Blowin’ Hot and Cool:
What follows is a kind of soundtrack to Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics, a guide to audio examples of collaboration and contention between musicians and critics—critics serving variously as record producers, liner note writers, and instigators of the debates that give the music cultural and historical resonance.
Recorded by John Hammond, the jazz talent scout/
When Duke Ellington premiered the suite Black, Brown, and Beige at Carnegie Hall in 1943, several critics, including John Hammond, assailed the work—which Ellington called a “tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America”—as a heretical grasping for symphonic significance in violation of jazz’s “authentic” folk roots. Ellington, deeply invested in the work’s narrative theme as well as its composed concert form, was shaken by this criticism and shelved the piece for many years. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, pp. 52-55) In 1958, Ellington came back to Black, Brown, and Beige for a Columbia LP recording that featured alternate takes of the suite’s key movements, including several of “Come Sunday,” sung with operatic majesty by gospel matriarch Mahalia Jackson. Most of the critics—including Hammond—raved. One dissenting voice was that of the great African American novelist/critic Ralph Ellison, who—after hearing a live performance of “Come Sunday” at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival—deemed Ellington’s treatment of a Sunday black church service “impressionistic” rather than authentic, echoing the earlier strain of Ellington criticism. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, pp. 238-9)
This wrenching, anguished version of “Lover Man” has been called Parker’s most poetic statement on record. Parker himself was incensed that Dial producer Ross Russell released the track, feeling that it caught him playing beneath his abilities; he later threatened physical vengeance against Russell. The record was cut at a July 1946 session during which Parker was pumped with alcohol, inferior-quality narcotics, and an emergency dose of phenobarbital that Russell secured from a psychiatrist who was the brother of his business partner. Later that night Parker underwent an emotional breakdown, and Russell intervened to have him committed to Camarillo State Hospital. Parker accused Russell of doing so as leverage to force him to renew his breached Dial contract. The tunes Parker recorded in a February 1947 Dial session after his Camarillo release—“Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” “Cheers,” “Stupendous,” and “Carvin the Bird,” all also included on this Jazz Classics CD—have struck many listeners as his most joyous and optimistic. Parker died in 1955 at age thirty-four. Russell, also an important jazz critic and historian, wrote The Sound (1960), a novel based loosely on his vexed relationship with Parker, and Bird Lives! (1973), the first full-length Parker biography. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, pp. 299-338)
Rudi Blesh, one of the most stalwart partisans of traditional New Orleans jazz, claimed in his 1946 book Shining Trumpets that jazz had reached its pinnacle in 1926 and had been in decline ever since. Throughout the 1940s, Blesh organized concerts and produced records by traditional jazz players like trumpeter Thomas “Mutt” Carey, trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory, and clarinetist Albert Nicholas. For ten months in 1947, Blesh hosted a radio program, called This Is Jazz, which originated in WOR’s New York studios for broadcast on the Mutual Radio Network, the Canadian Broadcasting Commission, and the State Department’s short-wave frequencies. The program usually featured live performances by Blesh’s favored revivalist musicians. In a change of format for a couple of broadcasts in September 1947, a group of Blesh’s traditionalists engaged in a “battle of the bands”—“Bands for Bonds” was the patriotic advertising pitch—with a group of bebop musicians organized by Barry Ulanov, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lennie Tristano, and Max Roach. Ulanov and Leonard Feather, co-editors of Metronome magazine, were the foremost critical champions of bebop. The Philology recordings feature Blesh’s and Ulanov’s bands playing their own versions of the same tunes—a striking sonic tableau that harkens back to 1940s radio listeners who were tracking the traditionalist-modernist debate in Metronome, Record Changer, and other organs of the jazz press. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, pp. 130-144)
In his book The Jazz Tradition, Martin Williams declared “Blue Seven” a “masterpiece” and “one of the great pleasures of recorded jazz,” arguing that tenor saxophonist Rollins was unexcelled at sculpting long solos that amount to “spontaneous orchestrations.” A similar characterization of “Blue Seven” was rendered in far more technical detail by Gunther Schuller in an essay titled “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” first published in the inaugural edition of the Jazz Review (edited by Williams and Nat Hentoff) in 1958. Schuller’s essay quickly became a landmark of jazz criticism, its exhaustively close reading of Rollins’s performance heralding an intellectually dense style of jazz writing similar to literary New Criticism. The essay gained infamy for another reason: Rollins read the essay and found himself stymied by its exalted claims for his mastery, which factored into his decision to withdraw from public performance for several years. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, pp. 180-81, 198-99)
Sonny Rollins’s self-imposed exile from the public jazz world coincided with the rise to prominence of Ornette Coleman, a darling of the Jazz Review critical circle. It was as a scholarship student (along with trumpeter Don Cherry) at the Lenox School of Jazz in the summer of 1959 that Coleman first received the critical attention that anointed him the next great figure in jazz. “What Ornette Coleman is doing on alto will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively,” Martin Williams wrote in “A Letter from Lenox, Massachusetts” for the Jazz Review. What he was doing on alto was improvising on moods, pitches, and melodic contours rather than on chords, with deep personal feeling rooted in the southwestern blues. The tapes for The Shape of Jazz to Come were edited in Lenox with the help of Gunther Schuller, who praised Coleman’s musical conception as one “uncluttered by conventional bar lines, conventional chord changes, and conventional ways of blowing or fingering a saxophone.” Coleman’s sidemen were crucial to this new conception on “Lonely Woman,” especially bassist Charlie Haden, who abandons a traditional harmonic bass line accompaniment in favor of a pedal-point thrum that vibrates into the seams of the melody. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, pp. 216-25)
Straight Ahead, recorded and annotated by critic Nat Hentoff, was intended to fortify Abbey Lincoln’s reputation as a premier jazz singer. Backed by top-drawer players (including Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron, Art Davis, and Lincoln’s soon-to-be husband Max Roach) , Lincoln chose material that reflected her studies in African American culture—“When Malindy Sings” is based on the poem of that name by 19th-century black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar— and her commitment to the African and African American freedom struggle. Hentoff’s liner notes discuss Lincoln’s transformation from a “sexy, supper-club chanteuse” to a straight-ahead jazz singer who has found her voice out of a “renewed and urgent pride in herself as a Negro.” The LP vividly foreshadowed both the black pride movement and the contentious racial politics of the 1960s. After critic Ira Gitler accused Lincoln of posing as a “professional Negro,” Down Beat empaneled a group of musicians and critics for a discussion of “Racial Prejudice in Jazz,” which was published in the magazine in two installments in 1962. Lincoln challenged Gitler’s premise that art should be apolitical, asserting that “all art must be propaganda; all art must have an attitude; all art must reflect the times in which you live.” Though such rhetoric soon became au courant among an increasing number of politically-aware jazz musicians, Lincoln herself found it difficult to book performance dates, and largely withdrew from the jazz world between 1962 and 1972. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, pp. 255-57)
This LP brings together two of the most important figures in 1960s black culture, saxophonist John Coltrane and critic/poet/essayist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). This live recording of “Afro-Blue” captures Coltrane’s keening, lyrical soprano sax in bracing counterpoint with drummer Elvin Jones’s thundering polyrhythms. Baraka’s book Blues People, published the same year, would become one of the most widely read jazz books in history. His liner note for Coltrane Live at Birdland exemplifies the writing style and sensibility Baraka introduced to jazz letters. “The long tag of ‘Afro-Blue,’ with Elvin thrashing and cursing behind Trane’s line is unbelievable,” Baraka wrote. “Beautiful has nothing to do with it, but it is. (I got up and danced while writing these notes, screaming at Elvin to cool it.)” Among those entranced by Baraka’s contribution to Coltrane Live at Birdland was Stanley Crouch: “I discovered Jones as an essayist in the liner notes of Coltrane Live at Birdland, which was the first time I had seen that kind of poetic sensibility brought to the discussion of jazz. It was as new to me as the way Coltrane and his band were reinventing the 4/4/ swing, blues, ballads, and Afro-Hispanic rhythms that are the four elements essential to jazz.” Though Crouch later would become one of Baraka’s sternest critics, his own writing style remains indebted to Baraka’s work from the early 1960s. (See Blowin’ Hot and Cool, 264-79, 339-57)
No jazz artist was as openly contemptuous toward critics, or to ideas about a jazz “tradition” or jazz canon, as Miles Davis. And yet Davis developed close friendships with a few jazz critics, especially Ralph J. Gleason. (“GIVE ME BACK my friend,” Davis said in a Rolling Stone tribute to Gleason after his death by a heart attack in 1975.) Like Davis, Gleason prided himself on being “hip” to new musical and cultural stirrings, convinced that jazz would die—and deserved to—if it didn’t absorb new ideas and court new audiences. Davis had cut his teeth on bebop, pioneered cool, and now was steering jazz toward a rapprochement with rock, with its electric instruments and backbeat grooves. Gleason had started writing about jazz as a college student swing enthusiast in the late 1930s , chronicled jazz’s incessant transformations through the 1940s and 1950s, and now—as co-founder of Rolling Stone—was struggling gamely to bridge the generation gap between jazz’s adult audience and rock’s youth culture. Just as the heavy reverb on Davis’s opening trumpet lines of “Bitches Brew” gives the recording a cutting-edge techno aura, so Gleason’s liner note resounds with space Age of Aquarius wonderment: “This music is. This music is new. This music is new music and it hits me like an electric shock, and the word ‘electric’ is interesting because the music is to some degree electric music either by virtue of what you can do by tapes and the process by which it is preserved on tape or by the use of electricity in the actual making of the sounds themselves.”
Many jazz musicians—Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, to name just a few—have written their own liner notes, while some have written thoughtful criticism and scholarship for jazz magazines and academic journals. The contemporary South Asian-American pianist/composer Vijay Iyer joins this tradition of the musician-as-critic. Gary Giddins has dubbed Iyer “one of the most original and accomplished young pianists in years,” marveling at how Iyer aligns himself with a long tradition of percussive keyboardists (Ellington, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Taylor, Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, McCoy Tyner), yet “doesn’t sound like any of them.” Iyer’s distinctive sound is matched by an equally fresh musical conception born of a global multicultural cultural imagination. On his CD Blood Sutra, Iyer uses the liner to explain the project’s title: “The word ‘blood’ conjures up a series of symbolically charged associations: health, kinship, identity, race, violence, liquidity, desire. This music concerns itself with these interrelated concepts. ‘Sutra’ is a Sanskrit term literally meaning ‘thread,’ and it is used to denote ancient sacred and scholarly texts on the healing arts, mathematics, yoga, Buddhist practice, love, and many other subjects. Such texts are often pithy, aphoristic, and intended for contemplation. This album is our multi-threaded conversation on the densely clotted subject of blood, our fluid process of associative meaning, our flowing, pulsating collective meditation.”
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Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics
©2006, 494 pages
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 0-226-28922-2
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