Gary Giddins caught the jazz bug the summer he was 15, when he and a dozen or so other teenagers from the northeast, riding the rails in a sort of alternative to camp, pulled into New Orleans. “It was 1963, the height of the civil rights thing,” the Long Island native recalls. “When we got to the motel the first thing we saw were three doors labeled ‘men,’ ‘women,’ and ‘colored men’–‘colored women’ must have been somewhere else. Later I was riding on a streetcar on Canal Street and an elderly black woman sat down next to me, and there were three or four white girls about my age who loudly berated me for letting her sit there. For me the place was an absolute nightmare.”
But then he happened upon a small miracle: a performance by Emanuel Sayles’s Silverleaf Ragtimers. “I walked into the Orleans Hotel on a Sunday afternoon, and I opened up the doors of the ballroom,” he says. “The walls were covered with this red brothel-type wallpaper and all of these black and white people were talking, smoking cigarettes, and holding cocktail glasses. So right away, even before the music started, it seemed like a very enlightened world.”
What Giddins took home with him was the idea that music was inextricable from its environment–in his mind jazz cannot be stripped of its sociological context without losing some of its richness. But as chief jazz critic for New York’s Village Voice over the past 25 years, he’s been able to do what many a historian can’t, delivering sometimes gritty, sometimes erudite, and always enthusiastic technical analyses of the music itself. In his 690-page new book, Visions of Jazz: The First Century (Oxford University Press), he weaves together history, sociology, criticism, and musicology to construct 79 magnificently detailed essays about obvious figures like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis as well as marginal ones like Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, and Budd Johnson and modern adventurers like Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, and Cassandra Wilson. It’s not a tidy linear chronicle, and plenty of famous players are denied their own chapters. But his riveting portraits, with their clear sense of time and place, trace the music’s development in a highly readable fashion.
Despite his many years observing the architects of jazz and his obvious love for the scene, Giddins says he doesn’t have many friends who are musicians. “Too many jazz critics are not into criticism per se–they’re just fans,” he says. “They don’t want to be called critics because they think there’s some nasty connotation to it, and they really just want to hang out with the players. You have to keep your distance. As soon as you shake the hand of a musician, have a drink with him, and talk about your kids I feel that you’re compromised.”
Unlike most music writers, Giddins is a student of criticism. He attended Grinnell College in Iowa, earning a degree in English lit with the ambition of becoming a literary critic. He couldn’t find that kind of work when he graduated in 1970, so he began writing film criticism for the Hollywood Reporter and then freelance articles for the jazz magazine Down Beat. Within a year he’d decided to concentrate on jazz, and by 1974 he had a regular column in the Voice, “Weather Bird.” Today the Voice is his principal forum, but he’s also contributed to the New York Times, the Nation, and Vanity Fair, among others. Though the new book features some greatly expanded versions of pieces originally written for the Voice, Giddins estimates that 70 percent of the material is new.
Visions of Jazz is Giddins’s seventh book–and he’s almost finished an eighth, a literary biography of Bing Crosby–but when he held a newly printed copy of it in his hands he thought back to a proposal he’d written to his first agent for a book to be called “A System of Ribbons,” a title borrowed from Duke Ellington. “It was always in my mind to do a book that would trace the whole course of jazz, but as a canvas, not as a strict history,” says Giddins. “The problem was that I didn’t have enough competence to write it. I was only 26 or 27. I didn’t know enough. But when I got a finished copy of the new book I thought, Jesus, I’ve written ‘A System of Ribbons.'”
Giddins will discuss and sign copies of Visions of Jazz on Wednesday at 7:30 PM at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1350 N. Wells. Call 312-642-5044 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Charles Eschelman.