Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now

Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now

by Robert Gottlieb

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"Comprehensive and intelligently organized. . . .  Jazz aficionados . . . should be grateful to have so much good writing on the subject in one place."—The New York Times Book Review

"Alluring. . . . Capture[s] much of the breadth of the music, as well as the passionate debates it has stirred, more vividly than any other jazz

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"Comprehensive and intelligently organized. . . .  Jazz aficionados . . . should be grateful to have so much good writing on the subject in one place."—The New York Times Book Review

"Alluring. . . . Capture[s] much of the breadth of the music, as well as the passionate debates it has stirred, more vividly than any other jazz anthology to date."—Chicago Tribune

No musical idiom has inspired more fine writing than jazz, and nowhere has that writing been presented with greater comprehensiveness and taste than in this glorious collection. In Reading Jazz, editor Robert Gottlieb combs through eighty years of autobiography, reportage, and criticism by the music's greatest players, commentators, and fans to create what is at once a monumental tapestry of jazz history and testimony to the elegance, vigor, and variety of jazz writing.  
        Here are Jelly Roll Morton, recalling the whorehouse piano players of New Orleans in 1902; Whitney Balliett, profiling clarinetist Pee Wee Russell; poet Philip Larkin, with an eloquently dyspeptic jeremiad against bop. Here, too, are the voices of Billie Holiday and Charles Mingus, Albert Murray and Leonard Bernstein, Stanley Crouch and LeRoi Jones, reminiscing, analyzing, celebrating, and settling scores. For anyone who loves the music—or the music of great prose—Reading Jazz is indispensable.  

"The ideal gift for jazzniks and boppers everywhere. . . . It gathers the best and most varied jazz writing of more than a century."—Sunday Times (London)

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The former Knopf and New Yorker chief was a late but vastly enthusiastic convert to the joys of jazz, as he explains in his introduction, and this vast compendium is certainly a labor of great love. It is also, at this size, unwieldy and, it would seem, priced rather high for the market it deserves. There are more than 100 pieces here, most of them culled from out-of-print books, as well as magazines both prominent and obscure. The effort to pull together so large a collection of such pieces, on a subject that in general has defied analysis, has clearly been prodigious, and jazz buffs owe a great deal to Gottlieb for rescuing so much of this material from obscurity. There are plenty of dashing portraits, autobiographical and otherwise, of jazz greats ranging from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker (rightly seen as the twin pillars in jazz history to date), such curios as an early essay by the Swiss classical conductor Ernst Ansermet on the impact of jazz in Europe right after WWI and many fine accounts of memorable nights on the bandstands of the '30s and '40s. The reportage section reminds us again of how sterling a stylist the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett is, and there is a definitive piece on the essential differences between classical and jazz criticism by Winthrop Sargeant. Almost everything is worth its weight, including the reminders of the great debate that used to rage over the merits of bop versus classical New Orleans style, exemplified here in pieces by the French critic Hugues Pannassie and English poet Philip Larkin (himself a noted buff). It's a feast that also enshrines a great deal of American social history; but perhaps a Best of Reading Jazz selection, at a third of the size and about half the price, would be more realistic. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Edited by Robert Gottlieb, former New Yorker editor, this amazing anthology on jazz music and musicians collects over 150 excerpts from monographic and serial publications, including several pieces long out of print or otherwise unavailable. It provides a broad and varied look at the history of this indigenous American art form, from the heights of artistic achievement to the sad realities of struggles with drug abuse and racism. There are fascinating autobiographical essays from such significant figures as Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, and Miles Davis and reportage and criticism sections featuring insightful and challenging work from noted jazz writers like Gene Lees, Gary Giddins, and Dan Morgenstern. An essential purchase for every music collection.-Michael Colby, Univ. of California, Davis
[T]he miraculous revival of jazz in the last decade — after its near-death experience in the '70s and early '80s — has given fresh life to jazz writing. Two very different new anthologies demonstrate, with mixed results, the range of writing about this music.

Robert Gottlieb's 1,000-plus page anthology, Reading Jazz, is a predictable mix of tribute essays, criticism and autobiographical excerpts by writers ranging from Jelly Roll Morton to Stanley Crouch. It's a bedside reader, basically, for older jazz fans who are unfazed by the steep sticker price and want a hit of atmosphere along with their oxygen. Although Gottlieb's miscellany purports to cover jazz "from 1919 to Now," its emphasis is weighted disproportionately toward way back when. The result, particularly in the autobiography section, with its preponderance of as-told-to-memoirs, is a gallery of musicians from the golden age, awash in nostalgia.

The Second Set is by far the more interesting anthology. The 110 poets collected here range from early 20th century masters (Hart Crane, e.e. cummings) to such essential contemporary poets as June Jordan, Derek Walcott and Mark Doty. Thomas McGrath's exquisitely surreal Guiffre's Nightmusic describes the clarinetist's harmonic landscape: "A scale-model city, unlighted, in a shelf/In the knee of the Madonna; a barbed wire fence/Strummed by the wind: dream-singing emblems." And Michael S. Harper leads readers along John Coltrane's voice, directly into his mouth. "I don't remember train whistles/or the corroding trestles of ice/seeping through the hangband,/vaulting northward in shining triplets,/but the feel of the reed on my tongue/haunts me even now, my incisors/pulled so the pain wouldn't lurk."

Nearly all writing about jazz is a testimony to magic, an attempt to honor and make palpable a musical epiphany. Poetry, because it is patterned on sound and driven by the improvisational leap, has a natural affinity with jazz, and the many fine poems in this collection demonstrate how the two can walk hand in hand. Editors Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa have brought care and vision to this volume. At the end of the book, a section of statements on jazz and poetics, by contributors, underscores the passionate link. "I cannot imagine a world without jazz," says poet Anselm Hollo, "be it hot or cool; it is one of the relatively few good reasons one has for enduring this century." -- Bart Schneider

Kirkus Reviews
Jazz, like baseball, is an American cultural phenomenon and, like its sporting counterpart, has inspired a wealth of great writing. Former New Yorker and Alfred A. Knopf editor in chief Gottlieb, a relative newcomer to the ranks of jazz fans, has drawn on those riches for this enormous compilation of great nonfiction writing about the music, and his choices are astute ones. All the great names in jazz writing are here: Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Gene Lees, Nat Hentoff, Leonard Feather, Whitney Balliet, and Martin Williams. Autobiographical material covers just about every major musician who ever put pen to paper (or voice to tape recorder). Gottlieb hasn't shied away from controversy, either, including such combative figures as James Lincoln Collier and Stanley Crouch (don't invite them to the same party!). There are even some unexpected literary lights like Jean-Paul Sartre. One might quibble with some of his choices of specific pieces, and there ought to be more than one entry from Lees, but this is a good introductory collection for the beginning jazz reader, and for the real aficionado, a nice smorgasbord to be dipped into at leisure.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.80(d)

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