Jazz Writers on Jazz Writing

Jazz Writers on Jazz Writing

by Howard Mandel
copyright © 1999 Howard Mandel
originally posted at MusicalAmerica.com
June 23, 1999

"The hardest thing for a critic is to stay honest and open for a long period of time," said Gary Giddins, author of the award-winning Visions of Jazz and longtime Village Voice jazz columnist. "It's hard to know that what you're saying is what you really believe, and that it isn't influenced by other things."

Giddins -- whose book won this year's National Book Critics' Circle award, an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, and the Jazz Book of the Year -- was among the six writers participating in "Jazz Criticism, Jazz Journalism, Jazz Authorship," a panel discussion held at Manhattan's Jazz Gallery on Monday evening. The others, representing a wide swath of journalistic outlets and a bumper crop of books on jazz published in the last year, were Sharony Andrews Green, author of Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar (Miller-Freeman Books); Bill Milkowski, author of Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries (Billboard Books), Robert O'Meally, editor of The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (Columbia University Press); and Richard Sudhalter, author of Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945 (Oxford University Press). Having just published Future Jazz (Oxford University Press), this reporter served as moderator.

Giddins has been with the Village Voice since 1973; Green is a newspaper reporter who was married to Grant Green, Jr., the son of the man who became her subject; O'Meally is a Columbia University professor with a literary background; Sudhalter is an professional trumpeter who was jazz critic of the New York Post for five years; Milkowski and I are freelance journalists, publishing primarily in music-specific periodicals. Whatever their venues, everyone agreed that writing is an intensely personal activity, and that pure objectivity in criticism is a myth. But beyond that, each author described an approach to their work as customized as their choice of book topics.

Giddins and Sudhalter's volumes, each weighing in at more than 800 pages, are the result of considerable historical research, and what Sudhalter described as "thousands of hours of listening." Green's bio of the father-in-law she never met started as a matter of personal curiosity and, as she chased down dozens of jazz players who had known Green (virtually a cult figure), became what she called a "professional obsession."

Milkowski spoke of pouring over some 4,000 interviews he has conducted since the late '70s, to select 30 that would hang together in a single book of straightforward question-and-answer transcripts. I intended Future Jazz to read like a mystery -- a fictional narrative that provokes readers' speculations -- though it, too, features interviews with dozens of diverse jazz artists, from well-known trumpeter-composer-bandleader Wynton Marsalis and singer Cassandra Wilson to less-celebrated improvising conductor Lawrence "Butch" Morris, edgy saxophonist John Zorn, and participants in the radical Jewish jazz culture movement.

The panelists and their audience (about three dozen, mostly jazz authors and critics) were especially concerned with how acquaintance with the people they write about affects their judgements. Both Giddins and Sudhalter told of receiving impassioned letters from the late singer Mel Tormé questioning their motives after they had written largely positive reviews. Green explained how she re-doubled her commitment to finishing her book as her marriage came apart. Milkowski spoke of suffering abuse from the management of major jazz artists who he reviewed negatively, but fairly. I suggested that balancing personal relationships and professional obligations is one of the challenges of the job. And Robert O'Meally quoted what seems to be the prime directive on the topic, given to him by the late critic Martin Williams.

"You want to write about jazz?" Williams, at the time a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, asked O'Meally, who had approached him for advice. "Good. Then do it!"

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