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From Duke To The Dead, Ralph J. Gleason Loved It All

Jazz Books: Conversations in Jazz and Music in the Air


Felix Contreras | NPR Book Reviews

Ralph J. Gleason is my hero.

It's impossible to put an exact date on it, but I think I started reading his column in Rolling Stone in the summer of 1973. I was 14 years old and already immersed in music. Reading him, I discovered you could write about music and get paid for it — and then I discovered his writing was just as immersive as the music we both loved.

This spring, Yale University press is publishing two collections of writings by Gleason (who often signed his columns as RJG); two volumes that are both a godsend to folks like me who already know and admire his work — and a standard setter for those who should know him.

Music In The Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason is a collection of the writings that appeared in his newspaper columns for The San Francisco Chronicle, the alternative magazine Ramparts and some from his "Perspectives" column in Rolling Stone (which he co-founded and contributed to until his death in 1975).

Conversations In Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is a collection of Q&A styled sit-downs with a handful of the greatest jazz minds of the 20th century. For many of those musicians, RJG crossed over from critic to friend because of his particular skill at understanding and interpreting their music better than the average critic — and many of these interviews have never been published before.

Now, here's my 'Hey you kids, get off my lawn' moment: In an age when anyone with an internet connection can become a music critic, these two books emerge from the fray like a beautiful island in an ocean of nothingness.

I was always envious that RJG came of age when he did. He was born in 1917, his first passion was jazz — and he was discovering it during an era most of us can only revisit in books and records. He loved Duke Ellington, the man and his music; his long eulogy on the bandleader's death is both a history lesson and an emotional, final goodbye between old friends.

What is most remarkable to me about RJG was the scope of his understandings and appreciations. For a guy who grew up falling in love with Duke's big band from the 1940's, he was remarkably prescient, for example, in recognizing Miles Davis' controversial and groundbreaking album Bitches Brew as a new aesthetic sensibility.

RJG was also one of the first mainstream writers to cover the mid-1960's San Francisco music scene with an old-school critic's eye and ear. I treasure the visual of a middle aged man from the so called "straight" world digging the scene at the Avalon or Fillmore ballrooms and — no matter how square he looked — realizing that acts like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin all were part of an American musical continuum that included his own Jazz Age heroes.

In one piece from 1970, he writes eloquently and emotionally about Joplin's premature death by overdose, and our uneasy relationship with race:

The whole stance of American popular music has been to sound black and generations of white girl singers, from Sophie Tucker to Dusty Springfield, have tried to do it. Some of them have been driven to as tragic an end as Janis in the attempt. But none of them, Peggy Lee, nobody, has ever made it in their own terms as a white girl singing black music to the degree Janis did.

RJG was an astute observer of human behavior, and a wise and insightful social critic. What I especially admire about him, now that I make my living the same way that he did, is his ability to artfully and thoughtfully weave his observations about things like the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War into his music writing. Reading him every two weeks in Rolling Stone as a high school kid helped me understand the power of music, and musicians, to shape our times — and what an incredible responsibility that is.

Here he is, giving a rather hip academic explainer of the youth movement and music in the periodical American Scholar in 1967:

With the Beatles and Dylan running in tandem, two things seem to me to have been happening. The early Beatles were at one and the same time a declaration of in favor of love and of life, an exuberant paean to the sheer joy of living, and a validation of the importance of American Negro music.

Dylan, by his political, issue oriented broadsides first and then by his Rimbaud-ish nightmare visions of the real state of the nation, his bittersweet love songs and his pure imagery, did what jazz and the poetry people of the fifties had wanted to do — he took poetry out of the classroom and out of the hands of the professors and put it right out there in the streets for everyone.

But ultimately, here's the reason why I keep one of his books in my bookshelf at work, and an old publicity portrait of him on my desk: His passion about music, life and the connection with people he met during his too-few journeys around the sun.

I am fortunate to be assigned by NPR to cover a segment of the Latino population that has embraced the concept of "Latin alternative" for their music and in their approach to life. I approach my job as I think he would: Listening for musical and cultural connections, the kinds of things that he saw and heard in the Dead and Janis that connected them to Duke and Satchmo before them.

I really wish I could have been one of the lucky ones who spent time in the fabled Gleason home in Berkeley, talking music and life with him. But until I join him, hanging at the big jam session in the sky, these two volumes of his writing are the next best thing.

Thanks, RJG.

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