Josh Kun


Tuesdays with Meltzer

Writing Jazz
Writing Jazz
edited by David Meltzer
Mercury House, 1999

Back when I was still living in San Francisco, I used to have regular meetings with David Meltzer. We called them coffee klatches, even though we would both drink tea and they were usually more high-wire spritz than davenport klatch, more manic idea blitz than mahjong chitchat. I would tell him about what I was writing and reading, and Meltzer -- the recovering beat poet, death scholar, cabalist, borscht belt hipster, jazz historian, Bay Guardian scribbler, New College professor -- would just open up and out it would all come: dizzying spirals of ideas, references, dates, names, philosophies, jokes, films, out-of-print titles, anecdotes. Every session left me exhausted, inspired, disoriented.

Why? Because Meltzer is a junkie encyclopediac (like the horn in his poem "18:VI:82," he glows with "encyclopedic light"), a knowledge addict, an intellect hustler: he has read everything from smut to canon, heard of everyone, and thought about it all, hard, more than once. He has revisited it and taught it, analyzed it and lived with it, written about it and rejected it, then reconsidered it. Lenny Bruce is always there. So is Adorno, so is Benjamin.

I first met Meltzer not long after he published Reading Jazz (Mercury House), a magnificent, bitter, and vitriolic anthology of jazz criticism written by white people about black music. All anthologies have their politics, but Meltzer made his politics the point (most memorably in the collection's lunatic "Pre-Ramble"): to show us ream after ream of evidence that jazz -- its histories, its resonances, its popular discourses, its images, its meanings -- is a "white mythology," the long, winding product of the white imagination working on the stuff of musical blackness. He's since called it a "historical sourcebook of intentional and unintentional racism."

Now he's pulled off another curatorial coup, Writing Jazz (Mercury House), Reading's companion volume (or better, its rebuttal, its discourse flip, its knowledge inversion, its racial table turn), wherein black musicians and critics take the reins and do their own writing about jazz. It's an important move, for no matter how right he was in Reading Jazz about white jazz myths, it was only part of the story. Black jazzheads have always been talking and writing too, have always had their own stories and myths to tell in their own voices. Now with Writing we've got them in excerpted nibbles, or at least some of them -- all the ones Meltzer knew about and could get permissions to (imagine the nightmare). If Reading was a testament to white racialism, then Writing is a testament to black self-criticism and self-history -- black knowledge about black art in a white world.

As a book, Writing functions much the same way Reading did, as a big living, breathing resource glob overflowing with chunks of stories and histories, some familiar, some arcane. We hear from usual suspects like Eileen Southern, Richard Wright, and Duke Ellington, but Meltzer also nabs jazzspeak from Richard Abrams, CLR James, Archie Shepp, and Wanda Coleman.

In true Meltzer style, the anthology is a rich and fulfilling mess, and he spends much of his introductory "Pre-Text" soloing on its messiness: "A source book to be scanned, shuffled, and surfed in riffing bibliomantic passes, or read sequentially as a polyphonic telling and retelling of jazz as myth, fact, and process, as cultural history, and as a spiritual domain." And in a more demure moment: "Anthology is from the Greek and means 'flower-gathering,' and this is a sparse bouquet." Or a crowded garden that just keeps growing -- bountifully, wildly, out of control. So much so that there's even a concluding "Sub-Text" in a shrunken font (you can fit more stuff that way) -- a scrapbook of asides, tangents, critical inflammations, and pregnant citations. He pastes five pages from Moby-Dick, coins the phrase "white culture is a black junkie," and quotes Hegel on Negroes.

I haven't read all of Writing Jazz and probably never will. I plan to treat it like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari asked their readers to treat their two Anti-Oedipus tomes, like record albums on a phonograph. They should just open them up and play whatever parts they like, in whatever order, with whatever frequency, on whatever speed.

At one point in his "Pre-Text" Meltzer grapples with the technofication of jazz (without giving into Wyntonian conservatism) and tosses off the following description of what he hears: "an angel choir dismantled into bits and pieces, reassembled into a sonic boom collage, spectral homage of digitized breath woven into a skein of binary numbers." When he wants to, Meltzer can rock you like that. And as a puzzle of loops and fractals, Writing Jazz works that way too, as a dismantled choir of voices that unravels you as it sews you up, cohesive and holistic while splintered and minced. Like Borges running amok in a jazz library.

First published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian , March 22, 2000.


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