Articles and Links
Gary has contributed an essay to the booklet accompanying this new DVD set from The Criterion Collection on the films of Marlene Dietrich.
Gary’s been interviewed (and provides a commentary track as well) in the newly remastered, newly released 1930 “King of Jazz” from The Criterion Collection. It’s Bing’s first on-screen performance, and our friend Leonard Maltin has penned a terrific review – check it out here (and be sure to order a copy!)
In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the upstanding dandy Thomas Buddenbrook dismisses his wife’s elitist devotion to music as a “rather tasteless snobbery.” Gerda remonstrates that the insipid pop ditties Thomas prefers merely requite a need for mindless gratification. No fool, he is reduced to silence, unable to “comprehend why melodies that cheered him up or moved him were cheap and worthless, or why music that seemed harsh or chaotic should be of the highest musical value.”
Mann was writing in 1900, when the Schoenberg scandal was just getting started and Buddy Bolden had yet to organize his first band. But, of course, nothing has changed. It is no fun to face the disbelief of friends, family and students when arguing the virtues of sounds that scrape against their nerves like jagged razors. Almost every jazz lover has had to confront that kind of incomprehension, whether defending against accusations of polyphonic chaos, swing-era compromise, bebop decadence or avant-garde fakery. Jazz is so isolated from the lives of most Americans that it is routinely written off as a citadel of snobbery.
For my generation (coming to jazz in the 1960s), the Rubicon was ferried by Ornette Coleman. His music, take it or leave it, was Something Else!!!!, The Shape of Jazz to Come and the Change of the Century. Above all, it was free, though one couldn’t be sure if the key word in Free Jazz was an adjective or an imperative, as in “Free Huey!” Within a few years, the most controversial and divisive figure in American music since Elvis had won the acceptance of musicians and critics. Insiders asked what all the fuss was about. For on a fundamental level Coleman’s music was sublimely obvious. Bing Crosby once summed up Louis Armstrong’s genius, “When he sings a sad song you feel like crying, when he sings a happy song you feel like laughing. What the hell else is there with pop singing?”
Ornette is direct in that way: He mourns, he chortles, he sighs, he rages, he exults, he shoots the moon. He doesn’t, however, swing from here to there; instead he bounces on the rhythm, as though it were a trampoline. His phrases don’t resolve with anticipated cadences. Instead, they proliferate in spiky fragments that somehow cohere in a melodic plot—a plot of many melodies. Above all, his sound isn’t smooth, rough, cool or hot. It is prickly, raw and gorgeously fresh, as invigorating as a freezing shower after a sauna. That freshness has never abated. Even if he hadn’t electrified or symphonized its context, his timbre would have remained sui generis—a voice apart.
But who were we kidding, we Ornette-o-philes who attend every infrequent appearance, cheer every infrequent recording? Clearly, his music is resistible. I recall the jolt of first hearing him in the mid-’60s: “W.R.U.” on Ornette! In the jazz world, that album was old news, but in the civilian precincts of popular culture, it was more than a little terrifying and thoroughly intoxicating. Every time I thought I understood something about jazz, I came across a recording that humbled me into willing submission. Even so, this, more than Coltrane or Taylor or Dolphy, was utterly unlike anything in my experience—the brashness, the unbroken rhythm, the loopy fragmented melodies.
Gunther Schuller’s liner notes provided several phrases that helped me to process the music—“innermost logic,” “sonority investigations,” “splintered lines” and, chiefly, motivic development as related to the masterpiece “R.P.D.D.” I took it as a personal gift from Coleman that he followed “W.R.U.” with “T. & T.,” a short piece that is all melody and drums—and that any dolt can understand. In return, I worked enthusiastically at taking in the long pieces, teaching myself to follow the improvisations in increments. It was like grappling with a hard novel or poem. Autodidacts live for these kinds of challenges.
I would listen repeatedly to a few minutes of a solo until I knew that section, and then add a few more minutes and then a few more, until I could follow the solo in its entirety. In the course of trying to understand Ornette, I soon made the same breakthrough I had experienced with Charlie Parker, whose music seemed an incomprehensible rush of notes until one day I found myself absentmindedly singing one of his solos and realized it was all melody—fast, volatile and rhythmic, but melody all the same.
Perhaps what I’m saying is that I loved Coleman before I liked him—love being harder to quantify but necessary to spur me onward. The homework you make for yourself is never work. In high school, my peculiar obsession with jazz prompted a teacher to suggest I hold a seminar to talk about the music. I saved Ornette for last, as an example of the futuristic cutting-edge, figuring I would play a minute of “R.P.D.D.” so that my audience could hear the unmistakably brittle sound. To my surprise, they protested when I lifted the needle; they wanted more.
The other day I played my daughter a couple of selections from Ornette’s new CD, Sound Grammar, which won’t get as much attention as Dylan’s very fine Modern Times but is every bit as great an event—for me, it is hands-down the record of the year. She instantly identified with the groove on “Turnaround” (initially recorded for 1959’s Tomorrow Is the Question!) and, though confused by shifts in dynamics, thought “Jordan” beautiful and moving. But she soon lost interest, wanting to hear the rest some other time. Buddenbrook would love her and resent me. Yet I don’t see the need to choose: Render onto pop its quick-fix pleasures, but render unto art the rewards of effort and empathy.
Art Blakey, recasting Picasso, observed that jazz washes away the dust of everyday life. Ornette washes it away with an astringent. He clears the palette, neutralizes prejudices and begins at the beginning. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen him over the past four decades, yet his music always invigorates me—every performance, without exception. In this I am not alone. The classical composer Hale Smith felt the same way, and once suggested that we responded the way we do because of Ornette’s quarter-note pitch, which instantly raises his performance to an inimitable, matchless plateau—like visiting a much-loved city.
An indication of Coleman’s genius is that Sound Grammar provides as thrilling and timeless an entry into his music as the most revered of his old classics.
Interview with Scott Anderson, biographer, Lawrence in Arabia, November 20, 2013
Bookshelf: Biographies – WSJ, November 22, 2013
A Conversation with Gary Giddins – Jazz Profiles, July 13, 2013
Duke Ellington’s Music Lives to be Heard – a review by Gary Giddins, LA Times, May 10, 2013
University of Minnesota Press announces a FULLY REVISED edition of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, by Gary Giddins, available September 2013!
Writing Writers’ Lives: 5th Annual Leon Levy Biography Conference – Hermione Lee (Virginia Woolf) in Conversation with Gary Giddins, March 18, 2013 – CUNY Graduate School
Pain and Joy in the Art of Narrating the Lives of Others – March 29, 2013 – Sao Paolo, Brazil
Biographiles Unite at a CUNY Conference: Catching Up With Gary Giddins – March 15, 2013
“The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings 1954-56” – from Mosaic and Bing Crosby Enterprises, with liner notes by Gary Giddins.
National Book Critics Ask Gary – which ten books should be published again? – Dec 2010
NY Times Sunday Book Review of Warning Shadows – Aug 22, 2010
LA Times Review of Warning Shadows – May 23, 2010
Gary talks about Warning Shadows – May 19, 2010.
Criterion DVD Release Features Review by Gary Giddins – Feb 10, 2010
The Big Think: Gary Giddins – Nov 28, 2009 Online interview with Gary Giddins at Big Think, a global forum connecting people and ideas – visit them at http://bigthink.com/
101 Ways to Get Into Jazz – NPR, Nov 17, 2009
W.W.Norton’s Featured Author: Gary Giddins – Oct 24, 2009 Gary Giddins is W. W. Norton’s featured author as they proudly announce the trade edition of “Jazz”.
Five-Star Review for Jazz – from Time-Out New York.
“Talking with Gary Giddins” – Library Journal, October 2009
Lost in Transition – JazzTimes, May 2009
Gary on Duke Ellington.
Jacketing Music – Vintage Magazine’s inaugural issue.