BOOK REVIEW: Ralph J. Gleason: Music in the Air: The Selected Writings and Conversations in Jazz

Ralph J. Gleason Music in the Air: The Selected Writings and Conversations in Jazz
(Yale University Press, 328pp. and 292pp. Book review by Chris Parker)

“When arguing about politics or society in general he always sought, and secured, a position of high moral ground. When writing about music, he returned again and again to the power it conveyed, noting that an entire generation was finding its prophets in strange places, in dance halls and on the jukebox.” This summation of the ethos informing the writing of music journalist/social commentator Ralph J. Gleason (1917–1975) is taken from the Introduction to Music in the Air by Jann Wenner, for whose Rolling Stone magazine Gleason acted as midwife and éminence grise.

The articles (from the San Francisco Chronicle, Downbeat, Ramparts and Rolling Stone), liner notes, book extracts and essays in Toby Gleason’s selection from his father’s work all conform perfectly to Wenner’s description; the interviews in Conversations in Jazz, likewise, are all conducted with the tact, sympathy and understanding that characterised the man. Indeed the latter selection, also by Toby Gleason, but graced with pithy and insightful introductory notes by Ted Gioia, derives much of its considerable power from precisely these qualities; Gleason was clearly a great listener, to both the music and the people who produced it, and the nuggets of wisdom and frank self-revelation he elicits from the likes of John Coltrane, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, all four members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Sonny Rollins et al. constitute a great contribution to our understanding of a pivotal era in jazz (the late 1950s/early 1960s).

It is Music in the Air, however, that really showcases the breadth and subtlety of Gleason’s writing talent. On Miles Davis’s foray into electronic music via In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, for instance, Gleason unerringly puts his finger on what now seems an obvious truth, but was then deeply controversial: “Listen to this. How can it ever be the same? I don’t mean you can’t listen to Ben [Webster]. How silly. We can always listen to Ben play ‘Funny Valentine’, until the end of the world it will be beautiful and how can anything be more beautiful than [Johnny] Hodges playing ‘Passion Flower’? […] It’s not more beautiful, just different. A new beauty. A different beauty. The other beauty is still beauty. This is new and right now…” On Duke Ellington as a pianist: “At one number he would be the suave, international boulevardier, and in the next tune he would be as down-home funky as the raunchiest, back-room, afer-hours piano player.” On Elvis Presley: “[He] was simple and direct and uncomplicated. He did the visual thing Jim Morrison does but he did it with less sophistication and without the pure cynicism of Morrison or Mick Jagger.” On Bob Dylan: “His songs are chains of flashing images strung together to get out past political rhetoric and pretense and to discuss things as they are in moral terms.”

On matters political/social, too, Gleason is similarly pungent yet thoughtful: his opposition to Richard Nixon is particularly stringent, laced with scornful passion, utterly committed; his summary of the hippie generation is both empathetic and clear-sighted; his thoughts on the payola scandal utterly free of the cant that characterised so much of his fellow journalists’ reaction to it. And the clincher? His love of the work of that greatest of satirical social commentators, Lenny Bruce, to whose ‘bits’ he provides not only a uniquely insightful assessment of their comedic power and relevance, but also a valuable gloss, explaining all their contemporary references and obscure Yiddish terminology, making his 20-page essay on the comedian worth the price of admission alone.

And most importantly, as Ted Gioia points out in his Foreword to the jazz interviews, Gleason has lasted, because “he disdained the ephemeral and championed the timeless”.

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