INTERVIEW: Gabbin’ with Gary Giddins

GiddensGary Giddins is well known as an award-winning jazz writer and critic. But jazz certainly isn’t his only field of expertise. In 2006, he published “Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music and Books,” and his next upcoming book, “Warning Shadows,” is a collection of his film essays, slated for publication by Norton in 2010.

So in advance of his free reading and discussion at Schenectady County Community College on Thursday (October 22), we asked him a few quick questions about the intersection of film and jazz, as well as criticism in general:

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Q: What is it that you see as the connection between jazz and film?
A: Lots of people have loved both, from Orson Welles to Charlie Parker, and any number of writers. They are American arts born in this century, so they bring with them a stirring sense of contemporariness, of art forms learning how to react to the world around them. But I wouldn’t want to make too much of that. I have always loved jazz and movies and books, and so I write about them.

Q: Can you explain what it is you’re looking for in music or film?
A: A spark of originality, a striving for truth and candor, and at least a modicum of wit.

Q: How do you view the role of the critic in contemporary society? And how do you think the glut of amateur criticism on the internet has changed that role?
A: The critic’s role has declined since the era of Edmund Wilson, when critics appeared in the backs of most good mainstream magazines. The Saturday Review used to be patronized as middlebrow; now it seems like the dream of a more thoughtful age. Art is not a democracy and neither is criticism. Most amateurs think criticism is nothing more than the venting of opinion, when in fact, opinion is the least of it.

Everyone has had the experience of going to a film with a friend: one of you hated it, the other loved it. That doesn’t mean that one of you is wrong. I could flip a coin or choose one of you blindfolded if all I want is a raised or lowered thumb. Criticism is a species of literature, where articulation is everything. Style, knowledge, honesty, wit: the same things you hope to find in a work of art ought to figure in criticism. Samuel Johnson was dead wrong in his glowing evaluation of the forgotten poet Savage, but his essay tells us more about life and art in that era, and by extension in our own, than a thousand mindless odes to authentic greatness.

Q: When you step up to the podium at Schenectady County Community College on Thursday, what selections might you be drawing from?
A: I have no idea; but I’m open to suggestions.

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