Lives of the Critic

“Jazz” author Gary Giddins looks back at his younger self: an avid reader of Dr. Johnson and would-be critic of English literature.
  • Transcript


Question: Did you originally aspire to a career in writing or jazz?

Gary Giddins: Well, I think all of us begin as writers. I wanted to be a writer from the time I as eight, long before I heard of jazz. The question is, once you have that obsession, what is your subject going to be and you often don't know for some time. It might become fiction, it might be non-fiction, and if it's non-fiction it can go in any number of directions.

I didn't realize what my subject was for quite some time. I thought I was—I knew I wanted to write criticism because I love reading criticism and I just had a response to that and I knew I had an ability for it, but I studied English literature and expected to be a literary critic. Jazz was something that I loved, it was an obsession of mine, but I wasn't a musician or a musicologist, I didn't really think I had the right to write about jazz. But then after I got out of school, my first job actually was as a film critic for the "Hollywood Reporter" and I felt that jazz criticism was terribly lacking. A lot of the things I wanted to say and the musician I admired weren't being written about and I felt I had something to say that nobody else was saying and people would say to me, editors, "you know a lot about jazz, would you do a jazz piece for me?" And finally, I just bit the bullet and left off film writing for more than 15 years and then really committed myself entirely to jazz critic.

Question: Who were the first critics you admired?

Gary Giddins: Well, the first critic who sort of made the veil drop from my eyes was Dwight McDonald. McDonald was a film critic for "Esquire" in the early '60's, and he was very funny and polished and I really liked his voice.

And then shortly after that, I discovered Edmund Wilson. I remember buying "Axle’s Castle" and having a hard time with it because I hadn't read most of the writers in it, but then I got "The Shores of Light," which was his collection of essays from the '20's and Classics in Commercials and Wilson sort of really set me on my path.

There were a number of other critics at the same time that I was reading, James Agee's film reviews. In jazz, the two critics I loved the most were Martin Williams and Dan Morgenstern. I became completely obsessed with the turn of the century critic, who isn't read any more, I don't know why, named James Gibbon Huneker, who published some two dozen volumes in a notorious novel about an orgy at the opera called Painted Veils which was once a Best Seller, but I don't even think that's in print anymore.

Max Beerbohm's theater criticism I love, Shaw's music criticism. Well, you know, I became completely obsessed with reading criticism. Well, Johnson, that was a big thing in my life when I first started to read Lives of the Poets. And Matthew Arnold, Eliot's criticism, I ended up doing my senior thesis on Edmund Wilson, T.S. Eliot, and Hemingway as critics.

So, I think that path was pretty much clear for me at that point.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen