If jazz criticism has a Hemingway, it may well be University of Kansas English professor and veteran American jazz journalist, Kevin Whitehead. Those of us who came to his work via NPR’s Fresh Air, Downbeat, or the Village Voice are already familiar with his gripping writing style, which entices with jazz-shaped prose, modernist understatement, poetic economy and insight. A less obvious connection, however, is his experience as a foreign correspondent in Europe.
New Dutch Swing, product of Whitehead’s four years of work in the Netherlands, brims with Hemingwayesque reportage. This is an optimistic, no-nonsense American book, embracing all that seems vital in Dutch jazz while consigning the rest to silence. As the author explains in the introduction: “If the tone of the book does seem overwhelmingly positive–well I wouldn’t waste your time dwelling on dull music of which Holland like everyplace has plenty.”
For all his fascination with Dutch culture (and there is plenty to be fascinated and perplexed by), don’t think that Whitehead checks his critical instincts at the European door. Taking in a few concerts with Mr. Whitehead at Amsterdam’s BIMhuis during the 2008 Dutch Jazz Meeting was a lesson in visceral listening, a faculty which my years of objective social-scientific observation have dulled considerably. Whitehead fully inhabits own perspective and wears it confidently, as one who not only knows what he likes, but knows that he knows what he likes.
We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. I chalk some of this up to experience. During the closing concert, I found piano phenom Michiel Borstlap and band so rocking I had to dial down my analytical brain and move to the back of the room to allow my body to get its groove on. Whitehead left in the middle of the first tune. When pushed afterward he reminded me that he’d seen Miles at the Fillmore.
I know his inspiration for the book was not Hemingway but someone far more esoteric and hip (your secret is safe with me, Kevin). Still, I prefer to think Hemingway because too few American jazz writers make the jump across pond and return to tell the tale with such engaging perspective. A seminal work in the study of transatlantic jazz, New Dutch Swing asks us to listen, not just to the deep cultural dramas encoded in musical activity, but to the nitty-gritty that reaches the gut directly through the ears.