Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

I’d hate for COMMENTARY readers to think that I share any of the invidious notions about music and art promulgated by Robert Richman in his strange review of my book, Riding on a Blue Note [October 1981]. Mr. Richman is grudgingly kind to me, but heartily censorious of my subject, and when he writes of jazz form that “it simply cannot accommodate the range of experience or feeling of the symphony or concerto,” I envision the two of us kneeling before the great god Stereo, he with the Eroica and me with “West End Blues,” as we try to uncover objective criteria with which to adduce their respective levels of emotion and seriousness. Yet Mr. Richman gives the impression of having gleaned some of his illusions from me. Not true. I could never, for example, have written that bop rhythms “enabled players to improvise more fully and expressively than previously; before long, the improvisatory ‘solo’ became the centerpiece of a jazz performance.” Jazz was a soloist’s art from the time Armstrong proved it could be, and if there is a bop soloist who is more “expressive” than Armstrong, Young, Hawkins, Eldridge, Webster, Teagarden, or a dozen others, I haven’t heard him. Nor did “Giddins” credit Coltrane with bringing cleanliness back to jazz. Giddins quoted Arthur Blythe to that effect (note quotation marks on page 135). And I assure you, blushing though I ought to be, that “Giddins” is not as much “a part of the complex history of the legitimization of jazz as are the musicians.” I’ve only written on the subject for a decade; it was fully legitimized a half-century earlier.

Mr. Richman’s real bugaboo is nationalism and race: can a music innovated in America primarily by blacks ever achieve the complexity and seriousness of 19th-century European romanticism? Mr. Richman says no. Yet by an astonishing leap of hubris, he feels himself qualified to decide what is or is not jazz, and his conclusions will surprise numerous musicians who thought they were playing and studying jazz all their lives. He reminds me of the concert violinist who accosted Cecil Taylor with effusive compliments, comparing Taylor with Mozart and Ravel. Taylor, who has often spoken of “the fools who think I don’t play jazz,” asked him why he didn’t talk about Duke Ellington and Bud Powell, whose influences are so much more readily apparent. Why is it that high-art mandarins like Mr. Rich-man always feel impelled to mask their ignorance with contempt?

Still, Mr. Richman’s errors and silly conceits did not originally prompt this letter. Charity did. When he writes that jazz critics, about whom he knows even less than he does about jazz musicians, “seem so sure that jazz is the equal of classical music that they rarely even bother to raise the issue,” I feel duty bound to alert him to a few of the many critics, musicologists, and musicians who have raised precisely that issue (sometimes obsessively) for more than sixty years, including Ernest Ansermet, Roger Pryor Dodge, Rudi Blesh, Winthrop Sargeant, Charles Edward Smith, Wilder Hobson, Sidney Finkelstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Feather, Max Harrison, Gunther Schuller, Martin Williams, Wilfrid Mellers, Leroy Ostransky, Henry Pleasants, André Hodier, and Albert Murray, for starters. I am no more interested in convincing haughty Europhiles like Mr. Richman that Ellington’s genius (for one) is “serious” and “legitimate” and “art” than I am in arguing that Ulysses is not pornography, Le Sacre du Printemps not aimless cacophony, and cinema not just a passing fad. It’s been done.

Gary Giddins
New York City



Robert Richman writes:

In reviewing Gary Giddins’s book, my intention, which clearly bears repeating, was to question the reflexive (and very often defensive) habit of many jazz fans and some critics to compare jazz favorably with classical music. Mr. Giddins’s hyperbolic response only underlines the usefulness of such an effort.

Mr. Giddins says that I “give the impression of having gleaned some of [my] illusions from [him].” All I gleaned from Mr. Giddins was some history—I take full responsibility for my “invidious notions about music and art.” Yet when it comes to specifics, the “illusion,” for example, that the improvisatory solo became the centerpiece of a jazz performance can in fact be “gleaned” from Mr. Giddins’s essay on Gillespie, which contains the following characteristic sentence: “The bop soloist made himself the focal point around which time coalesced” (p. 215).

Despite his protest, Mr. Giddins is a part of the legitimization of jazz (by which I mean its acceptance by the critical and cultural establishment), a process beginning only with the start of bop. Before that, jazz players played and jazz critics cheered but no one listened very seriously to either.

Nationalism and race are Mr. Giddins’s bugaboo, not mine; it is he who has introduced them into the discussion. “Can a music,” asks Giddins, “innovated in America primarily by blacks ever achieve the complexity and seriousnes of 19th-century European romanticism? Mr. Richman says no.” Where? In Mr. Giddins’s imagination is where. My “conclusions” about what is and is not jazz might “surprise numerous musicians . . . ,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right. And some musicians themselves, like Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, no longer even refer to the music they play as “jazz.”

As for the list of critics who champion the seriousness of jazz, for every name of Mr. Giddins’s one can offer six more on the other side. But that is not the point. The real point has to do with a music critic who cries racism when he meets a musical opinion contrary to his, and invokes the term “Europhile” as if it were a new strain of venereal disease. Is André Hodier, the renowned French jazz critic (whom Mr. Giddins mentions reverently in his letter), a “Europhile” too? He should be; the way he writes about the constricting nature of jazz rhythms and sonorities makes me sound like a booster.

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