A superb music critic could make readers acknowledge the way in which one thing sounds. An ideal one illuminates this acknowledgement with one thing readers didn’t discover or hear beforehand. The latter high quality made Gene Santoro not solely an impressive music critic but in addition very good reporter whose journalism will stay a vivid and dependable file of its time.
Santoro, who died April 27 of esophageal most cancers at 71, wrote about jazz and standard music for such publications as The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, the New York Day by day Information, The Village Voice, DownBeat, Musician and the luxe stereophile journal FI. Nonetheless, his buddies and followers imagine he did his most vital writing for The Nation—to which he contributed dozens of music columns between 1987 and 2005. Many of those items have been collected, some in revised type, in Dancing in Your Head: Jazz, Blues, Rock, and Past (1994), Stir It Up: Musical Mixes from Roots to Jazz (1997), and Freeway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Nation Music (2004).
These subtitles let you know every little thing about Santoro’s life’s work: For him, American music was a sprawling composite of collective and individual voices, fashioning distinctive inventive identities, every disclosing new methods to assume, act, imagine, and behave, no matter style. The truth is, “genre” to Santoro was all however meaningless besides as a advertising and marketing software. What was much more vital was how every little thing within the nationwide sound got here collectively: what linked, say, nation and western to rhythm and blues somewhat than what separated them (one trace: the white mild of gospel music emanating from each white and Black church buildings). Santoro additionally relates within the introduction to Freeway 61, how a “complex pair of geniuses” named Louis Armstrong and Woody Guthrie, “represent[ed] the headwaters of significant and twisty currents flowing through the last hundred years of American pop-music history.” His impulse to build up as many contexts and nuances as he might and make the mandatory connections reached its apotheosis along with his 2000 biography of Charles Mingus, Myself After I Am Actual, which obtained renewed appreciation for its definitive portrait of the mercurial and protean bassist-composer simply this previous month because the centennial of Mingus’s delivery was noticed.
Santoro’s instinctive and deeply embedded sense of historical past was the magnifying glass he carried into his inquiries like a Nineteenth-century detective. He had an affinity for such seeming (and comparatively unsung) anomalies as guitar virtuosos Oscar Aleman, an Argentinian who was Django Reinhardt’s closest competitor in Paris’s Nineteen Thirties jazz scene, and Oscar Moore, who was virtually as seminal an affect within the Nat King Cole Trio of the Nineteen Forties as its chief. Talking of whom, right here’s Santoro’s justly celebrated description of Cole’s inimitable vocal type: “His baritone/tenor is so airy and elemental, so palpably physical, it invites you in, then surrounds you glowingly like the lit cave of a magic mountain emanating song from somewhere deep.”
For distinction’s sake, here’s how Santoro nails down the essence of Neil Younger, an artist he wasn’t fairly as enamored with, however who nonetheless comes via loud and clear on this evocation of “one of the scariest rockers around”:
It’s not simply his screechingly creative torture of the electrical guitar. It’s not simply the seized-up quaver of his skinny nasal voice because it wobbles precariously round notes. It’s not simply his willingness to shift (with wildly uneven notes) from grungy rocker to delicate folkie to technohead. It’s the really horrifying depth these qualities develop out of. Even at his worst—which he usually is—Younger is at all times emotionally bare, and he doesn’t care who’s trying.
Whether or not you have been a Neil Younger acolyte or couldn’t abide him, you couldn’t hearken to him in the identical method after studying a summation like this.
“With Gene, it was about discovery more than anything else,” Elizabeth Pochoda, his first editor at The Nation recalled. “It wasn’t about showing off his erudition or showing up other critics or musicians. He was more interested in sharing the things he found out and making you hear what he heard. And his enthusiasm was genuine. I loved working with him and learning from him.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Santoro was a quintessential working-class New Yorker with keenly honed road smarts, shrewdly combative in direction of his antagonists, selflessly protecting in direction of his buddies, whether or not they have been musicians or fellow writers. That he performed guitar professionally for some time gave him an edge in assessing different musicians. Whether or not in admiration or disdain, Santoro’s observations have been backed by intricate element, grounded empathy, and, at any time when applicable, caustic wit. A Fulbright scholar with a grasp’s diploma from Stanford, Santoro wore his erudition calmly. If he introduced up Dante, Thomas Pynchon, or the Firesign Theater (about all of whom he was fluently educated), it wasn’t to indicate off or present up however to amplify a degree.
He and I have been pleasant sufficient to joke about not solely sharing the identical first title however the identical initials. I used to be amongst many writers he edited, mentored, and inspired. (I can’t consider anyone he discouraged.) In good instances and dangerous, even towards the tip of his life, “the Other Gene” (as we referred to as one another) stored listening, watching, remembering, and writing issues down. One of the best ways to recollect him, I’m considering, is hold doing as he did: Hear. Make the connections. Inform individuals what they’re lacking, and by no means thoughts whether or not they wish to know or not. Have religion. Sometime they’ll.