When Improvised Means Improved

Once listeners learn to recognize stale pop music formulas, they often become enamored with the spontaneity of jazz.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Do you write for jazz newcomers or jazz aficionados?

Gary Giddins: That's an interesting question. I think I should begin by just briefly exploring the issue of who one writes for and I've always thought, and for me, there's no question about it, you're writing for some version of yourself. You're writing the kinds of things that you like to read or wanted to read at a certain point. So, primarily for most of my career, I've written the kind of criticism that fascinates me. The things I discovered the things that get me going, that I'm excited about.

At the same time, you want to share that enthusiasm, but this new book, Jazz, was a very deliberate attempt to put the literary issues aside and even some of the more constant enthusiasms and really try to share what I've learned in 45 years about the way jazz works, how to listen to it. It's always sort of bugged me that people are always intimidated by it. They're intimidated by improvisation, they say I like it, but I don't understand it as though it were something mystical and complicated. I found from teaching years ago and Scott Devoe, my co-author on this book who is a dedicated professor at the University of Virginia for a quarter of a century, you find out that—or at least I found out, that when I explained what a Blues form is, 12 bar Blues, or 32 bar pop song, it just clicks in people's heads and then suddenly they hear popular music in a whole different way.

There's wonderful story that Martin Williams used to tell. He was lecturing, I think he was lecturing at NYU as a guest lecturer, and he started explaining the 12 bar blues and the 32 bar pop song and the fact that 90% of all the pop songs ever written in America, 32 bars AABA. And there was a guy in the audience who was basically a cocktail pianist. He earned his living playing at Holiday Inns and he knew thousands of songs. And as Martin is talking about the AABA form, he suddenly slaps his forehead and says, "That's right!" So, I mean, this guy who knows the world hadn't really thought of it that way. But when you hear it and you understand the way chords work and the way harmonies build and then resolve in 8 bar increments, or 12 bars, suddenly improvisation doesn't seem so complicated anymore. 

And for me, the trick is to learn how to listen the way the musicians are listening, which is not that difficult. I'm not a musicologist, so this book was really written for people who have no more musicological ability than I do. The challenge in analyzing the 78 tracks we chose wasn't doing it in a language that was non-musicological.

Question: Do you ever try to imitate jazz improvisation in your writing? 

Gary Giddins: No. Writing style is something is a consequence of who you are. I think that I had a certain propensity for a style that I recognize in my early work, but that doesn't mean I didn't have to learn certain basics and the longer you write the better you get. The rhythms come from you. If the rhythm seem to echo the music, then that's delightful if people see that, but it's certainly not something that's intentional on my part. I'm trying to be as clear and precise as I can be and at the same time, I'm trying to be eloquent and witty and entertaining. I mean, writing should be a pleasure.

One of the things I always underscore when I teach criticism is that young critics, or would be critics, frequently have this illusion that if they write about music they're somehow part of music, or if they write about movies they're part of movies, or of they write about theater they're part of theater, or write about literature. Writing is a part of literature, we belong the species of literature. If you add all the music reviews together that have ever been written, they don't create two notes of music.

So, the question of jazz, or film, or whatever the subject is, it's just a matter of finding the subject that allows you to express yourself as a writer. I mean, just as novelists write about the world through the fabrications of the fictional imagination, we write about the world as we experience it though the arts. And for me, jazz is a way to deal with—the development of the 20th century on so many different levels, especially race, the high art forces, the low art controversy that never ends. Then the whole way—an art that's fairly recent develops how it starts in a community as a kind of folk music just functionally supporting the dance traditions of one little place and then it spreads and everywhere it spreads, it's changed by whatever community it enters.

When it goes to New York, it completely changed; when it goes to Chicago it's completely changed. And then at some point it become worldwide and even to popular music. And then suddenly it becomes more self-conscious about itself as an art and leaves the popular stage, and then it becomes this sort that academics study. So, this whole thing, you know, you can write about it in terms of the stage or literature, but then you're writing really about something that happened long before you were born. 

But with jazz or cinema, these are arts that are about a hundred years old, so we're writing about something that is pretty much as it's happening. And that's pretty exciting.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen