Criticism plays a significant role in jazz. The critics not only helped spread the aesthetic qualities of the music, but also pushed the color line and challenged the racial equality in America. As someone who has been obsessed with jazz over a year ago, I spend innumerable amount of time catching up with jazz recordings, read the history of jazz, and digest doses of jazz-related essays. Yet, my knowledge is nothing compares to the level of details and researches John Gennari, an assistant professor of English at the University of Vermont, pour into his stellar Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics.
With thorough documentation (57 pages of notes), gripping narration, and open-minded observation, Gennari captured one of the fascinating and engaging aspects of jazz: it’s writing. Blowin’ Hot and Cool sets off in 1935 with John Hammond and Leonard Feather—two white critics who started the jazz criticism movement—then progresses all the way up to Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch, and my main man Greg Tate who is a brilliant, contemporary writer. What intrigues me the most about this book is that whatever the controversial issues were—critics vs. critics, white vs. black, musicians vs. writers, traditional vs. modern, politic vs. racism, underground vs. commercial—Gennari provides readers both side of the story and backs up his analysis with quotes and excerpts.
Again, as a jazz enthusiast as well as my interest in music criticism, Blowin’ Hot and Cool is an invaluable gem. It is more enriching than the nineteen-hour documentary of Ken Burns’s Jazz and much better represented than The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. And I strongly agree with Gennari that: “Somehow this jazz writing seemed more important, more necessary than the writing about rock and pop music. Many rock musicians were well-known celebrities; we saw them on television. We love their music because it was accessible. Those of us who were musical dabblers played rock and funk because they felt like native languages. If we ventured into jazz, it was as a second language, and it came with no guarantee of an audience.”