When all the post-modernist styles—expressionist and neoclassicist alike—are considered "avant-garde" (as, rightly or wrongly, they often are), they constitute an enduring sub-genre in jazz, one that dates back over 25 years. It has its own thesis ("the new wave") and antithesis ("the jazz tradition"). The distinction was made frustratingly clear to me by my students, who were enchanted by the contemporary restatements of classic styles, but resisted the unsettling innovations (works by Taylor, Coleman, etc.) of the '60s. I'm almost resigned to this response. Maybe only in a period of national tumult are people willing to listen to music for the pleasure of being battered and tested. The avant-garde, by definition, has no right to an audience larger than its true believers. Besides, the violent expressionism of the '60s made the current wave of neoclassicism possible; it freed the present generation to look on the jazz tradition with agnostic curiosity. And this generation—virtuosic, ambitious, and disarmingly unpretentious—has no axes to grind about the claims of art over entertainment or of freedom over form, except for the conviction, apparently widespread, that the future of jazz lies in a rapprochement between those putative opposites.

Still, when we talk about a renaissance in jazz, we are talking about a wealth of interesting music, not a broad-scaled awakening of interest in that music. Most of the neoclassical ventures discussed in this book are unknown outside the small enclave of New York clubs and European festivals. For, as all but the most provincial fans know, American jazz musicians are largely invisible in their own country. Few educated Americans can name even five jazz musicians under the age of forty. Jazz is virtually banished from television and commercial radio, and is usually conflated with pop in the press, when acknowledged at all—Time runs a Christmas music wrap-up that lists the best in classical and rock, as though jazz didn't exist. In four decades of prize-giving, the Pulitzer Committee has never recognized a jazz composer (the jurors who voted unanimously to award Ellington, in 1965, were overruled by the Advisory Committee). Booking agencies and record companies no longer scout for serious young jazz musicians. Even colleges, which once provided a network of concert halls for the Modern Jazz Quartet or Gerry Mulligan, now house lab bands that perform standard orchestrations but fail to book active innovators. Most significant jazz recordings of recent years were made abroad for labels like Black Saint in Italy, Hat Hut in Switzerland, Trio in Japan, Enja in Germany, SteepleChase in Denmark, and BVHAAST in Holland, or by tiny American labels, some of them little more than vanities; they are distributed in only a few American cities.

Yet, despite what amounts to a media blackout, jazz somehow manages to replenish its audience and its musicians with every generation. Jazz festivals proliferate, at least in Europe, and so do independent labels and reissue series. Mail-order companies, from the Smithsonian Collection to Time/Life, have found a bonanza in jazz. The music may be in exile, but it isn't fading away. I intend to help spread the news of the increasing accessibility of swing and melody and beauty in the jazz of the '80s, but I'm fully aware that the bounding line between jazz and the mainstream of American life is a tradition unto itself. In 1965, Dwight Macdonald wrote an account of an arts festival at Lyndon Johnson's White House that unwittingly embodied the problem. Macdonald, who was rarely unwitting about anything, complained that "no composers of any note were present." Several paragraphs later, he observed parenthetically that the "best thing at the festival" and "the only really happy-looking people, in fact, were Duke Ellington and his bandsmen." That's the way it is now, only more so. Nobody here but us happy-looking jazzmen, boss.”

In addition to an Introduction and an Afterword, Rhythm-a-ning is made up of fifty-eight [58] chapters and six subchapters.  I read it episodically and usually with the music of the artist under discussion playing on my CD changer.

While doing so, I tried to keep the following thoughts as drawn from Gary’s introduction in mind so as to let them serve as guiding principles in helping to move my ears in new directions:

[1] “The resurgence of jazz means in large measure the resurgence of swing, melody, and beauty, as well as other vintage jazz qualities such as virtuosity, wit, and structure — not that they've ever been entirely absent. If jazz, like other fine arts, had to be relearned in a period of avant-garde extremism, it has long since—and with a vengeance—turned neoclassical. Musicians weaned on the free jazz of the '60s now sift '20s’ classicism, '30s' swing, '40s’ bop, and '50s’ soul for repertoire and expressive wisdom. They are, in effect, going home again.”

[2] “Jazz is so eclectic these days that you can find in it almost anything you please.”

[3] “ … the violent expressionism of the '60s made the current wave of neoclassicism possible; it freed the present generation to look on the jazz tradition with agnostic curiosity. And this generation—virtuosic, ambitious, and disarmingly unpretentious—has no axes to grind about the claims of art over entertainment or of freedom over form, except for the conviction, apparently widespread, that the future of jazz lies in a rapprochement between those putative opposites.

I hope these beacon points serve you as well as they served me in pointing the way to Jazz as it had become in the 1980s and beyond.

When Gary Giddins is giving them and the subject is Jazz, the “directions” are usually sound and accurate.

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