BOOK REVIEW: Matt Brennan – When Genres Collide – Down Beat, Rolling Stone, and the Struggle between Jazz and Rock

Matt Brennan – When Genres Collide – Down Beat, Rolling Stone, and the Struggle between Jazz and Rock
(Bloomsbury. 256pp. Book review by Frank Griffith) 

Author Matt Brennan fully explores the development and dichotomy in popular music criticism during the late 1950s and 60s, using as major sources the predominant publications, Downbeat and Rolling Stone.

Brennan, Chancellor’s Fellow of Music at the University of Edinburgh, also benefited from interviewing the likes of Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Langdon Winner and the eminent Dan Morgenstern. All of whom were in their prime during this period representing a range of genres and popular music publications.

This book goes well beyond the previously accepted wisdom about jazz-rock fusion to examine the convoluted relationships between two musical forms. The author tests established assumptions and encourages us to revisit our thinking on how the past is constructed and assimilated. Using Downbeat and Rolling Stone as well as the formation of jazz and popular music courses in academia, he has presented to us a culture that makes clear distinctions between rock and jazz genres. These rendered them incapable of being blended into the same pot, as it were.

A particular example of comparing an effective jazz rocker versus a not so convincing one was what Langdon Winner wrote in Rolling Stone in July 1969. His comments about Freddie Hubbard’s A Soul Experiment LP were as follows. “What Freddie Hubbard has done is to bring together a random collection of jazz, rock and soul players with little affinity for each other but in the process lost exactly what he thought he would find – his ‘soul’ “. In contrast, referring to Herbie Mann’s LP, Memphis Underground Winner wrote “the integrity of the jazz and rock styles is carefully preserved….Mann found this balance and ought to be listened to”. There are many other examples included throughout this book of significant jazz musicians integrating their music with rock rhythms and instruments in a successful fashion.

There are a number of quotes included- some amusing and others prophetic that effectively project the sentiment and ethos of this book. “Rock ‘n’ roll is the most raucous form of jazz, beyond a doubt (Duke Ellington – 1955) and “Nobody likes rock and roll but the public” (Bill Haley – 1956). While a bit offhand, they help to give this genre a prominence and identity of its own.

Similarly, Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone wrote in 1971: ” Popular Music criticism has had few guidelines. Jazz men developed some, but rock and roll critics, finally descending upon us circa 1967, were mere babes in the woods”. They invented this journalistic genre on the hoof as they went. Finally, the legendary liner notes writer, head of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and former Downbeat editor Dan Morgenstern had the following to say about art versus selling out. “Who the hell says that “art” must always be pure and holy and profound? Me, I’d rather tap my feet to some soul jazz, organs, electric bass and all than be hectored by some no-blowing poseurs naked ego trip”. All grist for one’s mill in sorting the frauds amongst the entertainers.

Brennan weaves a comprehensive yet economically delivered timeline of how rock and jazz musics met, collided and fused a fusion both musically and metaphorically through this radical and innovative time in popular music journalism. A full length study of the discourses allowing jazz and rock to circle and face off each other as opponents and comrades alike.

This book is a must read for both students and boffins of criticism, popular music and the social politics that accompanied it.

Categories: miscellaneous

Leave a Reply