RIDING ON A BLUE NOTE: A Jazz Chronicle by Gary Giddins


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Giddins' modest strengths as a writer on jazz include his eclectic taste, his sense of music history, and his avoidance of an aggressively hip tone--so this collection of reviews, essays, and interviews (published in the Village Voice since 1973) is more welcome than some such gatherings. True, many of the reviews here are too much about one specific performance to stand up well to hard-cover compilation; too many of the retrospectives lapse into mere annotated discographies; and Giddins brings little that's fresh to pieces on such familiar figures as Sinatra (the contradictory ""embodiment of good taste, garrulous vulgarity, and bourgeois mush""), Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Ethel Waters, or Bing Crosby. But there's value in his close-up appreciation of Duke Ellington's late works, his review of Irving Berlin's vast achievement (acknowledging Alec Wilder's definitive essay in American Popular Song), his analysis of Sarah Vaughan's erratic performances, and his enthusiasm for Sonny Rollins (""for me no other living musician operates on Armstrong's pinnacle""). Also distinctive are looks at lesser-known careers--like those of stride-pianist Donald Lambert (1904-1962), idiosyncratic singer Professor Longhair, trumpeter Red Rodney (an episodic little biography--through drug addiction, ups and downs), or Dutch saxophonist-composer Willem Breuker. And Giddins also keeps an eye on some key jazz-world issues: the matter of white artists lifting from blacks (""Economically and socially, minstrelsy is more often than not unjust; aesthetically, it is the key with which some of our more intelligent white performers unlocked the doors to their own individualities""); the exploitation of artists by producers (a Wes Montgomery profile); and the question of sellingout--as personified by that most tasteful of sell-outs, George Benson. There's little stylishness here, and when Giddins strains for eloquence he is usually embarrassing (Charlie Parker ""is a knife blade, a beautiful and terrible Daedalus, flying straight for the sun's eye""). But, for jazz enthusiasts--a solid, middle-of-the-road viewpoint that's good to have around.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press