Scott’s Bookshelf, Part 9

57. Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (John Gennari) – Just a lone title this time around, as it’s still fairly fresh in the brain. An exhaustive (at least as far as I can tell — someone more knowledgeable on the subject might say otherwise) history of jazz criticism featuring richly drawn portraits of the leading jazz critics of the last 80 years or so, including Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, Amiri Baraka, Martin Williams, Greg Tate, and several others. It’s more than that, however. The material is pretty evenly divided between stories about the critics themselves and what I would call (in very general terms) the jazz conversation: i.e., the competing schools of thought, the generational shifts in style (and inevitable gaps in acceptance), the sometimes raging arguments over the history, authenticity, and value of various jazz icons and sub-genres, and — perhaps most deeply — the unavoidably thorny racial dynamic between a music that is (primarily) black and critics of said music who have been (primarily) white. As someone only vaguely familiar with a few of the critics profiled (Crouch, Giddins, Hentoff) and not at all familiar with the vast majority of the others, I definitely appreciated the author’s non-judgmental tone. Not that I’d by any means call Gennari a passive observer — he’s got a keen bullshit detector for political posturing, and reponds to various displays of authenticity-mongering with a slight wince — but he clearly respects the overlapping and oft-competing dialogues, and crucially, he lets the sayers have their say and he never steps in too soon to quash an entertaining dust-up (the book strikes me as scrupulously fair-minded, though again, I’m not exactly the best person to judge that). Like a lot of great music books, this one sent me on a search mission for various recordings; just as important, it convinced me to order up a number of titles from the library, so anxious was I afterwards to read more by Martin Williams (The Jazz Tradition), A.B. Spellman (Four Lives in the Bebop Business), Jones/Baraka (Black Music), Giddins, Hentoff, et al. More books than ever to read, less time than ever to absorb them all.

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