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The Early Years 1903-1940

By Gary Giddins

Little, Brown

736 pages, $30

Who can tell a great writer what to write? Or, to ask a related question here, is a great critic worth less than a great biographer? It is the curse of Gary Giddins' professional life that he is, without question, the greatest living critic of jazz at a time when the music itself is, at best, static (and, at worst, moribund). It was obvious to everyone that he and Wynton Marsalis provided Ken Burns' "Jazz" with its most important contrapuntal voices. In fact, to the most resolute and implacable Wynton-phobes -- who refuse to concede Marsalis anything (sadly, a large group) -- he was all that saved Burns' series from a Marsalis hammerlock.

But Wynton has always had his horn to give the world. Giddins had only his writing which, long before Burns, was some of the best critical work of our time. What he has done here is simultaneously a crucial act of American cultural criticism and a de facto confession that his chosen main subject and passion is not worth the lion's share of his efforts.

"The first hip white person born in the United States," Artie Shaw calls Bing Crosby on this book's dustflap. A man who "played Everyman too long and too well," Giddins calls the great singer/actor/personality who died in the same year (1977) as Elvis Presley, Ethel Waters and Maria Callas. So low was his reputation 20 years later (when only Elvis' death was remembered in American media), that the likes of Joan Rivers could get away with calling him a drunken wife beater (for which, Giddins says simply, there is no evidence). That's what one nasty previous biography and a serpent's-tooth memoir by one son (Gary Crosby) will get a man.

The case that Giddins is hell-bent on making is that Crosby is among the most important and influential and successful popular artists America ever had. He was a "totem of cool" who "played a decisive role in transforming popular song from a maudlin farrago steeped in vaudeville and minstrelsy into a swinging, racially nuanced and internationally accepted phenomenon." He was the first singing superstar of electronic media and the one who showed all American singers how to use the microphone. In movies, he defined America to itself in a simpler and, in many ways, better age. And Giddins' superb biography reclaims Crosby from the ash heap of contemporary repute.

But, the question is, at what cost to Gary Giddins? Was this subject worth so many years of his time?

Read the long asides in this book -- on minstrelsy, the rise of radio and the microphone -- and you have to wonder if such a gifted critic was so properly paired with such a subject, no matter how unfairly abused and battered that subject has been. Read his analyses of the Crosby-Hope "Road" movies and you know, for one thing, that there is a vast world of Hollywood subjects that need Gary Giddins.

And yet here is this book that consumed a good part of Giddins' writing decade -- a definitive book whose very title announces prominently that it threatens to consume much more of Giddins' time in Crosbyana. Would that he'd spent a third of the time making his case in 150-pages of "Notes Toward a Definitive Biography of Bing Crosby." Far less effort on Giddins' part would have moved Crosby just as far toward where he belongs in the pop cultural pantheon and tied up far less of the time and energy of one of our most culturally astute and acute minds.

A great book. And, for Giddins' sake, pray there is no "Vol. 2 -- The Middle Years" and "Vol. 3 -- The Final Years."

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