One of the things that saddened me immensely about Ellen Willis’s work is that jazz never really entered her frame of reference. She wrote about music in the ’60s and ’70s, a time when jazz was far closer to the mainstream than it is today (both Louis Armstrong and Lee Morgan had pop hits in the mid ’60s). In addition, there were leading musicians like Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, and of course, Nina Simone, in whom Willis would have found great inspiration. Unfortunately the only mention of the genre that I found in the recent anthology of her work, Out of the Vinyl Deeps (University of Minnesota), is to dismiss it as a haven for virtuosity geeks (i.e. guys). This is true now and it was true then, but jazz’s audience to my understand has always been co-ed though it skewed slightly male in the ’70s and ’80s. (Hmm, now I wonder what Willis would have made of Cassandra Wilson’s groundbreaking opus Blue Light Till Dawn).
I had begun to consider that jazz and classical music writing may not have the ability use the “royal we” that made the social analysis aspect of Willis’s work bite so hard. Jazz and classical musical are both on the margins and feeling the strain of being there. With the exception of the work of great writers like Alex Ross and Nate Chinen, stances are taken with the clear hope that “this is the way out!” rather than the security that rock and rollers had. The rock community has always had contentious splits, but rarely peril.
Anyway, I thought about all this in the hopes finding a way to apply the rigor, depth, and precision of her approach to jazz. Then Ben Ratliff beat me to it with this extraordinary piece, http://nyti.ms/iy98nO, in the Times this weekend. I have no clue if there’s a conscious connection, but as a reader I see a spiritual one. There’s an enthusiasm for setting the scene and a probing description of the music. It might not make you a fan of the music, but the article is passionate information–well within Willis’s legacy.