Matthew Kassel | Longreads | August 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)
Jazz has changed a lot over the past 100 years or so of its existence, but it has never been as stylistically varied — or more packed with practitioners — as it is at the present moment. That’s a good thing for listeners, who now have many points of entry if they are new to the music and don’t necessarily want to start with a record that was cut 50 years ago. Mary Halvorson’s slashing guitar, for example, may appeal to more punk-minded listeners. The pianist Robert Glasper’s Dilla-esque grooves are a good gateway for hip-hop fans. And the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s sweeping, spiritual-minded albums are a potential attraction for jam band aficionados. There’s a lot going on.
And yet, at the same time, there are probably fewer people writing about modern developments in jazz than ever. While niche magazines like JazzTimes and DownBeat are still going strong, there is scant jazz coverage in mainstream music publications (which tend to treat jazz like a novelty item), and the New York Times no longer runs weekly live jazz reviews (a recent development). Nate Chinen was, in fact, the last person to review jazz shows on a regular basis there, a position he left in 2017 after a dozen years contributing to the paper. He is now the director of editorial content at WBGO, the Newark public radio station.
In his new book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, Chinen draws on his experiences as a former newspaper critic, attempting to make sense of what’s been going on in jazz over the past few decades. It isn’t an easy task, and he does a good job collating a whole lot of material, pulling on interesting threads and adding context for readers who may not be all that familiar with the reasons why Wynton Marsalis was — and still is, to an extent — a polarizing figure. Mostly, Chinen approaches jazz on its own terms. He describes what the music sounds like now and conveys to readers where modern jazz artists are coming from. In doing so he’s created a book that is truly of its time.
When we met at Café Loup in the West Village on a recent evening, I couldn’t help but think that a book like Chinen’s might be the last of its kind, given that there are so few opportunities for jazz critics to do their thing on a regular basis and to gain the kind of expertise that is so crucial to informed criticism of any kind. (No American newspaper, as far as I know — and I’ve asked around — currently employs a full-time jazz writer.)
But Chinen is optimistic. In our conversation, we discussed the state of jazz, the state of jazz writing and how those two things intersect, among other topics. Here are edited excerpts of the interview, condensed for clarity.
Matthew Kassel: How did you come to the idea for the book?
Nate Chinen: I’ve been writing about jazz for a little over 20 years, starting in the mid-90s, and to me, it’s a culmination of all of that. When I began to think about what a book about the state of the music in our time would be about, so much of my own experience observing the scene seemed germane to that conversation, because I think it was a really critical time. There was so much change in the air on so many levels.
The first chapter was a really helpful primer, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the issues that have been going on for the last 30 or 40 years in jazz.
At the very beginning of the process, there was an idea I had, which was that all of the big, important books about jazz really take measure of the 20th century, and often don’t do that great a job with the end of the 20th century; it’s kind of the Ken Burns Jazz problem, and some of that has to do with the terms of the argument. Jazz was effectively born at the beginning of the 20th century, and it had this kind of lifespan. And so if you are using that framework, then, yeah, you’re going to be most excited about what happened in the ’20s and what happened in the ’40s and the ’60s. And so I was interested in opening another side door and saying, “Well, what if this isn’t an arc of evolution that begins here and ends here, but a rolling thing?” The culture of jazz has shifted perceptibly during my time covering it. It’s much more permeable and permissive and dynamic and fluid. I think that’s a really exciting development. I’m a big proponent of that, and to me the conversation around jazz is more useful now than it was when I was first starting out.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t want to present you with a mess, but: from the moment that I began thinking about the book, I knew that I wanted to have a chapter that dealt with the idea of the new elders. Forever, there was this kind of north star idea of a jazz elder, and it was somebody who kept the torch burning and kept the tradition alive, and it was this very sort of small-c conservative idea of: we know what the jazz tradition is and the elders are the ones who know it best. But what happens when a new generation of elders is in power and these are people who did more than anyone to explode that? There’s so much evidence of it. I feel like that is a major shift, this idea that, “Oh, your elder is Herbie Hancock? Your elder is the guy who made ‘Rockit’?” That’s a profound change and it has implications all over the place.
People who read the paper in print are not trackable. They don’t generate pageviews. And so they’re invisible. And a pretty substantial portion of readers who turned to the Times for jazz and classical coverage were invisible.
Was that disorienting for you as a critic, when you started getting on to the notion that jazz was changing in front of you?
No. You know, Steve Coleman told me that so much depends on when you were born. He talks about Charlie Parker, for instance — this idea that people who were close contemporaries of Charlie Parker didn’t end up sounding like him because, even if they absorbed the ideas of bebop they didn’t sound like Bird; they were too close to him. But the people who were seven or eight or 10 years younger than Bird sounded just like him because they hadn’t formed themselves. So in a similar way, as a critic and as a listener, I’m the same age as Jason Moran basically — I’m 41 — I’m pretty much the same age as Vijay Iyer, I’m a little older than Esperanza Spalding, I’m older than Ambrose Akinmusire. But this is the generation that I feel closest to, right?
In your first chapter you get into this idea of the jazz savior narratives put forth by critics like Martin Williams, who wrote about Charles Lloyd for the Times in the ’70s, and now with Kamasi Washington. How much do you think the perception of jazz is shaped by the criticism of it?
I would like to think that criticism has a great influence on the perception of jazz, but I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I think that in the historical record, it matters a great deal, but it’s also different now, even in the last year or so. I used to be at the Times, and there was a presumption about what that meant. Martin Williams enjoyed a kind of institutional authority that has eroded completely. Gary Giddins had that at the Voice, too. You could sort of inhabit a perch and make your pronouncements. And for better and for worse, people don’t invest so much in that idea of authority anymore. Part of me feels like, “Good riddance,” because what that means is that every argument needs to stand on its own merits, and there’s not a lot of people who will inherently trust your judgement just because you’re the guy from the place. At the same time, having had a little of that as the jazz critic for the Times, it’s sad to me that we no longer have a piece in the paper on Thursday about the gig at the Village Vanguard on Tuesday night. That was a really wonderful tradition, and it mattered.
I wanted to talk about the Times. I feel like there aren’t as many live reviews in the paper as there used to be. I guess the argument for a live review would be that it’s a part of the historical record, and if it’s important enough and you missed it, it’s still news, right? And you can make some nice arguments about aesthetics or history or whatever. What did you think was most important about the live review, and what did you get out of it?
If you’ll permit me one moment of real immodesty, I feel like the live review is a very specific skill and format, and I think by the end I was really good at it. But it’s like being a woodworker and being able to make a really amazing, perfect stool — it’s this very specific thing. It’s different from feature writing, and you work quickly, and it’s about precision and a certain amount of poetry. I feel like at its best the live review articulates something about that moment in time but also about the state of the music. And you know, some of them are disposable, some of them just come and go. But some really capture something about the energy of the music. And the fact is that jazz remains a music that is ideally experienced live, preferably in a fairly intimate environment. And it’s really important to have someone who is able to bear witness. I don’t know if this is really true, but I feel like a lot of musicians didn’t really understand how vital that was to the ecology of the art form until it went away. It’s really important, and it’s unfortunate that there’s really no incentive for it.
And what to you was an ideal live review?
The jazz reviews in the Times were generally 400 to 500 words. So ideally you’re able to capture the feeling in the room and you’re able to sort of bring the reader into that moment with you, convey a bit of what it was that happened and what it felt like, but then also place the music and the artist into some kind of historical and aesthetic context. The thing that I loved was when you went into a gig and didn’t know what the story was going to be and it just emerged over the course of the performance. Those were rare.
How often were you going to gigs when you were writing for the Times — more than you were reviewing, right?
Oh, yeah. This book really is, on some level, a chronicle of that time. I lived on 14th Street for 10 years, and during those 10 years I was usually out five nights a week, sometimes hitting a couple of gigs a night.
A good critic helps you understand all the angles on a thing — why does it happen this way, what are the forces that went into it?
You also wrote pop reviews at the Times. Did you enjoy doing that?
I loved it. That was one thing that I really appreciated about the Times. When I got there — and this is a precedent established by Robert Palmer and carried on by Peter Watrous and Ben Ratliff and Jon Pareles — there was this understanding that, O.K., you’re a jazz guy, but you can write about whatever you want. I reviewed Katy Perry. Every once in a while, I would get criticism from someone in the jazz community, who would say, why are you writing about Miranda Lambert or whatever — as if it were a zero-sum game. To me it’s a specious argument. There’s no reason not to be aware of everything else that’s happening, and it just so happens that I love Miranda Lambert, and I have a selective appreciation for Taylor Swift, and there are people in country and hip hop and pop who I’m really behind — maybe more so than many of the musicians I write about, but that’s just my own personal taste.
The chapter in your book on the Soulquarian movement was enlightening. I feel like I haven’t read much about D’Angelo or his album Voodoo in a jazz context.
When I thought about what the most important jazz albums of the 20th century were, Voodoo was pretty close to the top of the list, actually, because I feel like the evidence is everywhere. I mean, Dilla’s influence is pretty much settled fact at this point, but jazz critics by and large aren’t really equipped to talk about that, which is fine. I felt really closely connected to it, and so to me, it felt important.
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Can you tell me a little bit about your background? You’re from Hawaii, right?
Born and raised in Honolulu. My parents were entertainers, so I was born into this kind of show biz environment. I was interested in the drums from a really early age, and so as a kid I played ukulele and then I played drums, but I was also always really interested in writing, and always considered myself a musician and a writer, and they were sort of separate tracks. They converged when I went to college in Philadelphia. I was gigging in Philly and then interned at the Philadelphia City Paper. Within a month or two of being there, I started writing for the City Paper. My very first interview was with Joshua Redman in, I think, 1996, and so I learned on the job. I had no journalism training. I didn’t write for the school paper. I was an English major with a poetry concentration. I started covering the local scene and really made every mistake you can make and learned a lot by being a part of a newsroom. It was a great experience, just picking up a paper every week, and there’s your byline, and also learning that it matters what you say about somebody. I would go to the club and a musician would say, “What do you mean by this?” Just understanding that criticism does not exist in a bubble — it’s a functional part of the ecology of jazz. And in my experience, if you were tough but your argument made sense, usually musicians respected you if you could back it up.
So when did you make your way over to New York?
I moved to New York at the end of 1998, and I was writing for JazzTimes and some other places at that point, and then I began working on a book with George Wein. I spent three full years just writing that book with him, his memoir. And so that was a deep immersion in jazz history and his story. After that I started my column at JazzTimes and it was right around that time that Gary Giddins left the Voice and retired his column, “Weather Bird.” So I threw my hat in the ring, and Francis Davis got the column but I inherited the live component. I became sort of the live reviewer for the Voice, which was a really important experience for me. I think I was the last person who Bob Christgau mentored at the Voice, which was really a wonderful experience. He was very tough — I learned an enormous amount.
He gave his writers a lot of freedom, right?
He was very trusting, but he was also extremely exacting. And when he would call to edit a piece I would start sweating. Every word, every turn of phrase, every metaphor, every adjective had to be explicable. So there was no room for lazy writing at all. One of the things I learned through working with Bob was, don’t waste time with a slow, flowery lede. Get to the point. It was really like boot camp, and it was only two or three years, but it was fantastic training. It was a level of editorial scrutiny that I had never received at Downbeat or JazzTimes. And it was great preparation — you know, there used to be this pipeline, where you would survive the Voice and then you’d get noticed by the Times, and that actually happened for me. Ben Ratliff needed some support and they were looking for someone to contribute.
Wasn’t that Ratliff’s route, too? He wrote some stuff for the Voice and then Peter Watrous took him in.
Exactly. So I was the last person to come through that particular pipeline. So it was in 2005 that I began contributing to the Times, initially just doing listings, just to ease Ben’s burden. And then pretty soon I started writing reviews as well.
I feel like journalists across many different areas of expertise are as beleaguered as jazz musicians in the marketplace. When you talk to jazz musicians about Spotify and the streaming economy, it feels pretty related to the plight of journalists in the clickbait economy.
The Times has a relatively robust history in terms of jazz criticism. John S. Wilson, for instance, was a heavy hitter. How far back does it go?
John S. Wilson was the first jazz critic. Then Robert Palmer. For a very long time — and this is just an anomaly of the history of the paper — it was generally the norm that there were two people in the small corps of pop critics who were jazz-literate. For a very long time it was Palmer and Jon Pareles, and then it was Pareles and Watrous, and then it was Watrous and Ratliff, and then it was Ratliff and me. And then for about six months, it was just me, and then I left. So to me it’s unfortunate that — because it wouldn’t have taken very much to keep that going — but — well, I should leave it at that. Basically it comes down to people who read the paper in print are not trackable. They don’t generate pageviews. And so they’re invisible. And a pretty substantial portion of readers who turned to the Times to a large extent for jazz and classical coverage were invisible. And so their voices were not factored in when certain decisions were made.
Over the past few years in the Times, as far as jazz coverage is concerned, I’ve noticed that there has been less of an emphasis on live reviews, and more of an emphasis on features or columns with the occasional live review if the show is important enough. Giovanni Russonello’s sporadic feature stories on jazz are great, but the piece he writes at the end of every month on the three or five best jazz shows seems much more web-friendly and doesn’t seem to be much of a replacement for the regular live review. It’s nice to see that live coverage is still happening to an extent, though.
Yeah, Gio is a friend, and I think the section is in good hands as far as jazz coverage is concerned. But it’s difficult. Gio is not able to what Ben and I were able to do in an earlier era. And so he does the best with what he can, and it’s crucially important. What I’ve been trying to do at WBGO is to fill some of the gap, covering the scene. We don’t run live reviews, but we cover the music in a lot of different ways, and I try to do so in a way that’s really multidimensional.
What originally attracted you to criticism as opposed to straight reporting on jazz and music?
The critics were the people who wrote the liner notes back in the day. And so some of the first names that I knew in jazz writing were Nat Hentoff and Ira Gitler and A.B. Spelman and Amiri Baraka. So criticism was always very appealing to me. It also struck me as a discipline that allowed for a certain expression of personality. I can do straight reporting — I’ve done plenty of it — but I’ve always considered myself a critic. And I feel like there’s a fundamental misperception about what criticism actually is. People think criticism is, first and foremost. evaluative, but I think it’s actually first and foremost contextual. A good critic helps you understand all the angles on a thing — why does it happen this way, what are the forces that went into it?
I feel like there are a lot of parallels between jazz and journalism itself, one of them being that you are sort of expected to compose on the fly, in a way.
Well, the thing that comes to mind when you say that is, I feel like journalists across many different areas of expertise are as beleaguered as jazz musicians in the marketplace. When you talk to jazz musicians about Spotify and the streaming economy, it feels pretty related to the plight of journalists in the clickbait economy. But I wouldn’t dare compare the work of a jazz critic to the work of a jazz artist, in terms of improvisational acumen or whatever. So it feels different to me. But I don’t know whether musicians fully comprehend the extent to which jazz journalists are struggling every bit as much as the musicians, and maybe more so in many cases. It really is, for most people doing it, a labor of love, although it isn’t always expressed as such.
I guess you’re critical of things you love, right? I’m wondering who were some of the jazz critics you gravitated to. You mentioned Hentoff and Gitler and Baraka, but who do you return to?
So, I’m in my 40s, and the generation that I have looked up to — they’re now in their 60s and 70s: Gary Giddins and Francis Davis and Stanley Crouch. All of those guys have been really important to my development. And when I was working on George’s book, I made a really deep study of Whitney Balliett, and he was also really important. Through Giddins I really came to appreciate Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern — really, I’ve read everybody and learned from almost everybody. And to a certain extent this book is me planting a flag for my generation, which is kind of the tail end of Generation X.
It seems like it’s the only book in that category right now.
I’m really fortunate that I’m the first person of my age group to publish a book like this. There’s a lot of great, younger critics who are really making an impact now, and I have no doubt that the state of jazz criticism is in good hands. But I do feel in a certain way like a transitional figure. I feel like I really, really got the Bad Plus, and Vijay, and Mary Halvorson — that to me felt like music that was contemporaneous with my experience. And for someone like Francis Davis or Gary Giddins, it wasn’t their experience. It was something they could appreciate and understand and place into a historical context, but for me, it was in my own backyard.
You said your book is a kind of planting of a flag, but are there any literary antecedents for you in the jazz book world?
Both of Greg Tate’s essay collections are essential. Greg is such a model for how to maintain the highest level of sort of integrity and cultural criticism and be open to forces outside the strictly aesthetic, to just be aware of the political context and the social context. He’s really one of a kind in his generation in that regard. I’ve long been a big admirer of Gary’s work, and Visions of Jazz as well as his “Weather Bird” column were really important to me. The Alex Ross book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century — that was a really important antecedent because it was important to me that my book have a certain narrative momentum. I felt like Alex did such an amazing job with that book, taking an enormous amount of context and sheer information and presenting it in a way that felt as if there were an inexorable forward pull.
This music is so volatile and generative right now. I don’t think that the state of the music, on creative terms, has been in a better place maybe since the ’60s. It’s just a really exciting time to be paying attention. And the challenge is that the commercial infrastructure and all of that is kind of fucked.
I thought it was interesting that you started the book with Kamasi Washington. I guess it’s a good news hook because he’s pretty popular right now, but also, I feel like your first chapter is sort of your thesis, right?
For me, there were a few small insights in that first chapter that I felt were really, really important, and one of them was that the sort of culture of conservation that Wynton Marsalis embodies didn’t begin with him. Then the funny thing is that I began writing that chapter before anybody knew Kamasi Washington’s name outside Los Angeles; Kamasi exploded while I was writing the book, so as I was grappling with the idea of Kamasi and what he meant, it presented me with a perfect opportunity to bring Wynton in. I really didn’t want to begin the book by talking about Wynton, but I realized that the conversation around these artists was meaningful. The idea of a messiah or a savior is a renewable topic; it was said about Wynton and it was said about Kamasi, and you couldn’t find two more different musicians — in every way these guys are completely almost opposites. But I was really pleased with the way they sort of fit into this grid of, “What is jazz?” Is it progress of a fixed set of values or is it both?
Do you want to write another book about jazz?
We’ll see what happens — maybe there will be room for a sequel at some point. That’s what’s so exciting. This music is so volatile and generative right now. I don’t think that the state of the music, on creative terms, has been in a better place maybe since the ’60s or arguably the ’70s, which are an unfairly maligned decade. It’s just a really exciting time to be paying attention. And the challenge is that the commercial infrastructure and all of that is kind of fucked. But if you are an artist and you can figure out a way to make it work, this is an exciting time, and if you’re a consumer, it’s an incredibly exciting time.
There are so many jazz musicians now, partly, I guess, because of the boom in jazz education, which you talk about in your book. I guess there isn’t necessarily enough work in jazz for every musician, but there’s still a whole lot of talent out there.
The bar for proficiency gets higher and higher and higher. And there is a certain truth to the complaint that you sometimes hear even from someone like Ethan Iverson, which is that we’re losing touch with the folk element of the music, but at the same time, you encounter someone like David Virelles, and it’s a different folk element, but it’s there.
That’s true. I guess that’s sort of the point of your book, right?
Yeah, and it’s funny, I was thinking about this. One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer with this book was, where do things belong? I knew that I wanted to do a combination of profiles and thematic chapters; it ends up being 12 chapters — six profiles and six idea chapters. So if there’s a chapter on jazz education and there’s a chapter on globalism and there’s a chapter on mentorship, well, what do you do with a person like Lionel Loueke, who could be a major player in any one of those chapters? There’s no clear divisions on this stuff. Almost anyone in the book could have factored in at other places.
It’s all interconnected. Yesterday on Twitter, I saw somebody who was new to jazz soliciting album recommendations, but I feel like that question is so much more difficult to answer now. What would you say to someone who asks you that?
One of the things that I would tell anyone is go hear live music. Go hear it. And it depends on where this person lives. If they’re in New York, I would say go to the Vanguard tomorrow night, and whoever’s there, check it out. Go to the Jazz Standard. Go to Smoke. Go to Smalls. I mean, I am as big a fan of Kind of Blue as anyone, but there was a time when you would say, “Oh, you need to listen to Kind of Blue, you need to listen to Time Out by Dave Brubeck.” And I’m extremely grateful to Jazz at Lincoln Center and to Ken Burns’s Jazz for establishing a sort of consensus canon and a kind of bedrock literature that is basically infallible. Like, nobody would argue that what’s in that canon should not be in that canon. But I feel like we’re in a place now where, if you came to me and asked me where to start, would I point you to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Sevens? No, why would I do that?
What was the album or artist that got you into jazz?
In the book, I talk about how Jason Moran had a road to Damascus moment with “‘Round Midnight,” and I actually had one myself. I was maybe 14, and the Chick Corea Akoustic Band came to Honolulu. I didn’t know anything about the band, but I was a drummer so I knew Dave Weckl, who was a member of the trio. My dad took me to see this concert, which was at an arena — we sat in the fifth row — and I thought I was going to be bored because I was just there for the drummer, but I’ll never forget: Chick opened with a solo piano, free-improvised prelude to “On Green Dolphin Street,” which was a tune that I didn’t know at the time, and the clarity and the beauty of his execution — I was riveted within the first five seconds.
I guess that’s why you should see jazz live.
Who did you have in mind when you wrote this book?
I don’t know how this book will be received, but my hope is that older jazz fans and critics might learn something about this younger generation that they don’t understand at all — and also that people who are of that generation who are now in their 20s might not feel quite as alienated from this precedent. Because, I don’t know, to me it’s just all one big family. It’s difficult enough to love jazz in the 21st century. It’s fucking hard to be an advocate of this music; we’re assaulted at every turn by market forces and disinterest and by Drake, so why should there not be some solidarity?
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Editor: Dana Snitzky