on Conversations in Jazz and Music in the Air: Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason, ed. by Toby Gleason (Yale)
John Coltrane told Ralph Gleason that at live gigs his quartet always played “My Favorite Things” for fourteen minutes and his solo repeated a general pattern. “This is something I didn’t want it to do,” said Coltrane, “but it does it … I don’t want it to be that way … But it usually goes almost the same way every night, every time.” Their conversation, recorded in 1961 in Gleason’s Berkeley living room, comprises chapter one of Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews, one of two Gleason compilations published together by Yale University Press. The other is Music in the Air: Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason. Both books were edited by Toby Gleason, Ralph’s son.
In 1934 at age 17, Ralph Gleason contracted a virulent strain of the measles. He lay in bed listening to the radio whereupon he discovered jazz – Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Cab Calloway. In 1950 at 33, he got his first fulltime job as a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle after having produced jazz concerts in the Bay Area and writing freelance. At his death in 1975, Gleason was one of his generation’s most widely recognized music critic, contributing articles on jazz, rock and folk for Downbeat, Variety and Rolling Stone. His liner notes for jazz albums became iconic.
“You can call him a music critic,” writes Ted Gioia, “but he might be better described as an evangelist for cutting-edge artistry and social change. He praised the greatest artists, and usually before most of the public even knew who they were.” Gioia provides the introduction to the transcripts of fourteen interviews Gleason conducted with jazz greats at his house from 1959 to 1969. One exception, the Ellington dialogue, was broadcast on Gleason’s KQED television show “Jazz Casual” (which ran from 1961 to 1968). In that conversation, Ellington says:
I never concern myself with the size of the audience. I don’t even want to know whether they’re listening or not. I mean, I’m sometimes annoyed when I suspect that possibly an audience is analyzing. I don’t appreciate analysts of music … If you’re busy analyzing, you don’t have enough time left to listen … A listener is one who listens, and if they once listen they always listen. They never change from a listener to an analyst. Never.
Certainly Gleason never did. He was an attuned listener during conversations and had the intuitive patience to open the way to the next idea with canny anticipation. His jazzmen had a way of preempting analysis by offering their own information about technique, as Ellington does when discussing composing “Mood Indigo.” When Bill Evans happens to use the phrase “a jazz mind,” Gleason asks him to elaborate. Evans says:
I don’t know, lemme think a minute. There’s a particular attitude, I think, sort of an instantaneous response or something like that. It’s just sort of a direct thing, and this immediately imposes, I think, a closed area within which you have to work, an area in which you develop the facility, you know. It’s just like if you pick up a ball and you know how to throw, you don’t have to think about throwing it. In jazz … your feeling sends out sort of a motivation and that has to be answered without so much figuring and tearing apart. There has to be a real facility to answer that motivation.
Gleason was sufficiently respected to attract John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie to his house, had the graciousness to make them comfortable, and the ambition to shape these talks into seminal reflections on the art and the lives of great musicians. There is Horace Silver speaking in detail about his early training, and Quincy Jones telling stories about playing in different countries. Milt Jackson discusses his debts to Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
A co-founder of both Rolling Stone and the Monterey Jazz Festival, Gleason was also a lifelong defender of free speech and leftist politics. He testified at Lenny Bruce’s trial and got his own name placed on Nixon’s enemies list. His famous trench coat hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He wasn’t the first jazz critic; Otis Fergusen covered jazz for The New Republic in the mid-1930’s. But Gleason’s affinity for treating new music as news made his readers regard the popular arts as essential to contemporary experience. He was the first daily journalist to write about jazz club openings with the type of coverage given to theater or classical music concerts. As a rock ‘n roll and R&B critic, he was among the first to treat Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles as major performance artists.
Gleason was moved by the music and intrigued by the musicians. You can hear his unabashed passion and avidity through the nimble prose of his articles collected in Music in the Air. When Ellington’s longtime alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges died, Gleason wrote, “Hodges on stage was beautiful. Not only did he look like a prince, but he had the most incredibly bored facial expressions. He could look out under his eyebrows with the pain of infinite patience at some nut in the hall. When he got up to play it was an exercise in time: Hodges never rushed. He was as deliberate as an ocean swell. He would get up, walk out from his chair and get to the microphone in time to adjust it and start to play. Not an extra second. But, my God, how he could play! Rocking those blues out line by line with the horn singing to you and the ends of phrases giving him time to take it out of his mouth and run his tongue across his lips, put it back and sing out another line. ‘All the boysintheband eat puss-eeeeeeeeeeeey!’”
He wrote about payola, Jonathan Winters, the flower children of San Francisco, and the need to get rid of Nixon. About the new generation of songwriters including Paul Simon, Marty Balin, Phil Ochs and John Sebastian, he wrote, “The New Youth of the Rock Generation … has taken the creation of lyrics and the music out of the hands of the hacks and given it over to the poets.” Gleason covered the Jefferson Airplane’s inaugural performance and wrote the liner notes for their first album. But for him, Dylan was the greatest of these figures because of the moral force of his early lyrics, and Gleason wrote about him several times and directed a press conference with him in 1965. “He is gradually forming his voice into an effective instrument for the subtleties of his songs,” Gleason wrote. “His harmonica playing I find more and more impressive on further hearing and his guitar accompaniment is adequate for his performance.”
Of course, there is a whiff of the archival in all of this material, and Gleason’s prose is neither nuanced nor noted for its unique descriptions. But his cultural moment is very much alive in the work. Gleason provided words in public spaces that introduced waves of new artists to a growing legion of listeners. Many of those artists were his close friends. At the end of his introduction to Music in the Air, Paul Scanlon writes, “My favorite image of Ralph is on a Jazz Casual DVD … The John Coltrane Quartet is performing ‘Afro Blue,’ and ‘Trane has just launched a fiery soprano sax solo. Seated on a stool next to McCoy Tyner’s piano, pipe in hand, Ralph is grinning furiously and shaking his head at the wonder of it all.”
[Published May 24, 2016. Conversations In Jazz, 296 pages, $30.00 hardcover. Music In The Air, 328 pages, $30.00 hardcover]