Clarity, with a Certain Descriptive Flair: Interview with Nate Chinen

by Kristen Holt-Browning

This is some town: last year, I received a notification from the library that a book I had requested had come in and was ready for me to pick up. As I walked in, I happened to run into an acquaintance, a fellow PTA mom at our kids’ school. She asked what I was up to, and I replied, “Oh, just picking up this new book on jazz. I heard it’s good, thought I’d check it out.” She gave me a quizzical look and asked for the title. Huh, didn’t know she’s a fan of jazz, I thought as I replied, “Playing Changes by someone, I can’t remember his name.” “Nate Chinen,” she said. “He’s my husband!” Naturally, I forced her to put me in touch with him so I could get him to join us at Get Lit! And, I snagged an interview:

GLB: I’m interested in how your own background in music—if any—shaped and influenced your writing career. Have you ever played an instrument yourself? Do you think a background in music is necessary to write about music? Why or why not?

NCI don’t think musical training is essential for a music journalist, any more than practical filmmaking experience is necessary for a movie critic. But there’s no question that fluency in music is extremely useful, and probably a crucial advantage. My own experience bears this out. I grew up in a family of entertainers, and I gravitated to the drums at an early age. I studied jazz drumming and thought it might be my career. I went to college in a city with a deep jazz pedigree, throwing myself into the local scene. At the same time, I was studying poetry as an English major, and somehow this led to freelance work as a jazz critic for the local alternative weekly paper. As I learned on the job, I realized that my musical background informed what I did, often in invisible ways. It wasn’t just the technical stuff — it was an awareness of the culture on and off the bandstand, and the way jazz musicians related to the world. That still guides my work.

GLB: Personally, I find the idea of writing about another art form fascinating. What, do you think, is the key to writing well about music? What’s the value of writing about jazz for your reader—that is, how does reading about jazz enhance or interact with the experience of listening to jazz, either live or recorded? 

downloadWriting about music is a slippery topic, because there are a handful of different ways to do it well. For me, the best approaches always combine clarity with a certain descriptive flair, along with some tether to a broader context (historical, biographical, cultural). And I’m the sort of writer who always seeks out the music in language, so it’s a fun challenge to evoke the texture of a sound, or the feeling in a room. When I was working as a critic for the New York Times, a lot of my job involved going out to the clubs and reviewing a show — with the idea that I was documenting something for posterity, but also providing a service for people who might want to catch the engagement later in the week. Now that I write mainly for the Web, in an era when anyone can cue up a song within moments, I’ve adopted a slightly different approach. The way I see it, the role of a critic has shifted from that of “gatekeeper” to “guide.” A guide is someone who can provide helpful context, or point out subtle details you might have missed, or show you how things connect, or keep you in the know. Ideally, the writing enhances an experience of the music — along with letting people know that it’s out there in the first place.

static1.squarespaceGLB: The people reading this interview are lovers of books, but might not know much about jazz. Can you give us a few recommendations? What programs or artists should we be listening to and following?  

One suggestion I always give people who ask this question is: find out whether there’s a scene in your backyard, and start checking it out. Jazz is a music that really comes alive in close quarters, and in real time. Those of us who live in Beacon now are lucky to have so much vital improvised music around us: at Quinn’s, and the Howland Center, and across the river at The Falcon. Go check it out! You’ll be supporting artists directly, and you’re sure to get something out of it.

That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for WBGO, where I serve as editorial director. It’s a 24-hour jazz radio station that streams online, and I produce a ton of content for the website, (One popular feature is Take Five, an annotated list of five notable new tracks, posted every Monday. Follow those recommendations for a while, and you’ll have a good handle on the scene.) As for artists to follow, I’ll restate my endorsement of the artists profiled in Playing Changes, each of whom has kept doing fantastic work since the book was published. I’m writing these answers from a train in Holland, where I attended a festival and saw another mind-blowing performance by singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner — the first two artists mentioned in the book, on page 1 of the Foreword. It’s exciting how much energy is on the scene now. If you’re just getting into the music, you picked a great time.

Nate Chinen was a critic for the New York Times for more than a decade, and he is currently the director of editorial content at WBGO, the global leader in jazz radio. His book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, explores the many changes—ideological, technological, theoretical, and practical—that jazz musicians have learned to navigate since the turn of the century, touching on topics such as commercialized jazz education, the synergies between jazz and postmillennial hip-hop and R&B, and in-depth profiles of influential artists including the saxophonists Steve Coleman and Kamasi Washington, the pianists Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer, and the bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding.

He lives in Beacon with his wife and two daughters.

Nate will be our featured guest on November 10!

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