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!

Paul Lisicky: An Essay, a Poem, a Story, and a Song

By Flora Stadler

Author Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door reads like a scrapbook elegy—its loss archived in love notes, fragments of feeling, snapshots of memory. The book (a New York Times Editors’ Choice) documents the death of his longtime friend and fellow writer, Denise Gess, and the disintegration of his relationship with his ex-husband, writer Mark Doty. There’s emotional enormity in his remembering, the placement of personal and natural disaster side by side—cancer and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen; isolation and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I love the structure and sensibility of this book, and that’s why I asked him:

What was the one thing you didn’t want to do when writing The Narrow Door?

“This is a great question but a tough one for me too, because I don’t think I ever consciously write out of negation. With The Narrow Door in particular, I was trying to see how much life I could get on the page without destroying it, without making some incomprehensible mess. I say that knowing so many of my favorite visual artists and writers make amazing work out of subtraction—in other words, limiting their work to the use of a few terms. Think of songwriters who write songs built of two chords, or graphic novelists who use only black and white. I’m fascinated by that approach, but I seem to be after trying to accommodate my too-muchness, always asking myself how much can I put out there? Can this feel like an essay, a poem, a story, and a song all at the same time? Can I create a sense of simultaneity, a sense of the connections between disparate people, who are never really all that separate if we hold them side by side?

So I never really go into any project overtly thinking about what I’m not going to do. It’s much more intuitive than that. It’s more like writing thirty pages and thinking, maybe—hmm. This feels more like F minor when I need three chord changes here. Or: this feels bright yellow when it needs some darker yellow and gold and bright green. Or: my friend was a hell of a lot sillier than this self-dramatizing person I’ve conjured up. Start again. So a lot of different moods are tried on until I find something that feels remotely accurate. I’m sure at a certain point in The Narrow Door I must have been thinking of other grief books. I must have been thinking, Man, this could be an awful slog, some guy’s feelings in the wake of his friend’s death. Who would want to read that? Haven’t other people done that better? The shock was the book started evolving into its own creature over time. Even the most crushing stuff, say, the climate catastrophes, had a weird kind of awe and alertness about it, and the book was so much less about death and mourning than it was, well, the texture of going through the day in the middle of trouble. But that never felt chosen. What better way to kill a book before it’s even had a chance to breathe? At least for me, I should say. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m tossing out some maxim that should be true for everyone.

But back to your question. I think all of my work is written out of some desire not to write the book that’s already on the shelf, but I don’t want to repeat myself either, which is a hell of a lot harder to do than it sounds. Joy Williams says: ‘The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered.’ That’s sort of religion to me. Those words might sound scrupulous to the point of scary, but I don’t think there’s any better way to stay alive as an artist, a person.”

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, along with Paul Lisicky’s other books, is available at Indiebound. His next novel, Later, is coming in 2020 from Graywolf Press.