© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Why I Write” - Gary Giddins (December 2012)
The short answer as to why I write is to share what I know and love about jazz, to shine a little light on a mystery for which I’ve never found a rational explanation: how can a nation produce a musical tradition as fecund and flowing as the one erected on the genius of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and treat it as though it doesn’t exist or exists only in the past or only for those “in the know”?
I decided to be a writer when I was eight, after reading a children’s biography of Louis Pasteur that triggered an epiphany about life and language. Nothing could sway me toward a more sensible direction, especially after I discovered the work of Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, James Boswell and Martin Williams and knew that I had found my mode – criticism – if not my subject. That would come later. Criticism finds the past in the present and vice versa. It filters time’s nuggets and makes cultural signposts accessible, exciting and pertinent. Biography is another way of doing that, with the advantage of a strong narrative, balancing private failings with a critical analysis of public accomplishments that are the only reason we care about the subject. To my surprise, I found an ideal subject in Bing Crosby, which allows me to combine my interests in music and film while tracking the development of American popular culture over three-quarters of a century. I continue to write essays on movies and books as well. But jazz is different: I write about jazz because Louis Armstrong’s 1938 “Jubilee,” which ought to be included in any universal health-care system, is too good a secret to keep.
The primary reason I enjoy reading Gary Giddins' essays, reviews and books is because I learn from them; I always come away from the time spent exploring his writings with perceptions about Jazz and its makers that he informs and ideas about the music that he creates.
[By the way, ideas don’t just exist waiting for someone to “turn a light bulb on over their head” and find them. Ideas have to be made, they have to be created.]
Slowing life down to “smell the coffee” with a chapter from one of Gary’s books is a frequent occurrence in my life, but I must say that I was very surprised during a recent foray when I found a piece about Eddie Condon in his Weather Bird: Jazz at The Dawn of Its Second Century.
The book is a compendium of Jazz essays and reviews that Gary wrote from about 1990 to 2003 in his position as the Jazz “critic” [in the broadest sense of that term] for The Village Voice.
Not surprisingly then, the book contains an overwhelming number of pieces about Jazz artists in performance or on recordings which appeared during that time frame.
But Eddie Condon? He died in 1973 [the same year, incidentally, that Gary began his “Weather Bird” column for The Village Voice] so how does he figure into this compilation’s chronology?
Of course, after turning a page or two, the context for the inclusion of Gary’s essay entitled The Advocate: Eddie Condon was that it served as an introduction commissioned for the 1991 reissue by DaCapo Press of the paperback edition of We Called It Music, a book that Eddie originally co-wrote in 1947 with Thomas Sugrue.
Here are a few more excerpts from Gary’s treatment of the book as well as his “take” on Condon’s music and his place in the development of Jazz.
Weather Bird: Jazz at The Dawn of Its Second Century is still available through its publisher, Oxford University Press, and through retail and online booksellers. By way of background: “Gary Giddins wrote the Village Voice's "Weather Bird" column for 30 years. His eight books and three documentary films have garnered unparalleled recognition for jazz, including a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, two Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Awards, five ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards, a Peabody, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He received national attention for his commentary in Ken Burns's Jazz.”
You can locate more information about Gary at www.garygiddins.com.
“Eddie Condon was a vigorous jazz activist whose barbed tongue and stubborn beliefs were powerful implements for spreading the jazz gospel as he interpreted it. Decades after his death, in 1973, the kind of music he championed was still widely known as Condon-style, though, inevitably, the prophet and his music receded into memory when the last practitioners passed on. They merit our respect all the same. Condon and the success he enjoyed recall a tremulous period in jazz history, when the racial divide was first breached and the very act of playing jazz or representing oneself as a jazz musician conveyed the thrill of anarchy.” …
Though not an important instrumentalist or bandleader, Condon performed on many fine — even important — recordings and fronted countless bands. His accomplishments as a composer were few, yet he helped to codify an enduring school of jazz. He was a radical in his youth and a reactionary ever after, yet he won a lasting respect as one of jazz's most effective propagandists, heralding America's brave new music on the bandstand and off, as a musician, organizer, memoirist, broadcast personality, newspaper columnist, and club owner.
The Condon-style, also known as Chicago-Dixieland (a phrase he disliked), was born in the late 1920s, reached its apex a decade later, and sustained a popular following throughout the '40s and '50s, even though it had long since jettisoned all signs of progressive development. Indeed, predictability was part of its allure. What started out as a scrappy, every-man-for-himself music, hell-bent on capturing the drive and feeling of pioneer black jazz musicians, became a conservative backwater—a respite from the anxieties and cyclical rebellions of modernism.
Played by small ensembles with a driving beat, Condon-style meant a loose-limbed music, inspired by the informality of the jam session and nourished by an intimate ambience that was far too tolerant of journeymen vocalists, roguish bandstand antics, and a petrified repertoire. But it was an honest music at its best, sometimes compellingly so, and it preserved an illusion of effortless musical camaraderie that comforted a generation.
Condon's personality mirrored his music. He worked hard at perfecting a mask of cynicism to hide the sentimentality lurking just below the surface. Had he been the scold he pretended to be, however, he could hardly have gotten away with as much mischief. A genuinely witty man, he made his impudence palatable even to his victims, who quoted Condon's jibes with pleasure. Some of his observations are among jazz's most familiar quotations. … On modern jazz: "The boppers flat their fifths. We consume ours." On Pee Wee Russell: "He's gaining weight—under each eye." … We Called It Music, the first and most valuable of Condon's three books, includes several lines that have been repeated and rephrased so often most people no longer know where they originated—for example, his elegiac recollection of first hearing Bix Beiderbecke: "The sound came out like a girl saying yes."
In addition to being the entertaining memoir of a jazz musician, We Called It Music, subtitled "A Generation of Jazz" so that everyone would understand what It referred to, is a definitive statement on the first generation of white jazzmen and how they saw themselves in relation to the black innovators they emulated. Read today, half a century after the coming of modern jazz and in light of decades of myth-making revisionism, Condon's memoir brims with far more socio-musical ironies than were apparent on first publication, in 1947. Some of that irony was underscored by a strange supplementary chapter written for an English edition in 1962, and unavailable in the United States for 25 years.
The main text emphasizes the debt Condon's generation owed Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith—the royalty of the new kind of music. "When [Jimmy] McPartland mentioned King Oliver," Condon writes, "smoke came out of his eyes."” …
“Back in 1947, when Condon and Thomas Sugrue collaborated on We Called It Music, Condon was at the height of his fame as a jazz personality. His nightclub, which opened in 1945, met with great success, as did his Town Hall concerts, radio broadcasts, and records.”...
“Condon kept active in the years following the appearance of We Called It Music. His nightclub changed premises in 1958—relocating from West 3rd Street to East 56th Street—and managed to survive until 1967, for an impressive run of 22 years. He collaborated on two more books: Eddie Condon's Treasury of Jazz (1956), a wide-ranging anthology of writings with an accent on literary flair, edited by Condon and Richard Gehman; and Eddie Condon's Scrapbook of Jazz (1973), a hugely entertaining collection of pictures and captions, collated by Condon and Hank O'Neal. From 1964 on, illness prevented him from traveling much, though he embarked on occasional tours and appeared from time to time in clubs and at festivals—his last performance was at a tribute to him at the Newport Jazz Festival-New York in 1972, the year before he died. Two years later, bassist Red Balaban opened a new jazz club called Eddie Condon's on 54th Street. The walls were covered with enlarged photographs of Condon and his favorite musicians; the music was Condon-style, plain and simple; and the place prospered through 1985—40 years after Condon opened his original saloon.”
[We Called It Music, Da Capo Press, 1986, revised 1991]