In the illustrious and richly documented history of American jazz, no figure has been more controversial than the jazz critic. Jazz critics can be revered or reviled—often both—but they should not be ignored. And while the tradition of jazz has been covered from seemingly every angle, nobody has ever turned the pen back on itself to chronicle the many writers who have helped define how we listen to and how we understand jazz. That is, of course, until now.
In Blowin’ Hot and Cool, John Gennari provides a definitive history of jazz criticism from the 1920s to the present. The music itself is prominent in his account, as are the musicians—from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Roscoe Mitchell, and beyond. But the work takes its shape from fascinating stories of the tradition’s key critics—Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins, and Stanley Crouch, among many others. Gennari is the first to show the many ways these critics have mediated the relationship between the musicians and the audience—not merely as writers, but in many cases as producers, broadcasters, concert organizers, and public intellectuals as well.
For Gennari, the jazz tradition is not so much a collection of recordings and performances as it is a rancorous debate—the dissonant noise clamoring in response to the sounds of jazz. Against the backdrop of racial strife, class and gender issues, war, and protest that has defined the past seventy-five years in America, Blowin’ Hot and Cool brings to the fore jazz’s most vital critics and the role they have played not only in defining the history of jazz but also in shaping jazz’s significance in American culture and life.
In the United States, African American and Italian cultures have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. From as early as nineteenth-century African American opera star Thomas Bowers—“The Colored Mario”—all the way to hip-hop entrepreneur Puff Daddy dubbing himself “the Black Sinatra,” the affinity between black and Italian cultures runs deep and wide. Once you start looking, you’ll find these connections everywhere. Sinatra croons bel canto over the limousine swing of the Count Basie band. Snoop Dogg deftly tosses off the line “I’m Lucky Luciano ’bout to sing soprano.” Like the Brooklyn pizzeria and candy store in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, or the basketball sidelines where Italian American coaches Rick Pitino and John Calipari mix it up with their African American players, black/Italian connections are a thing to behold—and to investigate.
In Flavor and Soul, John Gennari spotlights this affinity, calling it “the edge”—now smooth, sometimes serrated—between Italian American and African American culture. He argues that the edge is a space of mutual emulation and suspicion, a joyous cultural meeting sometimes darkened by violent collision. Through studies of music and sound, film and media, sports and foodways, Gennari shows how an Afro-Italian sensibility has nourished and vitalized American culture writ large, even as Italian Americans and African Americans have fought each other for urban space, recognition of overlapping histories of suffering and exclusion, and political and personal rispetto.
Thus, Flavor and Soul is a cultural contact zone—a piazza where people express deep feelings of joy and pleasure, wariness and distrust, amity and enmity. And it is only at such cultural edges, Gennari argues, that America can come to truly understand its racial and ethnic dynamics.