What are your thoughts on the state of music writing? Is this a golden era, an exhausted era or an era blown so wide open there’s no attention span for the reflective essay?
I’m not a good person to assess the state music writing, since I only dabble, but from my perspective as a reader, everything since the 1960s seems to have been golden, especially right now. When people tell me “There’s no good music nowadays,” I think No, there’s tons of it, you just aren’t looking. Same with writing. The market for paid music writing has definitely changed since the standard “golden era” of Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, but markets aren’t a measure of quality or readers’ tastes. In the late 1970s, Frank Zappa was complaining about the past many people now romanticize when he said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” Golden eras always contain sprinkles from a golden shower. We have scores of talented music writers working today, like Amanda Petrusich, Joe Bonomo, Daphne Brooks, Mike McGonigal, Ann Powers, Jessica Hopper and Paula Mejia to name a few. Although technology and society demand more of our attention at once, many of us still toggle between devices and scroll screens and then sit down with a long, deep, immersive story. Human beings make sense of life through stories. It’s how our brains work. That hasn’t changed yet.
In THIS IS: ESSAYS ON JAZZ, you write mostly about events in the past, bringing a mix of research and personal history to it. How does that mix shift when writing about music today?
My writing always shifts, because I don’t have much of a formula for approaching stuff. I just play it by ear story by story. Every essay is different because the material’s different, requires different architecture and context to explore it or make it make sense. I try to write about people who make or love music, not about music. I’m interested in the way music effects people, how it unites and moves us, defines our lives. Since that’s totally different that music criticism or theory, it means the mix in my music writing often includes something personal, if not personal history, than some part of me.
Why is mid-century jazz still so appealing? More specifically, are there seminal writings that have kept the faith and returned the focus?
Good question. I don’t know why in general, except that it’s really just that good. First, there are those beats, that rhythm. It’s infectious. It can’t not move you. Also, the best mid-century jazz is inspired. When things are new and people are still exploring their abilities and their new music’s possibilities, the neural pathways haven’t cemented into place, and that freshness and excitement comes through. This music has a sense of authenticity and energy, that people made it because they felt something and had something to say. They hurt. They were oppressed. They felt joy and fear and spiritual awakening. That’s all in there. You can’t manufacture true feeling under commercial pressure or because you want to sell something. Jazz’s spontaneous improvisation also has a tension in it that’s compelling. Not all of it. Like any genre and era, mid-century jazz is filled with watered down copycat stuff, bland takes, failed riffs and people with musical ability but nothing to say, but the good stuff is totally one of a kind true blue. As for seminal writings, Stanley Crouch’s recent Charlie Parker biography definitely keeps the faith and honors the music. It’s incredible!
How do you get around to writing on a subject? Do you go looking for other writing and respond to extent work? Or do you hunt for experiences that might make a good essay? Or is the process something altogether organic??
My subjects come from life. I find them while listening to music, while reading and walking and getting out in the world. I don’t remember how I first started writing about jazz, but I do know I was listening to a lot of it at the time, and the more I read about the people playing the stuff I loved, the more it compelled me to capture it in story, and to answer certain questions that the historical record raised. I’ve never had luck hunting for subjects. Forcing it doesn’t work for me, though maybe that’s because my technique isn’t that good. Instead, I trained myself to see material all around me, from conversations I have to experiences, to questions that nag at me, so I work from there.
Which essayists outside of the music world have influenced you most?
Oh wow, quit a few: Ellen Willis, Ariel Levy, Roxane Gay, Susan Orlean, Nick Hornby, Sandra Tsing Loh, Gerald Early, Ian Frazier, Elif Batuman, Steven Church, Geoff Dyer, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Luc Sante and Cheryl Strayed.
Your subjects are rendered so fully. Do you also write fiction?
Yes, not anymore, but before I wrote essays, I wrote short stories. They weren’t much to crow about, but writing them and reading fiction taught me the importance of scenes, characters, action and dialogue—people in a world that readers recognize—and showed me that that was the kind of nonfiction I gravitated to as a reader anyway. I want my people rounded, complex, contradictory and deep.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on something I’m extremely excited about: a book about the rural San Joaquin Valley of California. The book weaves a road trip I took through the Valley in 2014, with a boat trip an important early historian took through it in 1938 to create both a narrative profile of the place and a profile of that historian. It’s been tough but fun. The place is huge and complicated, and it’s fascinated me for nearly two decades; I’ve been struggling to write about it for years. I want to bring the place to life for people, since so few outsiders pay it any attention. I also want this historian to get the profile he deserves, because he lived an interesting life driving all over the state interviewing thousands of early Californians and Native Americans, yet he’s never received a long profile of his own. The book is meant to show the magic and personality of this seemingly mundane, flat, rural place, since so many of us rely on it for food yet dismiss it as ugly, bland and uninteresting. I want the book to show how cool, weird and magical the place is. And I hope it can gives locals a little more history about their home turf, because it’s really a one of a kind place, no matter what interstate travelers say. Speaking of fiction, I fill in some of the gaps in the historical record with fiction, bringing to life scenes on his boat trip that went unrecorded.