Q and A

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June 10, 2020

[Q] As one of the (few?) individuals who Robert Christgau relies on for jazz recommendations and critical opinions on the subject of jazz music, which he rightly admits is not his own expertise, are there any classic jazz albums or artists that you have tried to get him to like with no success? For example, he once wrote that Art Pepper and Lee Konitz, both big favorites of yours I believe, were two purveyors of cool jazz that he meant to check out if he was "feeling adventurous." And conversely, what classics did you hip him to that he did like? -- Joe Yanosik, NY [2020-06-08]

[A] This is really a question for Christgau. He introduced me to a number of classic jazz albums back in the 1970s, when I moved to New York, and knew damn little about jazz, but I also got tips from other writers, and sometimes bought things just because I liked the label or thought the record looked interesting (like most of JCOA and Arista Freedom). I didn't get into many of the "classics" until the mid-1990s, when I started really scouring the record guides, and I didn't hear a lot of new jazz until I started writing my Jazz Consumer Guide column for the Voice in 2004 -- although Christgau regarded me as some kind of expert a few years earlier.

Christgau reviewed scattered jazz albums in the 1970s and 1980s, but cut back in the 1990s when, overwhelmed by the flow of records in his key areas, he decided to focus and skip everything else. I know that wasn't an easy decision, especially given his long love for jazz. He did continue to edit Gary Giddins, and when Giddins left the Voice, he figured it would take three writers to fill the gap: he brought in and edited Francis Davis to write features, my Consumer Guide for bulk, and Nate Chinen for live reports (as neither of us I lived in the City).

I gather Christgau reads me regularly, though probably not for jazz prospecting. He doesn't seem to have any interest (by which I mean time, not taste) for postbop or avant any more, and he's never cared for the retro forms I'm particularly fond of. I mention things on occasion that I think he might like (most recently Heroes Are Gang Leaders and Mark Lomax), but they rarely seem to pan out for him (if he checks them out, or can -- all critics are limited by what they have access to, even him). I accept that our tastes have diverged -- indeed, many of his semipop picks don't engage my interest, although I'm thankful for the ones that do. As for Konitz and Pepper, I doubt he's given either much of a chance -- he naturally prefers east coast hard bop (mostly) blacks vs. west coast cool jazz (mostly) whites, although he has written favorably about Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck -- but why not ask him?

You can look at my pretty extensive grade lists for Konitz, Pepper; also Baker, Brubeck, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, or anyone else (some lesser names I think of as quintessentially cool include Herb Geller, Bud Shank, and (at least At the Blackhawk) Shelly Manne). I think of cool jazz as a stepping stone to postbop, which roughly speaking is what happens when bebop goes to college and picks up some music theory including tricks for incorporating innovations like those of George Russell and Ornette Coleman. That makes postbop much broader than cool, but even there one is more struck by differences than commonalities. Pepper, like many cool brethren, got his start in Stan Kenton's orchestra (the other great source was Woody Herman, and everyone on Birth of the Cool got stuck with the tag). But Pepper's later work is more marked by his passion -- not something you think of as a cool trait. Konitz was very different, almost opposite: an early follower of Lennie Tristano, he reveled in abstraction, which could seem aloof but was intensely, cerebrally engaged.