Is there anything so cunning as jazz? Its history is as unpredictable and modulating as the music itself, as challenging to inscribe as a blue fugue. Yet Gary Giddins has made a career of chronicling jazz. His Visions of Jazz, which won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle prize for the best criticism book of the year, is no less comprehensive than graceful. It makes orderly a world that defies order -- the pick-up gigs, the transient lives, the sudden riffs -- and evokes jazz with an echo of its vibrancy.
You cannot train for this. Surely Giddins did not. His childhood contact with music was scattered, unsatisfactory. He took up the clarinet and dropped it. He started piano, accordion, saxophone, guitar, and didn't practice. It was clear he was not born to play. What became clear with time was that he had two other crucial skills: to listen and to write.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1948. His father had a little company that trucked goods to and from the New York garment factories. His mother was an interior designer. There were few books in his house, yet there was something, he says, in that "enlightened" home that predisposed him to feel comfortable in a racially mixed setting. So when jazz came along and won him, he did not hesitate to frequent black establishments, seek it out.
He went to Grinnell in Iowa, a small college, where, his high school English teacher told him, he might shine. At Grinnell, he published a literary magazine and launched a jazz festival, placing himself squarely in the position of both impresario and writer: He invited Louis Armstrong, Cecil Taylor and Duke Ellington to Grinnell, and then proceeded to set down everything he felt about their performances.
It was, you well might think, an obvious signal that he should point his life toward jazz, but he did not take the cue. He returned to New York in the summer of 1970 and took a job as a copy-boy at the New York Post. He was convinced that he wanted to be a writer. But for the two and a half years he was at the Post, he did not write a word. He opened mail, answered phones, did what copy boys do. He shipped off freelance reviews to the Hollywood Reporter, writing 400-word pieces for $5 apiece; or to Down Beat, for $7. He hustled assignments writing liner notes for jazz albums, getting $50 to $100 for each. But he couldn't get a major magazine to take his more general pieces.
"I guess I had something to say about jazz," he recalls, "I had this fervor. You know, it's like William James's definition of a truly religious experience: `It never ends.' Well . . . jazz was my religion."
The turning point in Giddins's life came in 1974, when he wrote a piece about a collection of posthumous tapes by Art Tatum, whom many consider the greatest of all jazz pianists. He submitted the review to the New York Times, which accepted it and subsequently told him that a Times reporter had been assigned to the story. He took the return envelope -- "I only had one copy of the thing" -- and mailed it to an editor at the Village Voice. He's been the Village Voice's jazz critic ever since.
Giddins is now at work on a biography of Bing Crosby. There has never been a definitive work on the singer. Giddins is struck by the degree to which ordinary Americans have forgotten him. Certainly, the jazz world remembers him. But it is a testament to Giddins's catholicity that he has taken on an artist who straddles so many aspects of the entertainment world. With 250 interviews and thousands of documents behind him, Giddins is in the process of writing what is sure to be an important work of music and film history. "He had a terrifying self-discipline," Giddins says of his subject. "He was alcoholic in his twenties, but stopped himself cold. He was always the first one on the movie set, had a photographic memory, and was adored by everyone who worked with him. In the main, my scoop is: Bing Crosby was a really good guy."
It is a measure of Gary Giddins that he is not seduced by the margins of Crosby's story: Bing was an absentee father, a philanderer. A lesser writer would make these failures centerpieces of the life. But Bing Crosby's place in history is larger than that. When published in the fall of 2000, Giddins's biography should have its resonances, and, more likely than not, strong lessons about what it means to be American.
CAPTION: Gary Giddins