I’m slowly working my way again through “Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews,” which will be published May 24 by Yale University Press. As the Yale press web page explains: “The co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Ralph J. Gleason was among the most respected journalists, interviewers, and critics writing about popular music in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
To which I’d add that Gleason did those things when a journalist, interviewer and critic could, by virtue of his or her work, earn a broad and deep measure of respect. And when a co-founder of Rolling Stone could delve deeply into jazz as more than just hobby or affectation. Yale’s site also mentions that Gleason was “the only music journalist included on President Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘Enemies List,’ which Gleason himself considered ‘the highest honor a man’s country can bestow upon him.’ I haven’t gotten to the explanation of that tidbit yet, but I’m hoping it’s contained in the Jann Wenner’s foreword to a companion volume, “Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason.” Both editions were edited by Gleason’s son Toby, himself a forty-year veteran of the music business.
“Conversations in Jazz,” has a foreword and introductory notes by Ted Gioia, which frame these encounters nicely and wisely. I’m bound in there, too, in the front matter, with an advance word of praise I’d happily provided Yale editor-at-large Steve Wasserman (whose list also includes Scott Timberg’s “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class,” the best book I’ve read on the contemporary context, or lack thereof, for culture in this country).
Here’s what I wrote:
As music, jazz takes shape through what exceptional musicians play. As social history and philosophy, it is often best revealed through what these musicians say—provided there’s a conversation partner with a firm grasp of how jazz gets played and laid-back attitude toward how life gets lived. Ralph Gleason, an influential music critic, brought jazz into countless American living rooms during the 1960s through his TV series “Jazz Casual.” Yet the one-on-one discussions in Gleason’s own Berkeley, California living room—tape recorder rolling, Gleason and one or another of jazz’s greats sitting in overstuffed leather chairs—tell deeper stories. Here, framed with a wise and light touch by writer Ted Gioia, we get windows into personal worlds: John Coltrane on the cusp of a breakthrough; Sonny Rollins entering a period of reclusion; “Philly” Jo Jones sharing drumming tradecraft and history; Duke Ellington explaining why, in music as in life, problems are opportunities.
Last night, I found myself focused on Gleason’s May 1961 interview with John Coltrane. As Gioia points out, Coltrane was “at a turning point in his career,” having left Miles Davis’ group, and was soon to begin his important relationship with a newly launched Impulse! record label. I love this excerpt below for several reasons, including: the humility with which Gleason asks his question and Coltrane answers; the relevance of this exchange now, a half-century later, in terms of a “globalized” notion of jazz; the power, as expressed by Coltrane, of jazz culture “in the air”; and the hints here—“something that’s coming”—of the introspection that contributed to Coltrane’s masterpiece, still four years off, “A Love Supreme.”
Gleason: There is another question I want to ask you, too, which is kind of a vague thing, but I’ve always been curious about it. If someone were to come from a foreign country and say what does this music mean to you that you are devoting your life to, how would you answer them?
Coltrane: That’s a very good question. That’s a question which I’ve asked myself too, and when I can fully answer that question, if I’m ever able to do it, maybe you would just be able to get my answer from just listening to the music, because it just started as a thing that I heard around me. Like everybody in this country, you can grow up and hear this music all the time and it’s really part of you from the time you’re just a baby because it’s being played all day in some form. It just happened to be a thing I liked at first, then it happened to be a thing that I felt that I had some of it in me to do this, and it came to the point where I wanted to be very good at it and I wanted to excel and now it’s reached the point where I’m asking the questions, what does it mean. In order to really try to get down and present what I honestly feel is really the way I look at the music and what it means to me, it is my only means of expression. I don’t voice opinions much about anything because I’m usually in the middle, I never make up my mind on anything, which is the way I am except in music and sometimes I’ll vacillate in that. I usually have to say something and I will get it together and eventually come out and say something about it. I don’t know, someday I’m going to answer this question for you
RJG: This began as fun?
JC: Yeah, and it still is, it’s sort of a thing where I get the fun. With playing I have a good time, have a ball.
RJG: But it’s more serious now?
JC: Yeah. Now I’m wondering about the things like you say, responsibility to this and that. And I’ve found that sometimes just me having a good time isn’t enough for people at all times. There are some things that have to be considered, too. Maybe I get a kick out of staying up playing the hardest song I can find or doing some things that are to me very clever where this man here don’t know nothing about it. It might not touch him, he don’t know up here what it is, it might not mean anything at all to him. So I’ve had to think about those things, too. As to what I want to actually convey, what I really want to say with the music, I haven’t gotten it together yet. It’s something that’s coming. I know that whatever I begin to think about, that is going to influence the melody or the rhythm or the lack of rhythm or the harmony or lack of that, because it’s going to have to be more than just academic or exercises.