The Gig at 100

Nate Chinen's JT column reaches a milestone

Some milestones loom in the distance, dawning stately and slow. Others have a way of sneaking up on you from behind. I can’t decide which example applies more accurately to this column, the 100th installment of The Gig. Best, perhaps, to call it a draw and move along—but not before a few thoughts on what’s gone down in this space since the May 2004 issue of JazzTimes, when then-editor Christopher Porter graciously introduced yours truly as a jazz critic with “the eclectic tastes of today’s generation.”

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Nate Chinen at JJA awards in NYC

I was 27. Honored and intimidated to be joining a columnist roster of Nat Hentoff and Gary Giddins (and previously Stanley Crouch), I took my first shaky steps with a rumination on the latest crop of jazz vocalists and their fealty to the sound of singers past. “Youth may provide the spark for their success,” I wrote, “but it’s precocity that lights the flame.” My point seemed to be that the irreducible benefits of time and age could produce a deeper luster than any blush of bright-eyed novelty. If there was a creeping self-referentiality somewhere in that line of argument, I doubt it was intentional.

And yet here we are, a decade older and at least a smidge wiser, doing our best to take stock with a gimlet eye. In recent weeks I’ve foraged through back issues of the mag to learn what, exactly, this column has been about. Not surprisingly, given that it’s your classic learn-on-the-job situation, my research doesn’t point to a single conclusion.

The Gig hasn’t just been about giving a little dap to the masters, or heralding the up-and-comers, even if I’ve done plenty of both over the years. It hasn’t been about some flippant form of social anthropology, though I suppose the jazzbro, as a term of judgment and endearment, will live on as one of my most killin’ choruses. It was never meant as a space for eulogies, though I’ll stand by an assortment of tributes to artist manager John Levy (April 2012), drummer Pete La Roca Sims (March ’13), trumpet guru Laurie Frink (Oct. ’13) and poets Robert Creeley (July ’05) and Amiri Baraka (March ’14). The column was really never about making lists, despite the tradition I call the Year in Gigs, and the occasional scourge of a paragraph like this one.

Along the way I’ve also paused to commemorate noteworthy events, like the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival after Hurricane Katrina, in 2006. And my recent archival dig reminded me that I’ve devoted a lot of verbiage to specific critiques of the institutions involved with jazz: the National Endowment for the Arts, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Grammy Awards, Chamber Music America, Oprah Winfrey. (In Ms. Winfrey’s case, it was an absence of jazz involvement that inspired the complaint.) Emergent technology has led me to columns about file sharing, crowdsourcing, web streaming and the ethics of a critic’s Facebook feed. In my more desperate moments, I tried to tease out parallels between jazz and sports, or stand-up comedy, or video games. Let’s not even talk about the column that began with this thesis: “No jazz musician was ever more mythologized, sexually, than Miles Davis.”

You could fairly say that The Gig, in the aggregate, has been a series of snapshots of a changing jazz landscape, sometimes framed in closeup and sometimes as a panorama. You could say, a bit less fancifully, that I tried to write about jazz culture as it was happening, however it made sense to me. (Often, it should be noted, under some form of mild duress. Evan Haga, who followed Chris Porter as editor, can attest that I never missed a column, though I’ve muffed my share of deadlines.) And over the years, working by feel, I came to a more intuitive grasp of the column’s unique potential: as a forum both analytical and personal, quixotic at times but with its heart in the right place.

Looking back, the columns of which I’m proudest are those that made an impassioned argument, for or against. That’s a broader umbrella than it might seem, encompassing both “Where Are the Female Jazz Critics?” (Oct. ’11) and a celebration of the magisterial singer-songwriter Andy Bey (Dec. ’13). A column about the recordings John Coltrane made at the Village Vanguard in 1961, pitched under the pretense of their 50th anniversary, struck a rare balance—rare for me, anyway—of critical appraisal and first-person reflection. Writing about Come Sunday, the second duo album by pianist Hank Jones and bassist Charlie Haden, I found an excuse to revisit their first one, Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs, and explore the poignant current of mortality that runs through their partnership. In 2011, when the Grammys retired the categories for Best Latin Jazz Album and Best Contemporary Jazz Album, I argued that Best Improvised Jazz Solo should have taken the hit instead; my logic still strikes me as sound, and a fair illustration of what a column is supposed to do.

Ten years ago, when I learned that JazzTimes was taking me on as a columnist, my girlfriend threw me a cocktail party at our West Village apartment. We’re now married with two young daughters, the older of which got her earliest musical education while I was researching a column about Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology. (I’d feed her a bottle in the crook of one arm while taking notes with the other, as a century of recorded music rambled on.) I’d like to think I have grown tremendously in this space, as in many other aspects of my life. Yet if I’ve learned anything over the last 99 installments of The Gig, it’s the foundational value of curiosity, which plays no favors between young and old, but has a way of reminding you how much you have yet to know.

Originally published in September 2014

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