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


What was your office that you were impeached [from]?

I was the social coordinator as a student at Grinnell College for a couple years - that meant that I booked all the concerts and all the movies. It was great. I could get any movie I wanted to see. I just went to the catalog and bought it and hoped that the other students would like it. Now for music I think I had about $12,000, that was discretionary spending from this student body, from the student government. And today, you know, you'd be lucky to get one band for that, but my feeling was instead of going for some pop group that would absorb all the money, especially since I was interested in jazz, was that you could [get] four or five evenings with, you know – I'll give you one example. There was a rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. It's famous today because Janis Joplin got her start with them. But at this point, Janis Joplin left them and they were a third-rate rock trio. But because of the name they had gathered through Joplin's association, they were getting 12 grand for an evening. Three men, three inferior musicians. Duke Ellington's entire orchestra was $4,000. So it gives you an idea – the legendary Duke Ellington.

So I was able to get Ellington, I was able to get Armstrong and I fell in love with Cecil Taylor's music. I'd first seen him on television, on a PBS kind of [channel] – NET they called it in those days . . ., educational television. And he was playing inside the keys, and I read a little bit about him and heard a couple of records, and I was really excited. So when I got the gig to be social coordinator I went to a couple of the clubs I used to go to and found a phone number somebody used to have, and I went to visit him. He lived on Canal Street at the time, and he was sitting at the piano and I was sitting on a piano bench around the piano. I told him what I wanted to do, bring him to Grinnell College, and he said, oh, he'd like to do a poetry reading and Andrew Cyrille does a drum workshop and I said, "Great." I said, "Well, I need something we can write down, have you got a piece of paper?" I was like so unprofessional.

So Cecil – there was like a cocktail napkin on the piano and he pushes it off to me. A cocktail napkin! With a red ring from a glass. And I wrote out this contract on the – he signed it. And I brought it back and – I almost got expelled when they saw the cocktail napkin. And I said well this is just a, you know, place mat until we get the real contract. So then the faculty liaison whom I worked with called him and we worked it out, and they came for four days. What a quartet - Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille. To my absolute astonishment, and I tell this to anyone watching who is interested, the tape of this evening is in the Library of Congress. I don't know how they got it, but they have it and you can listen to it there.

Uh, so Cecil came and we had a panel discussion one afternoon where I basically did a – not a panel but I did a conversation on-stage with Cecil. And at one point, Cecil – we opened it up to questions and somebody said that his music was so complicated and difficult and all that and Cecil said, "The artist prepares, the listeners should prepare too." [At t]his, they went nuts. They really resented this even though they're students who do nothing but prepare to learn how to read Ulysses or Samuel Beckett or whoever the hell they were studying, somehow [in] music this was too much. And they got very upset and then there was the concert, which was four hours long, which started out with a full house and ended up with something less than a full house. I think there [were] six of us left at the very end. And, uh, immediately – I don't know who it was, I never had a notion who it was – somebody on the student government initiated impeachment proceedings against me because they said I had squandered student government funds, their money, on a charlatan. And, uh, I had to sit in the student union, by myself. Nobody would come near me; it was like having leprosy. People would walk by and sort of avert their eyes - for two hours while they were debating the pros and cons of my leadership of the social coordinating committee.

And like Andrew Johnson I won by one or two votes, and then they came in and suddenly, no, you're still social coordinator. And, but, that was a moment, and then of course as Cecil became very big at Antioch and Wisconsin and became a source of pride. And now when I meet people, it's like, "Oh, yeah Cecil – that was great. If you'd only been there." So it really was an extraordinary event, and there is a postscript to this, which is that in the, in the late 1990s Ken Burns was completing his 20-hour, or 19-hour, television series Jazz, Ken Burns' Jazz. And I was one of the talking heads in it, and at one point when they were interviewing me, I told the Cecil Taylor story about "the artist prepares and the listener prepares." So if you watch the Burns film, you see me saying that and then they cut to Branford Marsalis who says, "That's bullshit. I don't have to be able to play like the Knicks to enjoy a basketball game." And they came back to me and I explained that in fact arts are different from basketball, and even basketball you have to know the rules before you can enjoy it, before you can really get involved in it. So Branford's always regretted that because he felt [he] was quoted out of context and all of that. But so this argument exists, went on for another 35 years. As I said, I think now Cecil is pretty much accepted as a major figure.