Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason
Edited by Toby Gleason
New Haven: Yale University Press
2016: 328 pp
This is a companion to the recently published "Conversations In Jazz; The Ralph Gleason Interviews," which was transcripts of interviews with jazz musicians by the late journalist and television host. The present volume is a compilation of newspaper articles and reviews, liner notes, essays for scholarly publications and the like including some of his writings for Rolling Stone that Ralph Gleason co-founded. Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner provides the foreword here and Paul Scanlon provides an introduction. The book is organized into four parts. The lengthiest is devoted to jazz and blues followed by one on folk, pop and rock. After a part on comedy the book concludes with a part on politics and culture.
Gleason may be the only person to interview Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, B.B. King, and Hank Williams. Yes Hank Williams, several months before his early passing. I have no doubt that the portion of the book devoted to music will be of the greatest interest to many. The very first piece is on jazz and blues entitled "Jazz: Black Art/ American Art," with a condensed distillation of the music's history along with blues folk like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy waters, B.B. King and others along with brief mentions of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, John Coltrane and others.This 1969 essay won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Music Journalism. Other essays on jazz and blues include his liner notes to Jimmy Witherspoon "At the Monterey Jazz Festival," John Coltrane "Ole Coltrane," Billie Holiday "The Golden Years Volume 2," B.B. King "Completely Well" and Miles Davis "Bitches Brew." There is an article on the San Francisco Jazz Scene of the Time, a review of Louis Armstrong playing the Claremont Hotel, appreciations of Johnny Hodges after he passed, and Ben Webster from Rolling Stone , and lengthy appreciations of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington after they had died.
The part on folk, pop and rock opens with liner notes on The Limeliters, a review of Joan Baez in concert, an article previewing a Pete Seeger appearance, a review of the incomparable Odetta in concert, several pieces on Bob Dylan (who Gleason was an early advocate of) including a 1964 concert review, early article on The Beatles, liner notes to the first Jefferson Airplane album, his appreciation of Hank Williams that includes quotes from the Oakland, California interview he did six months before Williams passed away, liner notes to Simon and Garfunkel's "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme." and consideration of San Francisco as the American Liverpool. I wish I had Gleason's ability to so concisely (and so clearly) describe his musical subject and what is on the recording or the significance of the performance. And whether talking about jazz or folk and rock, he provides insights about the subject one may not have had.
For the part on comedy there are brief pieces on Dick Gregory, Jonathan Winter, and Bill Cosby before a lengthy biographical essay on Lenny Bruce that served as liner notes for a Fantasy album of Bruce's comedy and social commentary. The Politics and Culture part has pieces on the Free Speech Movement, Hippie Culture, Music and social change of the time, and related matter of the times including his opposition to President Nixon. Gleason was what we call a progressive voice today and while some of his observations may be time bound, one can imagine how he would write about today's world.
Ralph Gleason was only 57 when he passed in 1975 and his centenary is in 2017. This and the companion volume of jazz interviews seems like the proper way to celebrate what he left us. Highly recommended.
I purchased this.