JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


What contextual framework would you offer novice listeners as they approach the works of Ornette Coleman?

I think when you first listen to Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, you have to listen to it the same way you would listen to anything else and that is naively and open-minded. Um, and see how it affects you. You know, when [Coleman] first started playing some people just [said], "Oh, I can't," other people liked it. Some people said that he sounds like he's laughing through the instrument. Somebody else said he's crying through the instrument. You have to sort of see what your own initial response is.

But then the next step is you sort of have to teach yourself how to listen to it. Just the way you have to teach yourself how to read Shakespeare, or how to read James Joyce. You know, there are works of art that don't come naturally. If all you wanted was stuff that's easy, you know, you read nothing but detective fiction and listen to Top 40 radio. We want to know more than that. And Ornette Coleman's solos, for example, can be maybe five or six minutes. They don't have any harmonic control. They're all based on melodic ideas as he thinks of them. So you have to sort of train yourself to be able to follow him. I mean, after all, if he can think five minutes, you can. And he's doing all the work; you just have to follow it. And then suddenly you see there are themes; there are motifs. He isn't just making it up - he's making it up but he's making it up with an ideational and compositional groundwork. He is trying to tell a story. Just like Louis Armstrong but using a different language.

When you listen to Cecil Taylor - let's talk about Cecil Taylor for a second. Because, you know, I've kind of been involved with Cecil Taylor throughout my career. I brought him to Grenouille. I was impeached by the school student government because they thought he was a charlatan. And then a year later when he went to teach at Antioch it was like, hey we had him first. But that's something else. I remember how vividly Cecil Taylor was attacked by most of my fellow critics. They didn't get it - he played too long. They didn't understand the form. Now, some of those same critics will go see him, as they did in the summer of 2008 when he played a magnificent solo for the JVC Jazz Festival and got unbelievable reviews. And all of these people were saying, "Boy, has he gotten mellow." No, he's still Cecil Taylor. You've figured it out. After 40 years of listening to his music, you're realizing that what he's playing is very accessible.

It was revolutionary at the time. It sounded almost like atonal music although he's very rarely truly atonal. He doesn't play licks. He doesn't play clichés. He plays drums on the piano at times - it sounds like 88 tune drums. Some times he's very melodic, very quiet. Then suddenly there are these fast cascades. It's your job to just sit back and see what he does and respond to it. But a lot of people came to him with prejudices. Jazz piano should sound like Thelonius Monk or Bud Powell or Bill Evans. He doesn't sound like that therefore it's his fault. And now Cecil Taylor is universally accounted as one of the absolute giants of the music. And, again, he refused to be pinned down. He refused to compromise. He just waited out the audience.

Thelonius Monk famously said [it] many years ago; [Monk] had the same response; critics hated him. They called him a charlatan, a phony, a fake in the '40s and early '50s. He said you play what you want to play even if it does take them 15, 20 years to catch up. And that's basically the attitude of most of the jazz greats. They play what they want to play. They do not play a producer's music oriented towards whatever the commercial fashion is. When they do, most jazz fans get sort of put out by that. 'Cause that's not what we want from musicians that we venerate, that we think are serious artists.