OUTCATS

Jazz Composers, Instrumentalists, and Singers

By Francis Davis

Oxford. 261 pp. $22.95

Francis Davis, who writes excellent jazz criticism for the Philadelphia Inquirer and various magazines, confesses himself to be despondent about what he perceives as the general culture's indifference to, if not rejection of, the music he loves. "The alienation that one is likely to feel as a result of one's advocacy of jazz is a leitmotif in this collection, and, no doubt, one explanation for its moody, introspective tone," he writes in his introduction, and later he says:

"I know ... how I feel when I'm obliged to attend a sold-out fusion concert: I look around and I'm the only one the beat's not reaching. But jazz critics must be unique in feeling even more isolated and demoralized at performances that meet their highest standards -- a quick head count is usually enough to remind us how few people share our appreciation for undiluted jazz. ... The audience for jazz is microscopic all over the country, and local performers are taken for granted everywhere."

Obviously these are matters that Davis feels deeply about, but his sentiments are also entirely true to a time-honored tradition of jazz criticism: the intermingling of dolorous complaints about the music's unpopularity with prideful, if not snobbish, claims of the critic's superiority by reason of appreciating and understanding it. But it's to the point that you're more likely to hear this from jazz critics than from jazz musicians; the latter, after all, are artists, and if the truly committed artist knows anything, it's that his struggle will always be uphill and his audience small.

Not merely that, but Davis's alienated pose stands in stark contrast to almost everything else in "Outcats," which is in fact a celebration of jazz and the people who play it. Notwithstanding the claims Davis makes in his introduction, and his use of "outcat" to convey "undertones of exile, rootlessness, alienation, despair," what comes through most vividly in these three dozen pieces is Davis's enthusiasm for the music and his against-all-the-odds belief in its future.

The articles were written for a variety of publications and take a variety of forms. Some are reviews; these tend, as most reviews do, to stale rather quickly, but most contain deft comments and several will send you to the record stores in search of Sheila Jordan and Herbie Nichols and others. Some are interviews; these often follow the pattern long ago established by Whitney Balliett in which the musician talks, uninterrupted, at length. Still others are essays and reflections; these tend to be the most thoughtful and to have the most staying power.

One of Davis's most attractive qualities is that his purism isn't inflexible. Some musicians gain admission to his pantheon, or at least its outbuildings, whom you'd never expect to find there; his enthusiasm for Bobby Darin, of all people, is both persuasive and infectious. He respects jazz's conventional wisdom but doesn't always kowtow to it; in the late recordings of Billie Holiday, usually dismissed by critics, he correctly notes that "in compensation for a voice that had darkened and stiffened and sunk into the hollows, she could claim a ripened sensitivity to nuance that, especially on ballads, made her singing even more intimate, affecting and powerful."

As that suggests, Davis is a sympathetic observer of the complexities of the artistic life. He writes perceptively about the "unusually adversarial father-son relationship" of Duke and Mercer Ellington, and admires the latter for surviving "relatively unscarred, with his sense of humor intact -- his reminiscences are punctuated by laughter, sometimes rueful, but never really bitter." He admires Bobby Short for keeping his distance from his wealthy clientele at the Cafe Carlyle, and he's even able to construct a rationale for Frank Sinatra: "The Voice still aches with every decent, tender emotion its owner's boorish behavior mocks. Yet Sinatra inhabits the songs he sings so forcefully and totally that it's impossible to embrace The Voice and spurn the man."

To cite Darin and Short and Sinatra is admittedly to misrepresent the contents of "Outcats." Davis has a deep affinity for "the most intrepid jazz experimentalists" and for the music they make; much of his space is devoted to the little-known, or the utterly unknown, all of whom he regards with unsentimental admiration. He has a stronger belief than I do in the necessity of the avant-garde but that, as the man once said, is what makes horse races; he is a sensitive, knowledgeable, perceptive, imaginative critic, and even when he's moping he's a pleasure to read.