Question: Does jazz merit more academic study than other 20th-century genres?
Gary Giddins: Well, everything that is of any value merits academic study and I suppose even some things that aren't of any value, there's all kinds of popular culture courses that go into areas that I don't really see the point of. But the sad truth is that, in the 1930's or 1940's, people—me, when I was growing up in the 1960's, I listened to jazz because loved it. I didn't need anybody—I could teach about it by reading books and reviews, but mostly through listening. I hate the idea of turning jazz into homework assignments. I would never have a quiz saying, "Who's the clarinetist on the Hot Five?" I don't care. If you like the clarinetist, you'll know who it is.
But appreciation is another thing, music appreciation and how to enjoy it. I mean, I am astounded at my age with a 20-year-old daughter to discover that kids of her generation don't want to watch black and white movies. I understand that they gave up on silent films, but black and white? So, now movies have to be taught in academia because people don't know how to watch them, they don't know how to appreciate them.
It's inevitable that that's where it's going to happen, but if the class turns into something dry and academic and a question of memorization, then I say, to hell with it. If it doesn't give you pleasure, go someplace else. Jazz is for joy. It's for euphoria, it's for emotion, and anguish, and excitement, and all of the joys that great art can produce, and if it loses that, then it's lost everything.
Question: What’s the best advice you can offer students in your profession?
Gary Giddins: Well, really, my answer to that hasn't changed in most of the years I've been doing this. I think first of all, if you're a critic—I'm a critic. That means you are a writer. So, yes, you have to make yourself an authority on whatever subject it's going to be. Music, movies, literature, whatever it's going to be, but what you really want to do is learn your trade by reading other writers. I think you have to read veraciously, especially people who have done what you have done to see how it's been done in the past; what works, what doesn't work.
When I teach criticism, I'm not a great admirer of Pauline Kael. Forgive me, I know a lot of people are, but I used to use Pauline Kael as an example in my class of everything you ought not to do, from the imperial “we,” to the arrogance, to the predictability of liking anything by a certain artist, or hating anything by another certain artist; but on the other had, yes, you should read her for yourself, obviously. By reading different critics, you find out who speaks to you and what kind of voice you want to have. So, I think that's the first thing.
And then in terms of succeeding, because of who you are and what your voice is, and you have to have passion, if you don't have passion for it, why would you bother? This is not a way to make a living in any conventional sense. So you really, you need to have the passion and the belief, arrogant though it may be, to believe that you're saying something that nobody else is saying.
Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen