APRIL 12, 2017
IT’S MID-1975, and the editors of Rolling Stone faced a dilemma: What should the San Francisco–based rock and roll, pop culture magazine put on its next cover? The enormously popular band bearing the publication’s name as it embarked on its first United States tour in three years? Or the magazine’s co-founder Ralph J. Gleason — the fabled, trailblazing music critic; the man who had helped make it all possible, back at the beginning in 1967, eight years before, and who had just died on June 3, 1975? Which would win — commerce or honorary tribute?
Rolling Stone chose the provocative English group. For several reasons, it was the right call. The Rolling Stones were popular as ever, and their story contained the added element of a meaty news hook. Plus, the magazine could showcase an iconic Annie Leibovitz photo of the bare-chested, macho Glimmer Twins themselves, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And who could argue with that? So, in its issue number 191, dated July 17, 1975, Rolling Stone honored its fallen sachem in a box on the bottom of the magazine’s cover. It said: “RALPH J. GLEASON IN PERSPECTIVE.” The accompanying package contained moving tributes from music luminaries.
Now, before you go accusing Jann Wenner and his Rolling Stone cohorts of being down and dirty (dare I say it) capitalists, please consider that Gleason probably would have been mortified to knock Mick and Keith off the cover over some sentimental gesture. For Ralph Joseph Gleason never aspired to appear on a magazine cover. Self-promotion wasn’t his style. He was not a preening, look-at-me kind of journalist. Like the best practitioners of his chosen profession, he did his most important work behind the front page, whether he was writing about jazz, folk, blues, or rock and roll, masterfully and joyously. If Gleason had played in a band, he might have been quite content as a sideman. Maybe he would have been a bebop piano player or a bass man, standing way off to the side; on the scene, for sure, but staying respectfully apart from the action.
Such musings bear themselves out in Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason — a new volume of much of Gleason’s best work, lovingly assembled by his son, Toby Gleason. Within the book’s 328 pages lies a treasure trove of skillful, joyful writing from one of the United States’s “twin towers” of pioneering jazz critics. (The other was Nat Hentoff, who died on January 7, 2017 — they were two of a kind: Hentoff on the East Coast and Gleason on the West Coast, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area; they educated and entertained readers for decades, bless them.) Gleason emerged as a role model because he saw immense possibilities in the diverse communities of jazz, folk, blues, and rock. While each genre rightly produced its writing snobs (unbending and unbearable), Gleason stayed nimble and open minded.
Ralph J. Gleason loved discovering something new — something which pointed him in a new direction or confirmed what he already suspected. Perhaps Gleason established a strong relationship with his loyal readers because he was just like them. More superfan than powerful critic who could make or break a musician’s career with a single review, he never condescended to his public. He identified with them and made it easy for his army to follow him, wherever his typewriter took him on any given day.
In the foreword, Jann Wenner writes,
I was a student at UC Berkeley when I started reading Ralph Gleason’s column “On the Town” in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was the only place I knew to find a certain social, cultural, and political mix that was coming to define my world. He understood rock and roll and became a singular voice that stood out among other music and jazz writers. He got the Beatles and Bob Dylan and what was making them so special to a generation. The Free Speech Movement, the first of numerous student uprisings in the sixties, had overwhelmed the Berkeley campus. He was the only journalist in the Bay Area who gave the FSM a fair shake.
Gleason brought that kind of empathy to his story subjects, too. When you peruse Music in the Air, you can appreciate, of course, Gleason’s immense knowledge of music and, equally important, his great affection for musicians. His empathy shines through on every page.
What’s rewarding about this kind of compilation is that you can flip to just about any page and enjoy Gleason at his best — profound and concise. In reviewing a Bob Dylan folk concert in Berkeley, California, from February 1964, Gleason wrote: “Dylan’s songs are carved from the reality of the American dream contrasted to the unreality of how it is.” Louis Armstrong “was always Louis no matter where the gig and no matter what the audience.” And: “Today, if you sing jazz and you are a woman, you sing some of Billie Holiday.”
Sure, a headline today about the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 proclaiming “A Warm and Groovy Affair” might sound quaint, at best, hokey, at worst. But so what? As much as Gleason respected musicians, he didn’t give them a free pass. In the Monterey Pop piece, he noted that beloved singer/songwriter Laura Nyro performed a set that was a “disappointment,” calling her “an affected and pretentious performer who is very badly advised.” Hugh Masekela “gave an object lesson in boredom.” And Canned Heat was “terrible.”
Ralph J. Gleason was born in New York City on March 1, 1917. He was the news editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator and graduated from Columbia University in 1938. After working for the United States Office of War Information during World War II, he moved to San Francisco and soon began contributing music pieces to the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a trailblazer in the coverage of jazz and popular music in the establishment media, making it as vital as classical music. Gleason recognized the importance of such greats as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, and Miles Davis. He also hailed Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and other comedians.
It would not be hyperbole to say that Gleason would fit with Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia (or Grace Slick or Janis Joplin), and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (or Bill Graham) on a Mount Rushmore monument to the San Francisco phenomenon of the era. Gleason’s affection for San Francisco didn’t always endear him to the prideful citizens of Los Angeles, but you can’t win ’em all.
Gleason wrote syndicated columns on jazz and pop music. He was also a stalwart on Down Beat, the jazz publication. Gleason was published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Esquire, and in many other media. Recognized for his trademark pipe and moustache, Gleason was a journalist of his time. It’s possible that his natural ebullience might not have translated so well later, when critics began writing more “critically” about music. (You could never, for instance, imagine Gleason writing, “What is this shit?” — the provocative opening line in Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s much-maligned 1970 double album Self Portrait.)
But no matter. Ralph J. Gleason set a tone for the flock of critics who popularized a more aggressive approach to reviewing music. They included Wenner, Marcus, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Janet Maslin, Jon Landau (who graduated from rock writing to become Bruce Springsteen’s producer and longtime manager), and Paul Williams, among scores of others who emerged in the 1960s and after. Those writers have a lot to thank him for. So do all of the musicians whose lives and careers he influenced. So do all of the readers he touched.
Jon Friedman teaches at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism and is the author of Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution (Perigee, 2012).