© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.
Happy New Year everybody! We made it through 2020. A few days ago, on
New Year’s Eve, I sent my final draft of the first part of the Adams bio to two
readers for final comments and edits. After emailing them, in a rush of excite-
ment, I commanded my new Amazon Echo to play Pepper Adams, and, lo
and behold, the first tune it played was “Time on My Hands.” How prophetic!
In recognition of finally concluding my work on the biography, last week I de-
cided, as a kind of rite of passage, to finally read John Gennari’s exhaustive
study of jazz criticism that he published in 2005. I figured it’s the least I could
do, considering all the time he spent reviewing my Adams manuscript. If
nothing else, I thought, I could catch up on various topics, such as gender,
black, and literary studies, or the vicissitudes of the various culture wars, that
have ensued since I walked away from academia in the nineties. Maybe, too,
I could use snippets here and there as a clever way to do some fact-checking
on my bio, or even buttress some of my commentary with a few of his pithy
I say pithy because I’ve known John since around 1990, when I invited him to
write an article on the history of jazz criticism for an anthology of articles about
jazz literature I was editing for the Black American Literature Forum. Pithy, also,
because his keen intellect, expansive knowledge of jazz and American culture,
and wonderful prose style, I felt, was bound to reveal some clever turns of
phrase I could grab, or interesting perspectives to reconsider, for my bio at the
Since the publication of his terrific article, Gennari spent the next fifteen years
researching the field, reading widely, and writing about his many observations.
The result is Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics, one of the most
important books ever written about jazz. Jazz fans love to talk about “desert
island records,” the handful of indispensable recordings they would want with
them if they got marooned on a desert island a la Tom Hanks in Cast Away,
Similarly, Gennari’s book is definitely one of a handful of books that I’d want
with me if I was washed up somewhere. I recommend it to anyone who wants
a much fuller appreciation of the art form.
What Gennari has achieved is no less than a dazzling literature review of
jazz’s history, but as seen through the writings of many of its most distinguish-
ed English-language commentators. So many of the early jazz histories that
he discusses and comprised my very large and now defunct jazz library (that
I donated to Georgia State University) are books I’ve never had a chance to
read. Gennari summarizes each work with depth, showing how they in-
fluenced jazz discourse, commerce, and subsequent generations of writers.
Written with wit, unprecedented erudition, and an impressive command of the
subject, I was blown away by its breadth. To his credit, this monumental book
is not a history of jazz’s recordings or musicians per se, though the author
discusses many. Instead, unlike all other studies of jazz, he has moved the
focus from musicians to, as he writes, “the channels of distribution to make a
less static model of jazz.” In this manner he discusses how jazz critics served
as middle-men arbiters between the musicians and their audience, and he
analyzes their many sectarian arguments and how they influenced the history
of the music, all the while bringing to bear his deep understanding of gender,
literary, political/historical, and American cultural studies.
Thumbing through the book, it’s amazing how much ground Gennari covers,
and it’s clear why he needed fifteen years to finish his exhaustive study.
There’s just nothing like it. Here’s someone who has listened widely, thought
deeply, and probably read more thoroughly about jazz than anyone before or
since. With his singular focus, he’s certainly a man after my own heart.
As a biographer, I greatly enjoyed all of the biographical portraits in the book.
Some, such as the ones about Leonard Feather and John Hammond, for
example, are rendered at considerable length and crafted with tremendous
grace. In the great Whitney Balliett tradition, they give the book a real sense
of immediacy, and nicely counterbalance some of his more weighty intellectual
forays. Further, they served as a source of nostalgia for me, rekindling my past
associations with a number of prominent jazz writers, most notably Martin
Williams, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch, and
especially Albert Goldman, but also others I’ve come in contact with over the
years, such as Barry Ulanov, John Szwed, Bob Blumenthal, and Francis Davis.
It made me recall the time John Hammond popped in one day as a guest of
John Lewis’s, who was teaching the jazz history survey class I took at City
College of New York in the early 1980s. It also rekindled my memory of the
only experience I had with Nat Hentoff, when I needed to get his permission to
republish a piece he wrote on Miles Davis. How cranky and miserable a person
I felt he was; what a difficult shit, I was left thinking.
In Gennari’s description about record collectors’ zeal for hunting down obscure
recordings, I remembered those times in my teens when I took hour-long bus
rides from the northern New Jersey suburbs to the Port Authority bus station,
then walked to 42nd Street to comb record stores for obscure blues records
recorded by Arhoolie, Delmark, and other independent labels. In the 1970s,
42nd Street was really dicey. I always walked the streets really quickly and
moved with a palpable unease until I reached my destination.
In the end, yes, Gennari’s book did help me ground some of the comments I
made in Reflectory, my forthcoming Adams bio. I added a few new quotes to
further contextualize my points, some regarding “The White Negro,” and how
the rock/youth culture affected jazz after Pepper Adams moved to New York
As I get my ideas together for a six-week jazz history class for college edu-
cated Georgian adults, I wonder how Gennari’s book will inform me. The class,
“Jazz Lives,” borrows its title from Michael Steinman’s blog, in which he says
that “lives” is both a verb and a noun. Will I lean towards the deification of four
or five jazz figures I’m covering? Will I present portraits of their lives? Maybe I
will come up with my own synthesis? I’m not sure, though the class begins on
January 13. One thing that still sings for me, and will serve as a kind of mantra
for the class, is this from Blowin’ Hot: “Because jazz demands that musicians
find their own sound and stamp their performances with a singular individuality,
those who succeed in music tend to be distinctive, singular individuals.”