I just finished reading Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason. Gleason was a big part of my life, starting sometime in the 60s and going until his premature death in 1975. His television series, Jazz Casual, which ran throughout the 60s, was produced at the San Francisco NET (now PBS) outlet, and while I wasn’t a big jazz fan, the show, and its host, was hard to miss, especially in the Bay Area. Along with the countless things Gleason wrote for various magazines, he had a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle, from before I was born until he died. We subscribed to The Chronicle for most of my life, and especially once Gleason started covering the local rock scene, I never missed a column. I remember getting as a birthday present a book by Gleason, The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, which was a mishmash of recycled columns and interviews with each member of the Airplane. Gleason was already in his 50s when that book came out, and it was always clear that he wasn’t the same age as the musicians in that world, but his presence was strong in the Bay Area rock scene, and his writing was never condescending ... he didn’t write from above like the jazz expert he was. With Jann Wenner, he co-founded Rolling Stone, which at first seemed like a local paper. Again, Gleason’s regular columns in RS were mandatory reading at my house.
For all of these reasons, I looked forward to this anthology of Gleason’s writings, edited by his son, Toby. And it doesn’t disappoint. The range of Gleason’s work is evident by looking at the four sections into which the book is divided: “Jazz and Blues”, “Folk, Rock, and Pop”, “Comedy”, and “Politics and Culture”. That last section is almost superfluous, given how often politics and culture are part of most things Gleason wrote. The jazz section is most informative to me, especially his pieces on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And I was happily surprised to find many passages still exist in my memory, like the time Duke Ellington gave Nixon four kisses, “One for each cheek”. Or the moment in his essay on Hank Williams where Gleason refers to San Pablo Avenue as “possibly the longest main street in the world”. I’ve always remembered that line, without always remembering where it came from, so it was fun to see it was yet another way Gleason was part of my life. (Since 1987, I’ve lived less than half-a-mile from San Pablo Ave.)
Gleason was so much a part of my life in those years that I was surprised when a friend, Peter Richardson, in a review of this book, wrote he “didn’t know anything about the Ralph J. Gleason cult until I began researching my 2009 book on Ramparts magazine.” Pete, like myself, is a Bay Area guy (as he says on his blog, he was “Bred and buttered in the East Bay”), and I’m only a bit older than he is, plus he knows the local culture as well as anyone. (Suffice to say that at this point, he knows more than I do about all this stuff.) I suppose some of this is age-related ... I don’t expect my kids to know all about Ralph Gleason, or even to know who he was. (When I was directing American Studies senior theses at Cal, a student came to my office one day ... I think she said I’d been recommended as someone who might be able to help ... I no longer recall the exact family relationship, but she was, if memory serves, one of Ralph Gleason’s grandchildren, and she decided to write about him because she realized she knew very little about this man who was both famous and a family member.)
Music in the Air includes many examples of Gleason’s liner notes for albums. (The list of such notes is endless ... a highlight in the book is the notes for Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, Davis having a long-time relationship with Gleason. To this day, I remember Davis’ contribution to a large obituary section in Rolling Stone on Gleason’s death, a section featuring numerous heartfelt comments. Davis was brief and to the point, and for that reason, unforgettable: “Give me back my friend.”)
Here is the Jazz Casual featuring John Coltrane:
Postscript: After finishing Music in the Air, I happened on an interview with author Jack Hamilton, who has a new book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imaginary. Book looks quite interesting, but what caught my eye in the interview was this:
Pitchfork: Ralph J. Gleason, who co-founded Rolling Stone, comes up a lot in the book. The quotes you utilize are blindsiding—endless “other”-ing, almost no self-examination. My favorite is when he writes about the “magic rhythmic power” of Santana’s rhythm section, presuming they could only be accessible to people with a direct line to Latin America’s “savannahs and inland plains.” Your respond: “The 'magic rhythmic power' that Gleason extolled was provided by Michael Shrieve and bass player Douglas Rauch, both of the savannahs and inland plains of San Francisco.”
Hamilton: [laughs] Yeah. I realized at the time I was coming down fairly hard on Gleason. I definitely don’t feel like I unfairly demonized him or anything. He was an elder figure who had come to rock as a longstanding jazz critic, and who in those early years was a really influential voice because he had that prestige. He was really seen as a critical authority on music. That Santana material is from Rolling Stone; he also wrote a lot [about rock] in the [San Francisco]Chronicle.
Another essay that he published in The American Scholar in 1967 was called “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s this interesting, bizarre intellectual and artistic manifesto on rock music—in 1967, when this is a fairly early concept, the idea that rock is art. The amount that race figures into it, these quotes where he’s trumpeting white creativity over what he sees as black music selling out. One thing that came up a lot while I was writing the book was that notion of selling out, whether or not a black musician is making music that’s “black” enough. No one’s ever said that Dylan or the Beatles aren’t white enough.
The “Like a Rolling Stone” essay can be found in Music in the Air.