“You Gotta Hear This!”

“Jazz” author Gary Giddins explains why critics should err on the side of gushing, not bashing.
  • Transcript


Question: How has your criticism changed over the years?

Gary Giddins: Yeah, sure. The early years of my work, I have to say, I often felt guilty because I was having such a good time and I couldn't believe I was allowed to make a living, first of all, listening to this music that I loved and writing about it. And there is something bizarre about spending your day exploring the obsessions of your adolescence. But as you get older, you want to do different things. At first, you're sort of delivering yourself of everything you know, and a part of your early writing; and I notice this in young critics all the time and I'm certainly guilty of this, is that there is a bit of showing off. Because you just entered the stage and you want to prove that you have something. So, sometimes you are making statements that are louder than they need to be; ‘this is too many masterpieces,’ and ‘this is beneath contempt,’ and you're not really dealing with art in the right proportion.

For me, one way it changed was that I was primarily concerned with live performance for many years. I loved writing about recordings, but I was out there on average four nights a week for the first 15 years, I would say, when I was at the “Voice.” And most of the pieces that I did were about what I had heard live. And I had invented this job for myself at the “Voice.” It didn't really exist in any other publication.

I never really wanted to be a daily critic who goes out every night and writes 300 word reviews, I wanted to write essays. And that gave me the luxury to be able to go out and if it was lousy, I could just say, well the hell with that, I’ll go to hear something else, or, I'll go tomorrow night; I as writing for a weekly. And I only wanted to write about things that interested me as a writer as well as, as a listener.

But then, my daughter was born in the late '80's, and suddenly I started resenting being out. I wanted being home; I wanted to be able to put her to sleep. You know, you don't get those chances again. And so without even realizing it at first, I started going out less and I started doing more and more columns about recordings. In the course of that I began—my aesthetic changed a lot I think because, first of all, I was exploring a lot of recordings that I thought I knew cold, but as you get older they change as you change and you begin to hear different things. So, that was one. And I still wrote live about important concerts and certainly festivals.

But at the same time, something else changed with me and that's this; the “Village Voice,” once I had got my column, after I'd been there for a year, I had a column for 30 years and I wrote it every other week. Eighteen hundred words for the most part and occasionally down to 1,600 or something like that. It was my page and nobody ever told me how to fill it. After a while, you begin to realize that spending 1,800 words, telling people not to buy a recording that they've never heard of in the first place, is stupid. It's a waste of your time, it doesn't tell the reader anything. So, I became much more of an enthusiast. I became much more of a critic who wants to tell you, "You gotta hear this!" That's what I kept looking for.

Now, I listen to things blind. I have an assistant and she puts – I have one of those CD players that you can put five discs in. She puts the discs in and keeps the boxes in the other room and I go through them with the remote and if I see something I like and usually I recognize it, but frequently I don’t, and in that way, frequently you're surprised. People that you think, I don't want to bother with, will sometimes grab you, and other times, well, it can go either way.

Question: Do you worry more about positive or negative reviews? 

Gary Giddins: I worry far more about negative reviews than positive ones. If I'm reviewing a record, man, I play that record to death, which is ironic in a way because if I review a concert I feel very confident in myself, certainly at his point, and have for most of my career. You're only hearing it once and then you go to your typewriter and you write the review.

But with a record, I never do that. I have to play the record over and over again. And if I don't like it, I have to really kind of come to grips with what is it I don't like and articulate it. When I teach criticism, the first thing I say, and this sometimes pisses off younger—I mean, students, is that, opinions are the least part of criticism. We've all had the experience of going with a friend to a movie or a concert and you leave the theater and one of you loved it and one of you hated it, and that doesn't mean that one of you is an idiot. That's the way things work.

Now, the question is, not who is right, because there is no right. The question is how you articulate it. That's what criticism comes into play. There are reviews that are clearly wrong. Dr. Johnson's famous Life of Savage, he's clearly wrong about the value of Savage. But it's one of the great works in English literature. You can learn more about the artistic expression and what the poet does and how to write about art from that than any number of guys who are terrible writers, who have no original ideas, but who say yes, "Hamlet" is a wonderful play. It's a meaningless statement.

So, it's all about first of all being candid and honest, letting nothing else interfere with the perception of the work, and then finding a means of articulation that somehow makes the work come alive and if you dislike it, it gives your argument some validity.

That’s why criticism ultimately at some degree is about the writer and not the subject. It's very easy if everybody else says, "He's a genius," to echo that, but then you're not functioning as a critic or as a writer in any meaningful way. You've got to take the risk of being wrong. 

But my feeling, of course, is that if you're genuinely candid and expressive then you're never wrong, even when you are wrong.

Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen