Weather Bird

REVIEW by Willard Manus

Gary Giddins, arguably our best jazz critic, has just published his long-awaited companion volume to The Definitive Biography For the Ages, his 1998 collection of reviews from the Village Voice. WEATHER BIRD--JAZZ AT THE DAWN OF ITS SECOND CENTURY (Oxford University Press) contains over 140 essays written over the past seven years. Again, most of these essays were published in the Voice, up until 2003, when Giddins decided to terminate his weekly jazz column.

"With the eradication of antitrust laws and the selling out of the FCC, not to mention the retailing of art to corporate interests...jazz has all but disappeared from commercial TV and radio," the author writes. "I concluded some time ago that I could not justify using the space allotted to me in the Voice or other venues to caution readers against records they've never heard of. Much of my time was spent in searching for performances and recordings I liked well enough to explore in essay form and that exemplified the art's liveliness. As a result, enthusiasm became a safe harbor and disputation a matter of personal grousing, except once in a while, usually when covering festivals that guarantee excuses to pick nits."

Does this mean that Giddins feels jazz is dead? Not really. "Ailments granted, jazz could never be sick unto death," he insists. "There is no indication that the music or the desire to make it will vanish. A stream of new blood enters the jazz body annually. The best young musicians invariably learn to make a living at it. The constancy of jazz's past...guarantees an unending succession of players who want to master the idiom and get plenty of encouragment in school and from the media's occasional obeisance to America's Classical music (a phrase that doesn't seem so flattering now that the evidence is QED and jazz players are less in need of respect than work). They aim to make their own contributions and extend jazz history. If they differ from their forebears in having learned jazz from records and in classes rather than on the street or as apprentices in big bands, they embody the same spark of obstinate originality and defiant pleasure. The notion that jazz is dead or could die in the foreseeable future is predicated on one of two ideas. It is a narrow musical style with fixed parameters, or a passing fashion that has had its day. A century of development puts paid to both.

"Indeed, the jazz press seems more upset by the obstacles than the musicians, whose optimism ensures jazz's endurance as something more than a museum treasure. For them, authenticity isn't an issue of style but of competence and imagination, as summed up by an observation once made by John Steinbeck. 'Great reward can be used to cover the loss of honesty (among other artists) but not with jazz players...Let a filthy kid, unknown and unheard of and unbacked sit in--and if he can do it--he is recognized and accepted instantly. Do you know of any other field where this is true?' Put another way, it all depends on what you know."

Giddins, who received national prominence for his perceptive comments on Ken Burns' Jazz series for PBS, shows his range in WEATHER BIRD. The 632-page book contains reviews and profiles of such musicians as Dave Brubeck, Benny Carter, Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Cassandra Wilson, Tony Bennett and many others. Although he often looks back in time, he also pays attention to contemporary jazz and such promising young artists as pianist Jason Moran, whom Giddins calls "the musician of his genration."

Moran "may have little if any chance of cracking the multinational monopolization of mass media, but he embodies a way of negotiating the margin without succumbing to traditionalism and nostalgia--something rock musicians will have to master when the mantle of classicism falls on them," Giddins concludes.