Looking at the cover of Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books, critic Gary Giddins’ latest book, you might laugh yourself silly. Giddins, the critic of all critics, is viewed sitting in the dark with a pen he seems uninterested in using, near a drink that looks useless. He’s smirking, too: This is not the Giddins who has been so on point with his critiques over the years.
Fakeness is not Giddins’ forte; he is a fine critic and arguably jazz’s best over the last few decades. Yet he seems just a bit outside his comfort zone in the writings included in Natural Selection that cover the gamut of culture. Marlon Brando, Doris Day, Martin Scorsese and Groucho Marx are all subject to Giddins’ exacting style of criticism in these mostly previously published works.
Giddins does examine them all carefully, but I am not truly convinced he has presented these subjects as successfully as he did Louis Armstrong in his 1988 biography Satchmo. And most of the word-scratching in Natural Selection doesn’t come close to how Giddins brought Bing Crosby to life in his definitive 2001 bio, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940.
Granted, there are some pretty interesting pieces here worth mentioning. “Idiot Semi Savant” examines the incredible comedic talent known as Jerry Lewis upon a Paramount reissue campaign of 10 classic Lewis films. Giddins, as he has done in his music writing for years, can still turn a line: “The price one pays to laugh at Jerry is more Jerry,” Giddins writes. “But it is a price we must live with.”
Giddins’ “Fresh Flowers,” a column on saxophone innovator Albert Ayler that appeared in this magazine in Nov. 2004, is absolutely superb. Like his famous essay from years ago on Brooklyn-born songwriter Otis Blackwell—the late musical genius from whom Elvis Presley lifted hit songs and vocal panache—the Ayler essay is about a great talent lost in the pages of history. “American music would be a poorer thing without the lusty hysteria…of Albert Ayler,” writes Giddins, with his signature blend of declaration and beauty.
Giddins’ attempt to defend Sammy Davis Jr. in “Fighting for Freedom and Bad Taste” is less eloquent. His attack on Davis biographer Wil Haygood is especially troublesome considering Haygood’s book (In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.) earned its author the very prestigious Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Award for Non-Fiction in 2004, in addition to being optioned by Denzel Washington as a possible film. On the whole, Gary Giddins has seen better days as a critic than what we find in Natural Selection. But constantly writing columns can rob even our best writers of their edge.Originally Published