A most unique criticism: Gary Giddins came to jazz like a sinner comes to Jesus
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 January 2005)

When Gary Giddins was 15 years old he was born again, not as a Christian but as a jazz fan. For him, jazz and religion are similar. As he says, Louis Armstrong and jazz in general became his substitute "for the God of my fathers." In conversation he sometimes speaks of people who "come to jazz" as others might say "come to Jesus."

This conversion transfigured his adolescence and continues to govern much of his life, four decades later. Today, as the most admired of jazz critics, he finds himself still "locked in the bonds of worship." His latest collection of critical pieces, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century (Oxford), can function as a Book of Common Prayer for his fellow congregants.

He's not facetious about belief, as any jazz fan will know but others may not quite comprehend. He opens Weather Bird with a quotation from William James, who sketched out (in his classic study, Varieties of Religious Experience) some of the happiest consequences of self-discovery through faith. Affected by that experience, James wrote, life seems to be enlarged, personal motives become insignificant and new reaches of patience and fortitude open out. "Fears and anxieties go, and blissful equanimity takes their place."

Exactly. I can't bring back my own conversion as well as Giddins recalls his (I was two years younger), but while reading his account I felt a stirring of sympathetic kinship. His new life began when he heard records Armstrong made in 1928. He played them so often that he memorized every note, and soon everything in his life changed. Genius, he realized, was not confined to the realm of marble busts and the study of music in high school. Armstrong was a genius. Armstrong, the comic figure he had glimpsed occasionally on television, was in truth America's Bach.

Paraphrasing Harold Bloom on Shakespeare, Giddins argues that "Armstrong invented the human in American music." As the first clearly great improviser, he developed a style that was fluid and rhythmically original. Every good jazz player since Armstrong has been his descendant; he gave them all the lyrical structure on which "a durable art grounded in individualism could flourish." He sired a small army of soloists, people so individual they announced their identity with the first few bars of every solo they played.

Which brings us to the dark side of recent jazz and of Weather Bird. Fear haunts Giddins's book, the fear of uniformity. Like many others, he's noticed the failure of recent jazz to produce the kind of fresh, imaginative and effortlessly authentic stylists who made jazz a great music. Musicians are better schooled today, more consistent and more ambitious. But even the best of them are rarely individualists.

Jazz fans can't often be heard talking about a player who has defined a new approach. Soloists in jazz today are often enjoyable, seldom exhilarating. No one thinks of them as giants, a word used often at the middle of the last century. As Giddins notes, the last all-conquering Napoleonic figure was Miles Davis, now 13 years in the grave. Giddins wrote not long ago that no plausible successor has appeared -- "certainly not Wynton Marsalis, whose musical impact withered in direct proportion to his ambition."

Giddins believes that even the most adventurous young musicians are weighed down by the accomplishments of the past, a past they are tempted to imitate. Some of them, in a metaphor he used when talking with Michael Enright on the CBC's Sunday Edition the other day, "are playing dress-up, they're putting on their parents' clothes." There may well be more accomplished jazz singers at work now than ever before, but not one of them could be compared for a moment to Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith.

Three years ago, when Giddins made a number of appearances on the Ken Burns TV history of jazz, it was obvious that he owned the shrewdest mind and the most capacious imagination on the series. In 1998, he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection of essays, Visions of Jazz. He's the biographer of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and for 30 years wrote a column about music, jazz in particular, for the Village Voice in New York.

Better than anyone else I've read, he sets jazz in the context of modern culture and in particular American culture. Thomas Mann shows up in his book, as do Edward Albee and John Ford, Bela Bartok and Arnold Schoenberg.

He demonstrates a rueful sense of comedy, as when he reports on avant-garde jazz. On one occasion during the Soviet era he was at jazz festival in Helsinki where two East German tenor saxophone players, making their first appearance outside the Wall, spoke poignantly of jazz's liberating power, then "embarked on a fusillade of shrieking, high-note blasts." After a few minutes a notable (but unnamed by Giddins) American avant-garde player turned to Giddins and said, "Let's go. This stuff is a lot more fun to play than to listen to." (Never was musical truth more aptly spoken.)

Weather Bird is full of surprises, including the revelation (to me) of a Canadian tenor saxophone player, Brian Barley, who made a few records and died, in 1971, at the age of 28. He admired Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, and not long before he died he was carefully putting together these influences. Giddins says "They flash across his solos like patterns of light and shadow" -- "Rollins's discipline, Coltrane's zeal, Shepp's caustic sound, Coleman's scooped tones and quarter-tone pitch." Listening to his appearance as leader of the Brian Barley Trio, Giddins says he was trying "to define a personal music in which all the key influences of the era were absorbed as themes for his variations."

If Giddins is widely acknowledged as the prince of critics, at least one eminent admirer puts him higher than that: Daniel Okrent, now the impressive "public editor" or ombudsman of The New York Times, said of Giddins, "there is no one writing non-fiction whose work I admire more." Certainly he makes the record review into an art form, projecting intelligence, warm appreciation and a love for both the music and those who make it. And of course he makes it all look easy. Just like the best jazz players.

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