Where Jazz and Literature Converge: Aaron Gilbreath on “This Is”


Last year brought with it the release of Aaron Gilbreath‘s long-awaited first essay collection, Everything We Don’t Know. This fall, he’s followed that up with a more focused work: This Is: Essays on Jazz. As Gilbreath points out within, there’s a long lineage of literary takes on jazz–and his consciousness of this, and where his own work fits in, is one of the book’s many charms. It’s an idiosyncratic work which veers in on less-heralded works along with musicians who may not have had their due in the United States. Gilbreath and I discussed how the book came together, artists who may be the subject of future essays, and more.

As you point out in the introduction to This Is, there’s a long history of notable writing about jazz. When did you first get the idea to work on a jazz book of your own?

It was completely unplanned. I’d been listening to mid-century jazz for a bunch of years. The more I listened, the more I wanted to know about these musicians. Who were these people whose music had become the soundtrack of my life? How did they could create such spirit, innovative music? So I started reading about jazz, and as questions arose or ideas came to me about a certain player or certain song, I started writing about jazz, too. Like most writers, I’m a hardcore reader, so I was reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and Whitney Balliett’s New Yorker pieces, but I never planned to write a book. Before I knew it, I’d written enough about jazz that a clutch of essays had piled up without me realizing, and I thought it’d be cool to collect them for other jazz fans. Now my big hope is to translate the book into Japanese so that country’s devout jazz fans can read these stories, too. Hopefully a foreign publisher will be interested. If not I’ll do a Kickstarter.

Was there one piece of writing about jazz that first turned you on to the potential of writing about music?

Actually, it was the other way around. Religiously reading the Oxford American‘s annual Music Issue helped show me music writing’s range and possibilities. They wrote about Mussel Shoals and Sam Cook, Big Mama Thornton and RL Burnside; I’ve hoarded nearly every print issue in my home library. The OA led me to writers like Ellen Willis, Hua Hsu and the now defunct Best Music Writing anthology series, and that showed me how you can talk about universal themes and the larger world by talking about an album, a musician or a song. Music writing doesn’t always limit itself to the music. Music can be a lens. I love all the different types of music writing, from straight biography to record reviews, but it was those OA issues that made me feel like I might be able to do this myself.

My first piece of published music writing was a feature article about the reunited Meat Puppets. After 11 years apart, the founding Kirkwood brothers, Cris and Curt, finally reconciled in 2007, which was a huge deal, so I flew to SXSW on spec, slept in my rental car, and caught the first two shows they played together, then I built my story around that. As a Meat Puppets fan, it was a thrill. As a writer, the experience gave me confidence to keep writing about musicians. Years later when my attention turned to jazz, I wrote an essay about organist Jimmy Smith and the unreleased music in record company vaults, but rock and roll brought me there.

In the essay “Jazz Fiction and Reality,” you look at some of the ways in which real-life jazz history has inspired various novelists over the years. Did you end up doing a lot of research for this particular piece, or did it come about after you read a number of the works referenced in the essay?

It came about as I read a few works mentioned in the essay. I love saxophonist Wardell Gray’s playing and always found his early death so tragic, and of course I assumed racism had something to do with his murder. But the more research I did into jazz itself, the more I stumbled across other examples of jazz in literature, and that enlarged my understanding in a way that let me round out a portrait of Gray’s life that I hadn’t been able to before.

Late in the collection, you explore the jazz history of Portland, Oregon. Since writing that essay, have you unearthed anything else about Portland and jazz that might work its way into a future project?

Man, I wish. No newly unearthed Portland jazz material from me, but in my many years living here and endlessly wandering the streets in an obsessive Joseph Mitchell type way, I have assembled a list of places and people I want to write short documentary pieces about ─ some like New Yorker Talk of the Town pieces ─ to capture what I call “old Portland.” That’s the quiet, old school, nutritional-yeast-flavored city of musty indie bookstores many of us know from the 1990s, from before the boom; it’s the one natives (unlike me) knew from the 1980s, ’70s and ’60s. Some of those story ideas include the old jazz clubs that were downtown, even a lesser known one next to what’s now Cinema 21 in posh Northwest Portland. But mostly I want to write about the more mundane, non-musical facets of the city that we easily overlook and that are getting rubbed out by the city’s popularity. Robert Dietsche wrote Portland’s jazz history in his fantastic book Jumptown. Admittedly, he did stop the story at the 1960s, which leaves many stories left to tell. He’d be the best person to continue that story. I’m going to try to write about the disappearing SROs, working docks, colorful bars, the ’90s holdovers and life by the train tracks.

When you were writing these pieces, did you find it helpful to listen to the artists you were writing about, or did that tend to interfere with your process?

Interesting question. In general, I like listening to music while drafting. Music speeds the gears of my mind. It helps me turn off my conscious self in a way that helps me get uninhibited so I can type without thinking or second guessing myself, to just let the gusher flow and type as fast as the ideas come. I often use certain music to set a particular mood to match the tone of whatever I’m writing. Like if I’m writing about the desert, I’ll put on Ry Cooder or mariachi or Friends of Dean Martinez’s first record. When I revise, though, I need silence. The sound of a singer’s words interferes with my own words. The music’s rhythm interferes with the rhythms I’m trying to create in my sentences. Writing these jazz pieces, I did listen to the artists so I could describe their styles or songs, or to see if the music revealed something else, maybe about the players’ personalities, their choices of standards, or some insight into the people behind the sounds. But as I revised, I shut off the music because there’s already so much static in my head I need silence to refine and polish.

You’ve also touched on some of your musical leanings in your earlier collection Everything We Don’t Know. Are there other artists who you think might be the subject of future essays?

Well, I have a stack of other jazz essays that fizzled out for various reasons; my published pieces stand atop a pile of scraps and isolated intro paragraphs and undeveloped ideas. I hope some of them click one day, especially one about pianist Ahmad Jamal. But like Fitzgerald said: you write because you have something to say, not because you want to say something. When I tried to write about these other players, I guess I just didn’t have anything to say. Not yet, maybe never. I definitely want to profile players like Beryl Booker, Philly Jo Jones, Curtis Fuller, Vince Guaraldi, Fats Sadi, Buddy Merrill and Speedy West, whose styles I love and would like to celebrate. Ultimately, I’d like to double the size of my jazz book over the next 20 years by writing these essays, or about certain songs or albums, but maybe I’ll never have anything unique or worthwhile to say about them, and someone else will. That’s one of the sad parts about writing: there’s so much you want to do, but not all of it needs doing. There are lots of sad parts, actually.

You write a lot about reissues here: import-only versions of cult classics along with albums that may have been more deservedly obscure. What, to your mind, makes for a good reissue?

That’s another great question, but it’s really out of my wheelhouse, because I’m just a music fan, not a producer. As a listener, my criteria for a good reissue makes me a bad business person: I don’t think about market demand; I think it has to do with the intersection of (a) the music’s quality and (b) its availability. If the music’s great, why limit it to a few countries? Like releasing Lorraine Geller’s At the Piano in Japan but not the US: why? I’ve never thought too much about what makes a good reissue beyond my own desire to have a certain album in my hands, but maybe it’s like some book publishers say: you can either limit what you publish to what you think people want, or you can publish what you love and then lead people to it in the hope that they’ll want it to. That’s that I think about reissues. If it’s good, lead people to it. Don’t set the bar so low, and don’t let market demand dictate everything. Find the good stuff and create demand, even if it’s niche. Obviously I’m a bad capitalist. I’m proud of that.

If you were able to write liner notes for one reissue, what would it be?

Calexico’s first album, Spoke.

For jazz, Sonny Clark’s Standards.

No wait, Ahmad Jamal’s Count Em 88.

Many of the essays here focus on artists whose best-known work debuted in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s. Are there any younger jazz musicians whose work you find as compelling?

Esperanza Spalding. She is brilliant and made of music.


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.