A Music Fan Finds His Muse In Jazz

Gary Giddins grew up on the south shore of Long Island during the 1950s and early 60s listening to classical music and popular artists like Little Richard, Jackie Wilson and Chuck Berry.

But at 15, Giddins visited New Orleans and found jazz.

"The music was exhilarating, and it was also socially exhilarating because it was during the civil rights era," says Giddins, visiting lecturer at The CUNY Graduate Center. "Here was this magical room at the Royal Orlean Hotel, where this black band, Emanuel Sayles and his Silver Leaf Ragtimers, was playing, and the audience was completely integrated." Jazz, he says, "represented a kind of cultural and social enlightenment, and I thought ‘this is a world I want to be a part of.'"

Returning to New York, Giddins began listening to jazz seriously. Then he heard Louis Armstrong for the first time. "That just changed my life because up to that point I think my favorite piece of music was Bach's B Minor Mass, and Armstrong's 1928 recordings were the first thing I ever heard that moved me as deeply as Bach did."

Giddins, who knew he wanted to be a writer by the age of eight, earned an English degree at Grinnell College in Iowa. Trained to be a literary critic, he had no idea he would end up writing about jazz for a career. "The two eventually met up, and I became very excited about writing about jazz."

The Village Voice would become his outlet for jazz writing, highlighted by his 30-year column Weather Bird, which ended in December 2003. During and after his run at the Voice, Giddins wrote ten books and won several awards. His Visions of Jazz won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award, which was the first time a work on jazz had won a major American literary prize.

Giddins' latest book, Jazz, co-written with Scott DeVeaux and released in October, presents a history of jazz and a comprehensive musical appreciation guide.

"I don't know any other book on jazz quite like it," says Giddins. "We picked 78 tracks, and we analyzed them second by second, but we didn't use musicological language for the most part because we wanted anybody to understand it."

Jazz, originally published in a textbook edition meant for jazz courses at the undergraduate level, took six years to write.It presents jazz in the broader context of American life and culture. "We were sick and tired of these jazz histories that treat jazz as though it's in some sort of vacuum and has no relationship to the rest of the world," says Giddins. "We wanted to show that jazz was influenced by the Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, the civil rights era. Everything that goes on influences art and jazz is no exception to that."

Giddins is taking a detour from his music writing in his eleventh book, Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema.

He's been teaching a jazz course at The Graduate Centersince 2008, and he says it's "the most fun" he's ever had teaching.

But despite his knowledge of jazz, Giddins confesses he's not musically inclined. "I tried to play several instruments, but I have no talent whatsoever," he says. "My only real gift was for playing the record player."