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Editor’s Choice: Ralph J. Gleason’s writings and jazz interviews

Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason, foreword by Jann Wenner, introduction by Paul Scanlon, Yale University Press, 328 pages, $30; Conversations in Jazz by Ralph J. Gleason, Yale University Press, 328 pages, $30. Ralph J. Gleason was an authentic hero among jazz and pop music critics. It was Gleason who gave Jann Wenner $2,000 to launch Rolling Stone magazine. Gleason was genuinely interested in young critics – so much so that I can personally attest to his writing, out of the blue, to a young critic 3,000 miles away at a newspaper so that he could deliver an “attaboy” for something he liked.

It’s crucial to remember how good and generous a man Ralph J. Gleason was when you consider everything else he did as a jazz and pop music critic and cultural commentator in his wretchedly brief time on earth (1917-1975.) He had one of the legendary jazz TV shows in America (“Jazz Casual”), wrote classic liner notes for records (that’s Gleason on Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”) and conducted some of the best interviews ever of great jazz musicians– a tribe, in general, of human beings who often have to put up with mind-blowing cluelessness from admirers. It was Gleason’s goodness, sensitivity and generosity that made him such a great interviewer.

In one of the happier publishing surprises of the year, Yale University Press has decided to reintroduce Ralph J. Gleason to America in two volumes, the best of which is, by far, a book of his interviews with an Olympus of jazz musicians: John Coltrane, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Percy Heath, Connie Kay, Sonny Rollins, Philly Joe Jones, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Duke Ellington, Les McCann and Jon Hendricks. The Yale book of Gleason’s selected writings is a bit more troublesome than the interviews for a simple reason: as widely and importantly read as he was in the San Francisco Chronicle in his time, the paper itself was seldom, if ever, up to the level of its best employees or the city it served. So no matter what the subject – jazz, Lenny Bruce, the Beatles, Bob Dylan --Gleason was better than his circumstances and less than he was elsewhere. Nevertheless, an authentically great man, great to encounter again. – Jeff Simon