Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

A Trained Musician

Emboldened by Terry Teachout's excellent biography Pops to write a Louis Armstrong piece of my own (which has already been linked to here), I thought I'd better read more Terry Teachout. I know, that shouldn't have been necessary, especially for an arts journalism activist like myself. But in fact I've never tried to "keep up" except in my area of specialization, popular music, and not so much there--elsewhere, I read arts journalism mostly as a consumer, of the arts covered or the periodical in which the coverage appears. I'd read Teachout in the Times a few times, but never in his main venues, Commentary and The Wall Street Journal. I'd heard his name--it's not a name you forget--and was aware he was a political conservative of some sort, but that was it. So I took his Mencken bio and an anthology he edited out of the library and got hold of his 2005 collection, A Terry Teachout Reader. The library books I skimmed (Mencken was interesting, anthology awful). The collection I began by dipping into essays whose subjects interested me and then, after 60 pages or so, read cover to cover, the way a collection should be read. I noticed lots of stuff, almost none of which got into the Armstrong piece. Herewith a rough precis of my findings.

As indicated in my piece, Teachout has the gift of enthusiasm--an enthusiasm that is not strictly ideological. Of course his tastes reflect his philosophy of life--they should. But throughout the arts and especially in dance, where he's a fan of Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris and a sympathetic admirer of Jerome Robbins, he's open to unlikely pleasures, as any halfway decent critic had better be. Moreover, he's not a snob--enthusiastic appraisals of animator Chuck Jones and bluegrass paterfamilias Bill Monroe, noir fiction and iTunes, testify to a general fondness for popular culture that has apparently gotten him in trouble over in dark precincts of Neoconistan where I never venture. But once I started reading him front to back these charms faded.

Thing is, Teachout's tastes do serve political purposes subtler than he lets on in any systematic way. It gives him some wiggle room on neoconservatism's vexing Europe question--source of all cultural good historically, socialist-nihilist viper's nest over much of the past, hell, century. Liking some popular culture also gives him the right to dismiss or ignore whole swaths of it--for instance, at least in the reader, all rock after Elvis, from "a white-trash family" but a Mario Lanza-loving "mama's boy" nevertheless. (Teachout rarely seems to get sex.) By putting a forgiving, populist, distinctly American face on politics and cultural standards with roots in a hidebound, quasi-Straussian elitism, he provides his sponsors at Commentary democratic cover and makes friendly gestures toward potential allies with consumer preferences in diversion more relaxed than Allan Bloom's. I'm not claiming Teachout's tastes are a calculated stance--I think they're pretty organic. But I'd be surprised if Teachout wasn't aware that they serve that function. This gets wearing for a lefty, even one who identifies with Teachout's autobiography like me--from what he says I infer that we come from rather similar backgrounds. (He grew up a Catholic in southeastern Missouri and I grew up a born-again Protestant in Queens, making us both "uncultured" minorities).

Anyway, a couple of specifics. One is that I was fascinated by his tastes in fiction, in part because I share some of his old-fashioned prejudices. Having just discovered the Greenwich Village novels of Dawn Powell, I now feel I should try one of the Ohios he recommends. He makes me wonder how I would now like John P. Marquand, who I last read when I was 12, though I was dismayed to learn that the NYU library doesn't own The Late George Apley. (News break: had it on my own bookshelves, a 75-cent paperback from 1970. First few pages read great.) His dismissal of John Steinbeck tempted me to go back to The Grapes of Wrath, which I fondly remember reading on the subway on the way to a college interview, only then I discovered it was 700-odd pages and said maybe later. Finally a similar take on Norman Mailer gave me a goal: re-read my ancient paperback version of The Deer Park (not so easy to find in the library these days either), which when I was 18 nearly had me writing a senior thesis on Hemingway and Mailer. (I reduced it to Hemingway and botched it good--a step on my road away from academia and toward journalism.) To my relief, I thought The Deer Park was aces, though not for the same reasons I did when I knew less about sex. The two Hollywood producers, especially the younger one, are characters all arts journalists should live with for a few days. But when I returned to Ancient Evenings, which 15 years ago had started strong but faded by page 300, 50 pages later I put it down again.

But then there's the music criticism and especially the jazz criticism, which I allude to briefly in the Armstrong piece. Once again, Teachout uses his fannish proclivities as a rhetorical platform. In particular, an engaging personal essay toward the end about the two years he worked as a jazz bassist in Kansas City retroactively enables a disingenuous polemical essay attacking the notion that jazz is intrinsically African-American. Teachout hates hates hates identity politics, and hates even more the idea that white male critics and scholars ipso facto engage in a hegemonic identity politics of their own. In this he is not unlike the white jazz musicians who worry they've been pushed to the back of the bus every time they fail to get a job. I'm sure this happens sometimes. But I'm equally sure it doesn't happen as often as they think.

In a 1995 Commentary essay called "The Color of Jazz" Teachout addresses the most prominent locus of this debate in my memory, Wynton Marsalis's leadership of the jazz repertory orchestra at Lincoln Center. This leadership has also been controversial as regards Marsalis's disdain for the jazz avant-garde, but Teachout, whose own tastes in jazz are every bit as conservative and possibly more, doesn't bring that up. He's much more interested in Marsalis's intellectual advisors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch. I edited Crouch for most of the '80s, which hardly made me his ideological ally, but except to say that Teachout makes some fair points I'd better stick with Murray, whose Stomping the Blues, which Teachout savages, and The Omni-Americans, which he doesn't mention, are critical touchstones. Do I agree with everything they have to say? Of course not. But if I had to choose between either and A Terry Teachout Reader it wouldn't be much of a contest.

What makes Murray, an Alabama-born "Negro" (Murray's preferred term) who had an Air Force career before turning to letters, so threatening to someone like Teachout is that he's mapped out a not altogether dissimilar aesthetic position. Unlike Houston Baker and the even more dubious Black Studies honchos Teachout targets in another essay, Murray palpably loves and admires the Western--that is, European--highbrow tradition and many of its American variants (a little too exclusively, in my far more populist view). Moreover, he's scathingly critical of much of what has passed for identity politics in black America. He just believes that the best African-American culture is every bit as deep and valuable as the best (strictly) European-derived culture--and that the best African-American music is rooted in the blues and always swings. I agree that this is overly programmatic--and that, to take an instance Teachout brings up, he probably underrates Benny Goodman. But I also agree that American popular music owes a debt to Africa that has been absolutely essential to its worldwide currency, and that Murray's idea that African-Americans are omni-Americans is always worth bearing in mind.

So when Teachout claims in "The Color of Jazz" that the notion that jazz is intrinsically African-American is essentially an invention of the Black Power movement--I'm generalizing, but that's the idea--I really don't know what to say. When the great jazz critic Martin Williams completed his canonical The Jazz Tradition in 1969, did H. Rap Brown already have his hooks in him? Of the 15 artists through whom Williams (a white Virginian of notably courtly mien) traces the tradition, only one is white. That would be Bix Beiderbecke, who Williams accounts gorgeous and influential but who--in Williams's view and also mine--had rhythmic problems, which in Williams's view (he was writing 40 years ago, remember) afflict most if not all white jazz musicians. And it's Williams's view--also a little too programmatic, but that's what theorists do for pete's sake--that rhythm has been the engine of aesthetic development in jazz.

I have no idea what Teachout thinks of Williams, if he thinks of him at all. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if he pointed out that Williams was not "a trained musician," just as Crouch is "an erstwhile drummer with little musical training" (who as it happens writes better about drumming than any jazz critic I've ever read) and Gary Giddins's non-musician status prevents him from understanding that Bing Crosby had blown out his voice before he even moved to Decca and became the biggest male star in the known universe. As for Pops, he reports proudly that it "is, surprisingly, the first fully sourced biography of Armstrong to be written by an author who is also a trained musician."

Surprisingly? How strange. I don't know how it works in classical music, where it's easy to imagine disappointed former prodigies turning to criticism when the work dries up. But in vernacular music, I can't think of a major biography that was written by a trained musician. I mean, trained by who? For how long? Does John Szwed count? He was in bands as a kid, and his Sun Ra is certainly major. Granted, as a totally untrained and in fact musically illiterate music critic, I have an interest here. But how does this play out in other fields? Do film critics need directorial or editing experience? How about dance critics? Choreography can be kind of notated, can't it?

In the final case, fortunately, Teachout provides an answer. He has become an enthusiastic dance critic, something of a balletomane. But in his Ballanchine essay, he reports matter-of-factly that he "first started looking at the dance" in 1988, when he was 32. And in his adoring appreciation of Arlene Croce--who as he never mentions has long been America's most widely respected politically conservative arts critic--he goes even further. Croce, he crows, "confesses to being a `dance illiterate' who has `never formally studied dance, never taken a music lesson, never performed on any stage.'" What saves her? Above all, her writing ability.

Ahh--that's how it works. Good writer, good critic. As long as it's not someplace Teachout can pull rank. Or someone whose politics he agrees with.


By Jones on May 21, 2010 7:51 AM

At the risk of sounding as if I missed the point, having myself written NI's equivalent of a senior thesis on Norman Mailer (and Norman Mailer only) the paragraph on fiction I also got something out of. But of course, I'm obliged to write something because I liked the rest of it so much. Thanks.

By Douglas Wolk on May 23, 2010 10:22 AM

The first example that comes to mind: Robert Palmer was in the Insect Trust! (And was not in the Power Station, etc.)

By Robert Christgau on May 25, 2010 1:35 PM

Douglas, don't be so defensive. Of course there are plenty of good rock critics who are also trained musicians, especially now but Robert Palmer is probably still the best of them with Sasha Frere-Jones coming up on the outside. For that matter, guitarist John Kruth has written a couple of well-regarded bios that I've never gotten around to. But Palmer's two finest books--Deep Blues and Rock & Roll: An Unruly History--aren't biographies. In fact, his biographies (Jerry Lee Lewis and a Rolling Stone coffee-table job) are scarcely biographies either.

By J.D. Considine on June 1, 2010 12:07 PM

Personally, I take the whole "trained musician" tack less as "pulling rank" on critics than as showing credentials to Wynton and his ilk. Who then can snicker about Teachout being a frustrated jazz musician . . .

Articles, May 20, 2010

Former Editors Perform The Rockwrite Word