National Writing Project

Why I Write: Gary Giddins Riffs on Jazz

Date: October 7, 2011

Summary: Gary Giddins, long-time columnist for the Village Voice and unarguably the world's preeminent jazz critic, writes about jazz to let the world know about America's "fecund and flowing" musical tradition, which is sometimes treated as though it doesn't exist—or exists only for those "in the know."


One of the musical tracks I often use in lectures is the 1956 recording "Concerto for Billy the Kid" by the composer and orchestra leader George Russell, who died in the summer of 2009. Most people—even those who love jazz—have never heard it, yet it is an amazing performance, not five minutes long, which adapts piano concerto format to a sextet. The arrangement is based on a series of congruous scales or modes, rather than the usual harmonies, with the result that the band radiates a rattling dissonance while sounding far larger than it is. Most of the melodic figures are short, pulsing fragments, and they swing like mad. The highlight is an exhilarating piano cadenza created to introduce the as-yet-unknown Bill Evans (the eponymous Billy the Kid). In this section, Russell had Evans improvise on the chords of an old standard, and he hammers the keys as though his fingers were dancing mallets.

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.

This recording invariably dazzles audiences, partly because it doesn't sound a day older than tomorrow. In this country, however, it's usually out-of-print; you won't find it on iTunes, though Amazon offers an import edition (in violation of U.S. copyright) of the source album, Jazz Workshop by the George Russell Smalltet. 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?" "Concerto for Billy the Kid" plays an important role in Jazz, the book I wrote a couple of years ago with Scott DeVeaux, intended primarily for textbook use.

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 of its gold and makes cultural signposts accessible, exciting and pertinent. Biography is another way of doing that, with the advantage of a strong narrative, which almost invariably balances private tribulations against 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, allowing 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.

Copyright © 2009 by Gary Giddins, reprinted with permission

About the Author Gary Giddins is the author of a dozen books, most recently Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema , and is the Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. HIs work has received many prizes and honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism (for Visions of Jazz ), a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Peabody Award for Broadcasting, a Grammy Award, two Ralph J. Gleason Music Books Awards, and an unprecedented six ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards for Excellence in Music Criticism.

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