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Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics Hardcover – June 21, 2006
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In Blowin’ Hot and Cool, John Gennari provides a definitive history of jazz criticism from the 1920s to the present. The music itself is prominent in his account, as are the musicians—from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Roscoe Mitchell, and beyond. But the work takes its shape from fascinating stories of the tradition’s key critics—Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins, John Hammond, and Stanley Crouch, among many others. Gennari is the first to show the many ways these critics have mediated the relationship between the musicians and the audience—not merely as writers, but in many cases as producers, broadcasters, concert organizers, and public intellectuals as well.
For Gennari, the jazz tradition is not so much a collection of recordings and performances as it is a rancorous debate—the dissonant noise clamoring in response to the sounds of jazz. Against the backdrop of racial strife, class and gender issues, war, and protest that has defined the past seventy-five years in America, Blowin’ Hot and Cool brings to the fore the most vital critics of jazz and the role they have played not only in defining the history of jazz but also in shaping its significance in American culture and life.
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But, I digress. I see a lot of unfavorable reviews on "Blowin'Hot and Cool" but feel there is insufficient appreciation of the scholarily and rigorous approach Mr Gennari took with his subject. First without this book we would not have an objective record of jazz critcism within the American culture. As a person myself forever reacting cerebrally to the different individual musicians and their approach, I entirely lack any musical education. Even to try tapping out a good sympathetic beat sets my son's ears on edge. None the less , this book was a mine of critical history without any of the intellectual or pretentious snobbery with which much jazz criticism has been written. I can appreciate some readers may feel a few sections of the book were a little dense, but I took that as the author doing his level best to carefully and faithfully portray the subject's motives. To my mind that book exactly fitted how a writer's work should be "scientifically" examined, that is, agnostically. Laying out in background what the state was of the particular art at the time the subject writer wrote. I think the psychology of the writer Mr. Gennari is writing about, as expressed in their work, should stand unemcumbered by insertions of slings and arrows by later pundits whose ability to critique another's work comes only from the hindsight of new research. Here is an exagerrated and made up piece of criticism to illustrate my point. " While Freud did keep up to date with his psychiatric peers he was, of course, unable to read our contemporary practioners. Had he been in a position to study Stephen Hawkins in particular. I think it would be true to say Freud would have completely rejected his own and Jung's work, on dream interpretation, as completely false in 1913. Instead he would have researched string theory and discovered five new dimensions. So Freud is to be discounted for his failure to carry out proper scientific analysis of his theories and thus for holding back critical thinking by 100 years."
However juicy the target is for the latter day critic I think Mr. Gennari was true to all the people he wrote about and gave them each their properly just desserts. Having accomplished that it would now be OK for him to write - which he probably has done - another book putting his own point of view out there on jazz in the culture to include being more waspish, if he felt the need, about a particular crtic's oeuvre. I think literature generally needed a book model such as produced by Mr. Gennari. It resonates of Greek philosophical rigor. That's my two cents, bearing in mind that the dollar does continue to drop in value as we speak.
The book hits a few speed bumps along the way (I thought, for instance, that discussions about gender and jazz were stretched and the discussion of the psychosexual motivations of jazz collectors was overwrought). And the author's even tone throughout is lost at the end as he doesn't hide his contempt for certain 'conservative' critics But, overall, a very fine book and highly recommended.
Gennari starts with Leonard Feather and John Hammond, two critics with serious conflict of interest issues, both from a business perspective and from the standpoint of their strong social beliefs. Feather largely overcame his, while Hammond gave in to his temptation to judge a record by whether its label allowed unions in its pressing plants. Genneri spends much of his book focusing on the post WWII critics: Martin Williams, Nat Hentoff, Ralph Gleason, Gene Lees, Whitney Balliett and Marshall Sterns. He devotes a chapter to the radicals Amiri Baraka and Frank Kofsky and closes out with the new kids, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins and Albert Murray. There are some odd digressions: the cult of the (mostly British) record collectors; the Newport Jazz festival; Dial records producer and author Ross Russell's posthumous obsession with Charlie Parker.
There is something of a leftward slant. While the radical leftists such as Baraka and Kofsky are dismissed when they eventually wander away from music criticism for pure politics, Baraka is taken seriously for his work up to about 1964-65. On the other hand, hard conservatives such as Richard Sudhalter and James Lincoln Collier simply get the back of the hand. Gennari doesn't wear his politics on his sleeve, however; up to the last chapter you really have to read between the lines to get a sense of his drift. There is, however, a blast near the end when he slams the conservatives for their assertion that jazz historians have inflated the role of black musicians and ignored whites.
As I said above, this is a fascinating book for anyone who enjoys reading about jazz and an indispensable item for those interested in the history of jazz literature.