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Bob Blumenthal: Life Lessons in Print

Interview with author of text for new photo book on Sonny Rollins talks about his career as a writer and about his passion for the printed word

Critic Bob Blumenthal and bassist Christian McBride, right, engage in some friendly sparring during a wide-ranging discussion about jazz.
Saxophone Colossus book cover

Bob Blumenthal began writing jazz criticism in 1969 while attending college. He was a contributing editor of The Boston Phoenix (1969-89) and a contributor to The Boston Globe (1990-2002), and has also contributed to such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Down Beat, JazzTimes and Jazziz. Between 2002 and 2009, he served as Creative Consultant for Marsalis Music, the record label founded by saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Blumenthal has also provided radio and television commentary and served as a panelist for several public and private arts organizations. He has written hundreds of album notes and won two Grammy awards for best album notes for collections by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Blumenthal has been critic-in-residence at Burlington, Vermont’s Discover Jazz Festival for the past ten years, and designed a five-part video jazz history for the Montreal Jazz Festival He contributed essays to Jazz: Photographs of the Masters (Jacques Lowe), Jazz: The First Hundred Years (John Edward Hasse, editor) and The Oxford Companion to Jazz (Bill Kirchner, editor). Blumenthal’s first book, Jazz: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America’s Music was published in 2007 and hailed as “the single best compact introduction to jazz currently available” by the Wall Street Journal. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Journalists Association in 2005. His current book, Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins, in collaboration with photographer John Abbott, has just been published by Abrams.

Blumenthal spoke with JT about the Rollins book and his long career as a jazz critic and author.

What was first piece you wrote about music or jazz?

The first piece I wrote about jazz and the first published piece about jazz I wrote happened within two weeks of each other. The first published piece was a review of the Boston Globe Jazz Festival which at that time was a Friday night and Saturday night concert in 1969 at the Hines auditorium. I was a senior in college and I had a radio show and had been recruited by the editor of what is now the Boston Phoenix to review that festival. He had listened to my show and knew I knew something about jazz. About a week or two earlier as a paper for a course on Erikson’s Life Cycle, I wrote a paper on Charlie Parker from an Eriksonian point of view. It was my first writing about jazz.

I wrote for Boston After Dark, which became the Boston Phoenix, from 1969 until 1989. Then I wrote for The Globe from 1990 until 2002. For about six years before they [Boston Globe] asked me to contribute on a regular basis, I was their guest critic for a week every summer. By then the Globe Jazz Festival was a week long and it was in June. They had gotten in the habit of getting guest critics to do objective reviews of the concerts. But because they were producing them, they wanted a review in the next morning. That’s where I learned to meet deadlines – that one week a year for about five years before I started writing for them.

You were the jazz writer/critic for the Boston Globe for many years. Since you left the Globe you worked for a few years as a consultant with Marsalis Music. What did you learn being on the other side, so to speak?

I think what I learned is that the recording industry was a particularly difficult industry to navigate in if you were not a large large player and it got more difficult as time went on. And that the technology has provided a lot of alternatives for people without giving clear direction how this fits into a business model. It’s the same with journalism and criticism, I think. As the technology changes, people understand it’s changing but aren’t quite sure where it’s going. I said in my previous book I that in the year 2000 nobody would have predicted the iPod. And yet it appeared within two or three years and it radically transformed everybody’s relationship to recorded music. And it’s hardly the last word.

It makes you wonder about the Kindle and iPad and their impact on the printed word.

I feel fortunate that I collaborated with John Abbott on Saxophone Colossus, because you can’t just reduce his photos to something you can call up on your computer screen and get the sense of them. Same with paintings. So my words got dragged along into my medium of choice.

I love the feel of a book, even the way pages are unevenly cut.

There was something about the LP and its program limited to 20 minutes per side; how 40 minutes of recorded music is close to ideal for what your attention span can bear in a non-live setting; the way the cover art can be appreciated that gets lost when a cover is reduced to CD size; and the advantage of being able to read the liner notes on the back before buying the record.

They call that engagement now.

I can see the benefits of digitizing files and taking things and reorganizing them into the sequence in which they were recorded. With three different sources, you can make a program all in one place. But as far as reading goes, I find nothing advantageous, except the ability to find something quickly. It seems that the conversation at parties these days is about your digital reading device or your phone. I have a cell phone because Branford gave it to me as a gift with a note, “Bob, welcome to the 20th century.” Which was right on the nose for me. As long as I can make a phone call, get a phone call and it will keep a message, that’s all I want. I don’t want to play games. I don’t want to take a picture. And I definitely don’t want to read a book on my phone.

How did you get involved with the Sonny Rollins book?

Actually, John Abbott initiated the whole thing. He had intended to do a book of photographs about Sonny and he asked me if I would write an introduction. I talked to him about whether there weren’t alternative ways to do the kind of book he wanted. John has taken some incredible photographs and he was looking for the opportunity to have them seen in good quality reproduction. At the same time, when you think about these sorts of coffeetable books, whether that was the best way to approach it or whether there were alternatives where John could still see his photographs treated properly and might be of more interest to a larger number of people.

Explain the unique thematic structure to the book.

I think the challenge for John before he even asked me to write an introduction, and what became our joint challenge, was to find a format that would allow us to say what we wanted to say about Sonny Rollins. In thinking about the various ideas, you can get very abstract. You can get very chronological. We knew it was not going to be a biography, because John was photographing Sonny for about 25 years. And I said, “Get ready, John for the ‘Where’s the mohawk photo?’ question.” We knew we weren’t going to do that [do a biography]. Clearly John has been inspired by Sonny as a visual artist. And Sonny has inspired me in many ways. I don’t play an instrument, but I try to follow his example. We both felt that we had a lot to say about him. Fortunately, it occurred to me that Saxophone Colossus in its five tracks allowed me to say just about everything I wanted to say about Sonny Rollins. And say it in a way that might make more sense to people who don’t already know his music, as a way to apply to listen to him, while still having things to say to people who know his music very well.

The album Saxophone Colossus and its five tracks provided us with our outline. We basically decided that we would have five section of the book. The title of each section would be the track title from the LP. I would write an essay about some parts of Sonny Rollins’ music that were suggested to me by this track. So the first chapter, “St. Thomas,” seemed the place to talk about his whole rhythm concept, about his importance as a rhythmic innovator, about his relationship to music from the Caribbean, about his relationship with drummers generally and Max Roach specifically. Once I had thought a chapter through, the challenge became to see if the other things I hadn’t discussed yet could be addressed in this format. And I had to find a place for some things. There’s not an example of the long unaccompanied solo cadenza that he’s become identified with. There’s a little four bar cadenza at the end of “Moritat.” So I said, Chapter Four is where we’re going to have to talk about that. But everything else to me was suggested very logically once I saw that the album could provide an outline for a verbal portrait of Sonny. I would write a chapter, send it to John and he would let that guide him if possible in deciding which photographs to place in which part of the book, which photographs to include and which photographs to exclude. John could be more specific about this than I can, but he had many more images than the book had space for. So we had to find a way to make the choices and if my chapters helped I feel like I contributed in some small but very tiny measure to his part of the book.

How long did it take to write each chapter?

I have a hard time answering that question. I might say that this one I did in about four days. They’re not enormously long chapters. But that was done after a lot of listening and note-taking. The interviews are all drawn from interviews I’d done with him over the years. One is as early as 1973. I think I had about a half dozen interviews that had appeared in one place or another. And then when I thought I had all my information together but before I wrote anything, I had what I would call a fact-checking interview with Sonny. “Were you allowed to choose the musicians who recorded on Saxophone Colossus or did the label choose them for you?” Stuff like that. The real quotations are from interviews I had done with him in the past. I would say once we had the idea, the writing began to generate, but actually writing the thing took about two months.

You’ve written a lot about Sonny Rollins. How did you come up with new material or a fresh perspective?

Part of it was summarizing my feelings and thinking about how they changed over time. Saxophone Colossus was recorded 54 years ago. One of the things I wanted to make sure I did was not just make it appear that there hasn’t been another half-century of music and that the music hasn’t changed. The danger of choosing the structure was at least to suggest that we were only talking about a fixed point in time rather than about his whole career. Knowing that challenge was part of what I was doing was helpful. It’s funny. One of the first pieces I wrote about Sonny Rollins was in the early ’70s. I had been writing for about four or five years and it was part of the two-fer era – the two LP reissues from Prestige, Milestone, Blue Note, et al. There were several that involved Sonny Rollins’ music. I wrote an article and I talked about how now that I was criticizing music, I got things I couldn’t get enthusiastic about, I rarely got something I’d get wildly enthusiastic about and I’d get in periods where I’d say, “Gee, if they only put out A Night at the Village Vanguard when I was reviewing stuff for the first time. If only they had put out The Freedom Suite, wouldn’t that be great?” So now they’re reissuing all this stuff and now I’m a critic. Can I treat it critically and does it hold up to the enthusiasm I had for it when I was young. It did then and that kind of reassured me that that wasn’t going to be a problem.

Did you worry about repeating yourself?

When you have written so much locally, you might say that you may have said it before, but a lot of people haven’t heard it. And the other thing is that you do inevitably change over time. Anytime I go back and read anything I’ve written, and it goes back a long way and there’s a lot of it, I always feel I would have done it a little bit differently. That coupled with the fact that there’s more and more music. And anything I talk about is in the context of Rollins’ career that’s lasted over 60 years, I think that means that it’s going to be different, because I still have to sit down and make it the best it can be from beginning to end. So even if there are sentences that might have appeared somewhere else, it still has to work and be cohesive.

What did you learn about Sonny that you didn’t already know? Were there any revelations about the man and his music during this process?

I really feel fortunate in that I have become acquainted with Sonny Rollins, having interviewed him so much, having visited him at his home on three or four occasions. I have had more opportunity to form an accurate idea of what Sonny Rollins is about as a person as well as a musician than most people. I was reassured to see that he hasn’t changed.

In an interview I did recently with him at Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, he said a great thing to me that to me is the essence of him and my admiration for him. I said, “Would you explain to everybody how when Gunther Schuller had written this article and everybody was saying that you are the greatest and you are the future of music and jazz, that you could just disappear for two years?” He said, “Well, don’t believe what people say when you know otherwise.” I learned that lesson from him when I was fourteen years old and reading about him being on the bridge. I thought, `Here is someone who has taken “To thine own self be true” to heart. That was a pretty good life lesson.

Sonny Rollins may be one of the only people whose presence I find intimidating, yet he is a very humble man. Do you feel the same way or do you get used to Sonny the man?

People have said to me, “I’m interviewing Sonny Rollins. Do you have any advice?” All I ever say is, “He’s very thoughtful and if there’s a longer pause than you expect between your question and his answer, don’t try to rush him. He’s just trying to collect his thoughts and make sure that he gives what is his honest opinion.”

The first time I interviewed him, the photographer showed up and Sonny pulled out his horn and I had a tape recorder going and he started playing. I said, “Gee, do you want me to turn off the tape recorder?” I was surprised about how loose he could be about some things.

When you are in awe of somebody, it’s hard to get a completely level playing field. In the Coleman Hawkins chapter, he talks about it at the end of the chapter. That he always felt that he wasn’t Coleman Hawkins’ good friend who he would hang around with. In the book, he said that, “He was sort of a father figure, and I always approached him as my superior, not my equal.” I don’t want to put myself in that equation, but somebody that good who had a formative influence is always going to be revered in a certain way. But what better person to spend time writing about?

What jazz writers did you enjoy reading as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?

I have to say for just learning about music, there were four people who wrote liner notes that stuck in my mind and were ubiquitous and always had a lot of information. They were Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, Ralph Gleason and Ira Gitler. And, not from liner notes, but from other things they wrote at the time, Martin Williams and Dan Morgenstern. Then I discovered Andre Hodeir. I think I touched all the important bases.

What jazz writers influenced you specifically?

None particularly, as far as a writing style. I always though Ralph Gleason was great at profiling people. Two of my favorite liner notes were his notes for Miles Davis’s Live at the Blackhawk and I think Dizzy Gillespie album called New Wave (Jazz Bossa Nova) . These were just profiles of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. They were so good that I once wrote a long profile of Dizzy Gillespie which takes place in part at the first JazzTimes Convention in 1979, when his autobiography came out that I think I even wrote, “Dedicated to Ralph J. Gleason” on the piece, because I was aspiring to do a profile that lived up to the ones he had done.

Then Dan Morgenstern, who wrote many liner notes in the later years, but who I discovered in the last issues of Metronome, wrote an article in one of them called “Rotating with Satchmo and Mingus” about going to hear Louis Armstrong and Charles Mingus in the same evening. While I was writing for the Globe in the late ’90s, I found that Ruby Braff and David Murray were in town on the same night. So Satchmo became Ruby Braff and Murray who had a kid named Mingus, they were the obvious parallels. And I wrote about Dan Morgenstern’s article as I wrote about these guys.

In either case, it wasn’t so much influencing my style of writing, but more the kinds of things I wanted in a piece about music. And not necessarily conventional approaches, but instead like putting disparate styles together in one article and see what might come of that.

As far as writing style, I don’t know that I’d cite anybody, to tell you the truth. I had less enthusiasm about Whitney Balliett than most people I know, and I learned from reading him that when you interview people you should try and keep their voice, rather than try and make Joe Turner sound like he attended Groton.

Which jazz writers do you enjoy reading now?

I always feel this is such a subjective answer, because I end up talking about people who are about my age and whom I’ve read for awhile. Gary Giddins and Francis Davis are the two that come to mind. I feel like part of that period of writing about music. I understand what influenced them and so I am very responsive to them as writers and critics. They’re people whose opinions I really find worth noting, especially if they’re writing about people I don’t know. Bill Milkowski, Howard Mandel, Gene Santoro and Ted Panken are also good examples of that. I really appreciate their knowledge and taste. I think of the people who do the tests, playing recordings for somebody to respond [Blindfold Test in Downbeat and Before & After in JazzTimes], I really like what Larry Appelbaum does for JazzTimes. I really enjoy Nate Chinen’s column in JazzTimes. I wish there were more columns. I guess there are, but they’re called blogs now.

What non-music books do you admire and find yourself rereading?

I have authors I read a lot of. I feel like there are all these books I haven’t read. My bookshelves are filled with books I think I’m going to re-read, but in truth, I still keep acquiring more and more. I like to read fiction. I know that sets me apart from a lot of people. I always joke that you can tell when they graduated from college by looking at their record collection, because they often stop buying. And I know a lot of people stop reading too. At the moment, I’m reading The Plot Against America, by Phillip Roth. The last novel I read before that was Dance Dance Dance by Murakami. Actually, he’s a jazz guy and there’s a lot of jazz in his books. He apparently wrote a book about jazz that has never been translated into English. They’re not necessarily my favorite authors, but just the ones I’m reading now. I also like a lot of mysteries, police procedurals and that type of novel.

As far as non-fiction, I’m more of a magazine reader than a book reader. The Nation and the New York Review of Books, which doesn’t mean that I won’t read a review of something that sounds real interesting and go out and buy it. I recently read The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse. So it’s a mixed bag.

I’ve been rereading books a bit more lately, though I regret when the ones I haven’t read really pile up.

Sometimes in rereading you discover things you didn’t notice before. It’s like jazz in that sense. One of the things I do in Vermont is a jazz listening group, which is sort of based on the premise of a book group, but I thought it was more effective. Because in my wife’s book club, they meet once a month, and it’s always a challenge to get the book read and sometimes the challenge isn’t met. In Burlington, what I do every year is pick an album, and we do a listening session. This year, because Sonny and Jim Hall were there, the album was The Bridge. On the web site it says, this is the album we’re going to discuss and it’s still available. Unlike a book group, where people fail to get through it once, you can listen to it multiple times. You can listen to other examples of the same artist. You can listen to other versions of the same tunes. On the web site, I come up with discussion questions, like they put in the back of paperbacks when they think book clubs are going to be hot on those books. And I say that if you don’t find a copy or don’t have time to listen, we’re going to listen to the entire album from start to finish at the beginning of the session. And we’re going to have a discussion like you’d have at a book club. I wish people would get together and compare their reactions to music more. They would enjoy it and discover a lot of music.

Though, for some of us, the way that we respond to books and music is very personal.

I just read an interview with Woody Allen about making audio versions of his books with collection of his humor pieces. He made them into an audio book with him reading the stories. He had resisted this forever and he hates the concept of an audio book and he loves a real book. He talked about that for him something he writes is for the reader to read in his own head and not to listen to someone recite. Hearing someone read a book is a completely different experience than sitting and reading a book, so that the transaction takes place internally. I thought, he’s right on the nose.

In recent years, I’ve gotten involved in reading books about classical music, just becaue of my growing interest in classical music. I go to used bookstores to find used paperback copies of Grove’s The Romantic Composer or what have you, just to have some basic information about the music I’m starting to listen to. The Classical Style by Charles Rosen. The String Quartet by Paul Griffin. Things like that.

One thing about going to hear classical music performed is that nobody ever complains about the sound system. The rooms are built for the music and it always sounds right. You go to see the Boston Symphony, you’re going to hear top of the line musicians.

And it’s inspiring to watch them up close and see that virtuosity.

That’s why I always tell people that you may love jazz on recordings, but you’ve got to go and see people, preferably in clubs where you can have some sort of proximity to them rather than at a big festival where you’re out in a field somewhere and you can barely see the stage.

What’s next for you as far as book projects?

When I started working for Marsalis Music, it was such a relief not to be meeting three of four deadlines a week. And there were always a couple that were overnight, where you go to an 8 o’clock concert and have 500 words by 11:30. You get used to it and it’s not as impossible as it sounds to people. My first reaction though when I stopped doing it was, wow, what a relief to get off that treadmill. When that jazz introduction book came up and I got through that, I also realized that I really missed writing. That it’s probably what I do better than anything else. Maybe now is the time to think about writing books which I had always avoided in the past, particularly at the time I was doing law and was writing. There was just no time for it.

It was fortunate that John approached me about this. And it’s got me thinking about a couple of things. But I’m not sure exactly which one I’m going to pursue right now.

Originally Published