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Kevin Whitehead: Jazz Answers & Questions

Author of new guide to jazz talks about his background in journalism and his approach to explaining jazz to newer listeners

Author Kevin Whitehead
Why Jazz? book cover

Kevin Whitehead has written about jazz since the late ’70s, and has been the jazz critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1987. He’s written for a long list of publications, including JazzTimes, the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Down Beat, Village Voice and the Dutch daily de Volkskrant. Whitehead lived in Amsterdam in the late ’90s, when he wrote New Dutch Swing (1998), about improvised music there. He also edited the oral history Bimhuis 25: Stories of Twenty-five years at the Bimhuis. His work as a jazz writer has appeared in anthologies including Jazz: The First Century, The Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide, Mixtery: a Festschrift for Anthony Braxton, Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2006, and most recently, Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro Black and other Solar Myths. He’s taught at the University of Kansas and Goucher College.

Whitehead spoke with JT about his new book, Why Jazz?, a guide to understanding jazz for new (and old) listeners. He also shares his insight into the evolving world of music and jazz journalism.

What was the first piece you wrote professionally?

I did some reviewing for a short-lived weekly, the Oswego County Times, when I was in college in upstate New York, somewhere around 1973. It was probably some rock record reviews for which I was paid $5 or $10.

What was the first piece you wrote about music or jazz?

The first record review was of Joni Mitchell’s Mingus around 1979. The first concert reviews would have been for the Baltimore City Paper, with the first of a Baltimore fusion band playing in a bar. The second was of Johnny Griffin playing at the Famous Ballroom for the Left Bank Jazz Society.

Do you remember what you wrote about that Joni Mitchell album and do you still feel the same way?

I wasn’t crazy about it. I didn’t think it was “Mingus-ey.” I haven’t listened to that album in a very long time, but I thought her choice of musicians was a little peculiar for a Mingus record. I don’t think Jaco, with all due respect, is the bassist that brings out the Mingus quality on the instrument. The Johnny Griffin review I remember better, because I did something there, which I also did [in the book] about a Dexter Gordon concert, which is to list all the tunes I could identify that he quoted in a solo. I find quotation a really interesting and underrated topic in jazz. One thing that was true in both cases is that when people quote, they quote from all over the history of music. There are popular classics, bugle calls, pop songs and whatever rises to the surface.

You do a good job of demystifying that process in your new book, because many new listeners to jazz don’t really get the point of it. They’re not sure if it’s a joke they’re not in on.

Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. I remember talking with Sonny Rollins about this once and he said something like, “Sometimes you’re playing a phrase and you realize that you’re playing something that somebody wrote and you just play it out just to complete the thought.” That reference in the book about somebody in the military walking into the club and the pianist quoting “You’re in the Army Now” was cribbed from a Branford Marsalis comment I read a few years ago.

Where did you go to school?

I went to school at Oswego State University in New York, right in the snow belt. And I got a Master’s in American literature and culture from Syracuse University.

Do you have any formal training in journalism or even music journalism?

No, my formal training was in literature. That’s where I got the idea that one could read a piece of music like a literary text. I did a lot of reading and a lot of listening in the few years before I started writing about jazz.

Reading is underrated for writers, I think.

You can learn a lot from wise people who have come before. When I was at the University of Kansas, I taught a couple of jazz literature courses, one on autobiographies and one on jazz fiction and films.

What’s with the title of the book-Why Jazz?? What’s it mean exactly? Or is it just some sort of clever entry point?

Because the book was in question-and-answer form, I thought an interrogative title would be a good idea. I seem to remember that the title came about when batting ideas back and forth with my editor at Oxford, Suzanne Ryan. I think it was her idea, not mine.

Is it also some sort of response to that whole “jazz is dead” discussion-that jazz is marginalized in our culture?

It could be shorthand for “Jazz: Why bother?” [laughing] But that seemed a little too negative.

Why do another guide to jazz? There are after all so many already out there. This book seems to speak to folks who like jazz but are very new to the genre.

Oxford approached me about doing the book. It was their idea to do it in Q&A form. From the beginning there was a restriction that it had to be 40,000 words, all in. I knew it was going to be the short version. I was thinking back a bit to the person I was in college, as a rock fan who slowly got into jazz. I was thinking about the questions I had at the time. But I also saw it as the opportunity to tell the story of jazz in the last 30 years in a way that I don’t think I had seen done before. To make something coherent out of it and not just discuss a bunch of styles in isolation. Because I really think the juxtaposition of styles, within a piece of music or between different camps, is really the story of jazz in the ’80s and ’90s.

I also saw it as a way to say something to people who weren’t complete novices in the field. A lot of jazz fans have their blind spots or their deaf spots. I was hoping to plug up a few of those too. At the same time, I knew I was never going to be able to squeeze in all the musicians I love.

Was it hard to get the tone right, particularly at the beginning of the book where you explain the basics of jazz? How did you manage to explain jazz to beginners without it being patronizing or seeming like a children’s book?

Before I wrote it, I had taught a two-semester jazz history class for four years running at the University of Kansas in their American Studies department. So I had some feel for things that students find bewildering. I think that was a guide for me. For example, what’s syncopation? Syncopation is so ingrained in American music that it’s hard for people to realize that it wasn’t always like that. I was also looking at it in terms of elementary harmony and things like that-how to take somebody who plays a little guitar and knows, say, six chords to some sort of greater understanding of what’s going on harmonically.

You really don’t hesitate to recommend the stuff you love. Was that a question for you as to how much of the book should reflect your own personal taste?

Well, you want to call people’s attention to the music that you think is the best. But I also wanted to be fair. Writing about Wynton in this book was a nice challenge, because I’ve had my differences with him over the years and I’m not so crazy about everything he does. But it was nice to be in a position to write about him positively, though not entirely. There is some criticism of his composing, more than his playing. I tried to be as even-handed as possible.

Were there any models for the book?

If there was anything I had in the back of my mind, it was Martin Williams’ Where’s the Melody? which was his attempt at an intro for novice listeners. The plan of the book was very different from this one, but I liked that idea. There was also what I try to do on the radio in my Fresh Air pieces, to make the music accessible and hopefully interesting to people who are not jazz specialists.

That’s a whole different type of writing-for radio. What have you learned from that experience?

You learn to be concise. You’ve only got eight minutes tops, including the music, to say what you want to say. I have to say that I am so glad to have that gig. It’s about the best reviewing gig I can imagine because you get to show and tell. They’re usually about one-half commentary and one-half music. It’s “Here’s what I say about it, but now listen to it for yourself and see what you think.”

The book has a breezy, though well-written quality. How long did it take write from start to finish?

I wrote the first draft in about a month. Jim Macnie, my colleague and friend, made his house in Rhode Island available to me as a place to write the book. I had taken care of all my radio commitments. So I had nothing else to do every day for a month and a half except get up and write a book. It was really fantastic.

Did you write material that wasn’t used in the book?

There was a little. I wrote more about Wynton, specifically about “Father Time” on his first album. And there were certain other people I wanted to write more about, like George Russell, but I realized that it’s not really possible. I probably cut no more than 1,000 words out of the final manuscript. A lot of the writing I do is rewriting and boiling things down to make a point more succinct without it seeming like a telegram. It’s usually possible to put fairly complex ideas into prose that lay people can follow. Certainly that’s what I’ve been trying to do for a long time.

Did you learn anything new when you pulled it together? Any new revelations about artists or the music?

We have our own blind or deaf spots. I realized when I was writing this book that I hadn’t listened to much Brad Mehldau over the years. Why was I asleep on that? I’m not sure. And I listened to a lot of Wynton’s classical music. I was listening to Ellington’s “Ko-Ko” after writing about Basie’s “Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong)” and I suddenly noticed that one chorus of “Ko-Ko” is actually a paraphrase of the basic chorus of “Boogie Woogie.” Researching it later I realized that I wasn’t the first person to make this discovery, but it’s not generally known. I wrote in the introduction about the “aha” moments that jazz fans have and it was nice to have one of my own.

You do mostly criticism, but do some profiles too. Which do you prefer?

I did more profiles before I got into teaching. I was living in New York City and I was really in the thick of it in the early ’90s. Then I moved to Holland to live for four years to write New Dutch Swing a book about improvised music in Amsterdam. I did lots and lots of interviews there. Then I came back and there was a bit of a shift and I began concentrating more on reviewing and doing fewer interviews and profiles. I still like doing them, but for that particular book I did about 50 and maybe I got a little burned out on the process. Not that I don’t enjoy it intellectually. I should do it more.

Over the years, I assume you’ve gotten to know personally many jazz artists out there, many of whom you have to write about. How does knowing an artist personally affect your critical judgment?

When I was first writing about jazz, I was living in Baltimore. After about ten years, I moved to New York. Suddenly I was having a lot of contact with musicians. The original Knitting Factory on Houston Street was like my second address. I think I got a phone call at the bar there one time. So my negative reviews became more diplomatic. You see the faces of your victims. Later, I became close to many musicians in Holland and now it’s difficult sometimes to include certain artists or bands on my lists of the best albums of the year or whatever.

The late cello player Tom Cora once said to me, “You shouldn’t write about my music any more, now that we’re friends,” even though he knew I liked his music quite a bit. For other people it was more problematic. Like, “You come to my gigs…why aren’t you reviewing me?” “Well, because I was at your house for dinner two nights ago.” When I lived in New York, I never saw Jon Pareles of the Times socialize with musicians, or even ask them questions after a set. I never talked to him about it, but it seemed important to maintain a separation, to make sure that he didn’t have those kinds of personal conflicts.

Which jazz writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?

Martin Williams, whom I already mentioned. The Jazz Tradition was a book I learned a lot from. And Robert Palmer. I remember being disappointed when he finally had a book come out and it was about the Delta blues. Now I recognize the worth of that book, but he was writing so much good stuff on the avant garde of the ’70s, some of the best commentary at that time. Certain pieces by Greg Tate, particularly that two-part defense of ’70s electric Miles Davis that ran in DownBeat in the early ’80s. That was something that really turned me around on that music. Stanley Dance, because his interviews were always about the music. You read Whitney Balliett, who was a fantastic writer, and after reading his piece you know exactly how all the furniture is arranged in the living room overlooking central Manhattan. Whereas Stanley always edited his interviews in such a way that the focus was on the music. I’m sure that was a deliberate choice on his part.

Whom of the current jazz and music writers do you enjoy reading now?

I have to preface this by saying that as soon as I get off the phone, I’m going to remember three or four other people who are deserving. Ben Ratliff, Nate Chinen, Martin Johnson and Larry Blumenfeld in the New York papers. Francis Davis, who I was always a little bit jealous of because we came up at the same time, but he rose through the ranks much faster than I did. He can inject himself into pieces in a way that I don’t think I could pull off. John Corbett, who’s a good friend of mine. I love his “Vinyl Freak” column in DownBeat because his taste is so broad and weird. Bloggers Jim Macnie, whose range I envy, and Howard Mandel. Bob Blumenthal, someone else I’ve known a long time. I’m glad he finally wrote a Sonny Rollins book. But he also wrote a short intro to jazz, so we’re competitors now [chuckling]. As far as academic writers go, my Kansas colleague Sherrie Tucker, the scholar who wrote Swing Shift about the “all-girl” bands of the ’40s. I learned a lot from her when I was there.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Ethan Iverson’s blog Do the Math. At the moment he may be my favorite writer about contemporary jazz. He did a long interview with Wynton with a number of sidebars in which Ethan talks about the strengths and limitations of the “Young Lions” movement of the ’80s, which is some of the best stuff on the topic that I’ve read. He’s trying to build bridges there and that’s all for the good.

What literature outside of the world of music do you admire and find yourself rereading?

I used to read a lot of hard-boiled fiction, like Jim Thompson. Discovering Jim Thompson was a big one for me. On one level it was so completely crude and on another level it was so completely compelling-like Philip K. Dick. You wonder, how can a guy who can barely write be so riveting? I don’t read as much fiction as I used to. Richard Powers. My girlfriend is a big booster of his novels and she turned me on to him. He has a way of delving into difficult topics that shows the fruits of lots of research. There aren’t too many people who write compelling novels about computer programming.

George Eliot is someone I go back and read. When I was living in Holland, I used to go to the English language bookstores, and 19th century British fiction was always the best value for your money. You could pick up a Dickens novel for, say, five guilders, around three bucks, and read it for a month. I went through a period where I read a great deal of that stuff. I think I went through all of George Eliot at that point. There is a lot of suffering and sadness in her books, but she’s such a fantastic writer.

Do you have a Kindle or iPad for reading books?

I don’t, but every week I have people singing the praises of these devices to me. I move around a lot, so I try not to accumulate too many toys-even though I recognize a Kindle or iPad can make travel lighter. Maybe when my pile of books to read grows shorter.

What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on jazz and music criticism?

I’m not much of a prognosticator, but anyone can see the number of papers and the space they give to the arts are both shrinking. The critic’s function isn’t going away, but I have no brilliant ideas about what the future delivery system will be. We live in interesting times, no?

Here are some questions that I get asked a lot. As a writer and radio commentator, you get a lot of promotional copies of CDs. Do you listen to them all?

I don’t get as many as I used to, but no, it’s not possible to listen to them all.

What do you with them after you’ve reviewed or played them? Are you a hoarder?

I keep a lot of them, but eventually you run out of hoarding room. Even after you’ve taken all of your CDs out of jewel boxes and put them into soft plastic slipcases, you still have acres and acres more stuff than you have room for. I’ve read musicians who criticize writers for selling promos, but if you’re not going to be listening to them, they should be in circulation. Certainly nobody is getting rich by selling used CDs. At worst, I suppose it helps to subsidize a rather poorly paid profession. I don’t try to collect records just to turn around and sell them, because that would be stupid and a bad investment of time. A lot of CDs I give away, so that somebody gets to hear this stuff. You just can’t keep everything.

How many CDs and LPS do you have in your permanent collection?

LPs, not so many because I got rid of most of them when I left in New York after coming back from Holland. So maybe I have about 500 LPs, and around 6,000 CDs, rough guess. Downloads, lots and lots of material-about 250 GB worth or something like that. I’ve been writing for eMusic since 2004 and I get a lot of material that way. That’s also a way to keep up with things even when the CDs don’t come over the transom. In fact, I just recorded a review for Fresh Air yesterday of an album I found as a download.

What’s next as far as another book project?

My next book, I hope, will be about the way the story of jazz is told in movies. How the history of jazz is represented. I’m not looking to talk about every film that has a jazz scene in it, though I just saw a hilarious scene the other day where Elisha Cook, Jr. plays the drums, supposedly dubbed by Buddy Rich. I’m talking more about New Orleans with Billie Holiday or Bird or Round Midnight. Or A Man Called Adam where Sammy Davis plays a Miles Davis-like trumpet player. The weird thing about that one is that he’s dating Cicily Tyson in the movie before she and Miles Davis got together. It’s interesting to see the way that jazz myths get made into Hollywood myths. And how troubling historical angles are glossed over, and real events are transformed into fantasies about what happened. Originally Published