Long Days, Cheap Ham Sandwiches
Aaron Gilbreath on “This Is” and “Everything We Don’t Know.”
[This interview originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue.]
Aaron Gilbreath is an essayist and journalist who has written essays and articles for Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Vice, The Morning News, Saveur, Tin House, The Believer, Kenyon Review, and many other publications. His essays have been listed as notables in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. Curbside Splendor published his essay collection, Everything We Don’t Know, in 2016, and the book was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award. Outpost19 published his collection of jazz essays, This Is, in 2017. Gilbreath is a contributing editor for Longreads, and a staff member in the writing center at Portland State University. —Dan DeWeese
Propeller: In the introduction to This Is: Essays on Jazz, you write “As Charlie Parker said, ‘They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.’ May jazz and writing forever mingle.” Writing, of course, involves its own decisions about using rhythm, sound, and meter to communicate. In what ways do you feel your interests in music have impacted what you value in writing? And not to get to complicated, but did music itself affect the way that you wrote about music, as well?
Aaron Gilbreath: Music didn’t influence the way I wrote my jazz book. For instance, I can’t listen to music while I revise, only while I do first drafts. (I wrote about that here.) The only time I listened to the music was when I was trying to describe and analyze the music itself, in which case I listened to particular songs over and over again.
My interest in music has definitely influenced how I write in general, though. I’ve always realized that I’m drawn to musicality in sentences, to voices that have rhythm. I didn’t know how to talk about that sort of thing until I started reading more about music and about literature, then I realized what I was hearing. Sentences have to have some fire in them, some energy and life. I used to read so many biology and ecology texts for the information. I’m glad I did. But man, those flat informative sentences can lay there on the page like dead skunks on the highway, and it took a lot of energy and caffeine to get through them. As a reader, I need life in my books. I aim for the same in my own stuff.
Music has also helped me appreciate space in text. In music, there’s what you play and what you don’t play. Maybe it’s easiest to hear space with drumming, or at least that’s where I first learned to hear it and play it: the way drummers keep time, but also the way they fill the gaps between the beats with fills, flourishes, accents, and let the music breathe. My favorite drummers for this are Philly Joe Jones and Louis Hayes. They play such intuitive, fluid drums that are the antithesis of four-four beats. Calexico’s drummer John Convertino is another brilliant musician who plays melodically instead of just rhythmically, and plays with space. Convertino and Calexico guitarist Joey Burns talked about space a lot in early interviews in the late ’90s, which I then read about in jazz writing. Once I learned to recognize that that was going on in the music I was hearing, I saw some overlap in writing. The pauses between words. The breaks between sentences. The movement of ideas across space on the page. But also, brevity, simplicity, rhythm. You don’t simply create rhythm from the drums or notes you hit. You create it from the length and patterns of spaces you allow to fill between beats and notes. I’m sure an actual musician could explain that much better than me, but it’s all about letting things breathe, and thinking about structure as both what you play and what you don’t—those gaps. I grew up in the Arizona desert. Space defines that landscape. You hear it with the way Philly Joe Jones plays, and you see it in writing.
When I grew up drawing, it came as a revelation when teachers talked about negative space. You can delineate objects with lines, but you can also do with it shading, and how much of the paper shows between lines or shading contributes to the image as much as what you shade. Once I learned to think about composing images from the things you didn’t put on the page─including and withholding─I had another powerful tool to use to make things. Music has only reinforced the importance of space in writing, too.
Voice is another concept that both music and writing share. My wife marvels how I can listen to a piano part or a saxophone solo and then identify the person playing it. I think you can do the same thing with many writers, too. When their voices are unique, you hear who they are from their sentences, the same way you do in music. You hear personalities in jazz solos. You hear the musicians’ telltale phrasings, their sense of time, their tone and the little flourishes they rely on, which pop up all over and give them away.
Music also taught me to think of sentences and stories as fluid things. Essays are so malleable, so the more I understood space and rhythm, the less attached I got to conventionality. I still write stories in very conventional ways, but I’d like to think that I am able to do whatever I want in order to tell a story the best way that I can, and that means stretching out, playing with structure, disregarding convention. I got a lot of that from reading other essayists, but I also got a lot from music.
Just realized this, too: my drafting process shares a lot in common with musical jam sessions. I just write, see what comes out. Then when I start revising, I look at what I’ve generated during that first free-jam and start building and subtracting from there. You can produce lots of fresh ideas when you turn off your thinking mind and just go, but you have to keep the proverbial tape rolling.
Propeller: We should probably chat a bit about jazz directly now. In more than one of your essays, but particularly in “The Lost Footage of Pianist Sonny Clarke,” you refer to a time in American culture when jazz held more cultural sway. There were network television shows devoted to jazz, and it was assumed that the average American would be familiar with major jazz musicians. Part of the essay on Sonny Clarke is about how this era was so brief, however, that there are major musicians of whom we have little to no video footage at all. Why do you think jazz’s time as a culturally central music genre didn’t last longer?
Gilbreath: That’s a good question, and one jazz scholars and music historians have addressed much better than I can. Jazz books and documentaries show a clear chronology of American popular music: black musicians created jazz; Bennie Goodman brought it to a white audience, where it became America’s most popular music for a while. After WWII, jazz musicians continued to push jazz in new directions, where it thrived and diversified stylistically during the 1940s and ’50s, but by the mid-60s, rock and roll replaced jazz as America’s pop music; Ken Burns’ Jazz covers this nicely. Free jazz challenged listeners but didn’t win over the public. American consumers have short attention spans. They moved on to the next thing. I can’t remember the rest of the details.
The reason you had shows like The Stars of Jazz, though, which my essay talks about, is because in typical capitalist fashion, companies were trying to capitalize off this popular music while it was hot and kind of hot. Big corporate record labels like Columbia were cranking out all kinds of records to see what resonated, from approachable piano trios like Erroll Garner to quirky stuff with xylophones; this approach littered the past with both bland color-by-number items and experimental oddities that you discover in thrift stores. Some food manufacturers included bebop hepcat lingo in their advertising to really “speak to the kids.” And TV shows held the viewing public’s attention for a short while with live performances by musicians we now view as legendary. There were a lot of short-lived jazz shows. And when jazz fever died down, many broadcasters taped over these reels to record the next new thing.
Propeller: The issue of our cultural memory of jazz comes up more than once in your book. This resonates at the level of the individual in, for example, your fantastic piece on Jutta Hipp, but it resonates at a larger social level throughout these pieces, as well. As a quick comparison, the world of film has a vast number of organizations dedicated to crafting and maintaining its history in various ways. Which organizations or individuals do you feel have taken the same kind of care with preserving the legacy of jazz? And are there aspects of jazz or methods of preservation that could be further explored?
Gilbreath: That’s another great question, and I’m glad you liked my piece about Jutta Hipp. Time moves so quickly, and our world is brimming with so much information, that it’s hard to protect the past from decay. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has devoted his life to teaching, preserving and playing jazz. He’s an important figure in that way, and his devotion must be applauded. Critic Stanley Crouch is writing a two-part book about Bop saxophonist Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker has been written about a billion times, but the first installment of Crouch’s book, Kansas City Lightning, brings this genius to life in a way no other Bird writing has. It’s more than a biography. It’s a historical recreation that blends biography, narrative and criticism. That narrative part is important, not only because it humanizes a flawed genius, but because it makes his story interesting enough that people will want to read it, especially people who aren’t that into jazz.
Documentarian Sam Stephenson isn’t dedicated to preserving jazz alone, but his book The Jazz Loft Project tells the full story of photographer Eugene Smith, whose Manhattan apartment functioned as one of the most important jazz jam spots. Smith wired the place with microphones so he could record everything, from performances to mundane conversations, to rare bits of jazz musicians’ down time. I think Stephenson is digitizing all of Smith’s reel-to-reel tapes now. To me, that’s some of the most important preservation work I know about happening in jazz. Tapes like this decay as they sit around various closets, and to preserve them, you have to be determined. Some of the most exciting jazz recordings came from live recordings or jam sessions like this, that fans made. These must be preserved while they still can be.
Propeller: And your essays themselves are an act of preservation. In fact, the first piece in the collection is “Jimmy Smith and the Allure of the Vault,” so you start right away with reflections on the act of finding “new” music in the past rather than in the present or future. Writing about the past has challenges different from writing about contemporary issues, of course. Was there an essay in the book that was particularly difficult? What writing strategies did you have to explore or develop in order to convey what you wanted to convey?
Gilbreath: A number of them were difficult to write for different reasons. The title essay “This Is” confronts the complex legacy of intoxication, not only in jazz, but in creativity itself. It’s a subject you can’t escape when you read about the history of jazz in mid-century America, and I never found anything written directly enough about it, so I decided to try. It was difficult to write about, because the take-away about the relationship between intoxication, sobriety and creativity is complicated enough that it isn’t easy to swallow.
My other struggles came from writing about the past. In general it’s hard writing about the deceased, because you can’t ask them anything. Yes, it’s useful having distance. Decades later, you can see certain arcs in their lives, but you have to rely on existing interviews and articles to answer questions you have and to provide the details to bring these people to life on the page. Some musicians have given so many interviews that you can construct their story from the existing record, but others didn’t get interviewed that much. Musicians like tenor Hank Mobley and pianist Sonny Clark are prime examples of this kind of journalistic neglect. When you read the historic record, you often find certain frustrating limits: questions you wish someone had asked them, various missed documentary opportunities, facile articles that don’t provide glimpses of their interior lives, that sort of thing. It becomes like profiling a public figure who won’t speak with you on record. You write around them. Nonfiction writers already have to deal with the limits of reality, though, so we’re used to having to be inventive while remaining accurate, honest, balanced, and lively. To me, that’s where so much of the art of so-called “creative nonfiction” comes in: not only playing with structure and form, but working within these limitations. As an essayist, why lie? It’s not as fun or creatively challenging. Just go write fiction if you want to invent material. Fiction has its own creative challenges.
Jutta Hipp’s story was hard to write, because she left very few interviews in which to get to know her or quote her, and most of the players in her story were unavailable to me for various reasons. I needed to put the reader in the room with Hipp when Blue Note Records delivered her long-overdue royalty check, to recreate the moment when the jazz world rediscovered this talented “lost” player in her little New York apartment. That’s hard when you can only ask one of the three people who were there in that room. One central question in Hipp’s narrative concerns her disappearance: why did she quit performing and recording jazz at the height of her career? As a writer, I couldn’t assume I knew the answer to that since my subject didn’t say why explicitly. In general, writers can get into trouble and risk inaccuracies when we claim to know what subjects thought or felt and put words in their mouths that they didn’t say on record. Thankfully, the historic record contains clues about motivations, and we can make educated guesses. To do that with Hipp, I educated myself by reading everything I could find about her in books and articles, by trying to put myself in her shoes and imagining how the world looked from her particular set of circumstances, and I asked an expert: jazz scholar Katja von Schuttenbach, who has researched Hipp extensively. Then you can add subtle caveats to readers about your conjecturing, like the word ‘maybe,’ for instance, or phrases like ‘could have.’ The essay form is great because it accommodates the limits of authorial knowledge. In fact, it welcomes those limits, just like it allows for doubling back on itself, for contradictions and mysteries. As Leslie Jamison put it in Best American Essays 2017, “The essay asks us to encounter the world as questioning creatures, wary of pre-cooked narratives, attentive to humanity in all its strangeness and variety. ...[It] investigates the terms and fragility of its own gaze.” The editor of my Jutta Hipp essay didn’t like the amount of maybes I initially included—he wanted more of an article, and that was fine. But my essayist self tackled the limits of my knowledge differently than his more journalistic approach. It’s good to be able to do both for different stories or outlets, to think like an essayist and a journalist, though I do struggle to move between those worlds and don’t consistently succeed. I prefer the messiness and playful surprise of essays!
Writing about the way Miles Davis’ canonical song “So What” evolved over the course of ten years was a challenge for me as a cultural critic, because it demanded a very close listening to really work hard to identity what I heard in each iteration of this song live, and to articulate that. I find that difficult. Listening is fun when you love the music, but trying to describe what you’re hearing isn’t just hard, it’s one of the central challenges of music writing. I want to understand things, and I also like the challenge of discovery and describing the invisible or elusive, so I willingly create that kind of work for myself!
Propeller: Can you tell me a bit about how you first got involved with Longreads and what you do for them these days?
Gilbreath: I’m a contributing editor there. I read magazines, websites and newspapers to find long-form stories to share every weekday as what we call editor’s picks. I also write blog posts to highlight certain picks, adding context and quoting a few paragraphs in order to further entice people to read the full story. Occasionally I contact writers I admire and ask them to keep us in mind as an outlet for future essays and articles. Contributing editors don’t just contribute ideas or material, they try to attract talent, and when you read as widely as I do, you get a very uplifting sense of how many talented, visionary people there are living all around you. It’s incredible.
The job evolved from a surprise Twitter DM. Unlike many magazine writers, I rarely used to get solicitations. One October day I was sitting in my girlfriend’s apartment, working at the kitchen table that doubled as my home office, probably wearing some hideous combination of cut-offs and ratty house slippers, and a Longreads editor messaged me. She said that Longreads was going to start publishing original material and asked me to pitch her ideas. I loved Longreads. I visited their website frequently to find good things to read. Excited, I sent her some descriptions of stories I was working on. The most promising wasn’t written: I was flying to Sacramento the following month to take a two-week, self-funded reporting trip through rural interior California, to write a book I’d been struggling with for years. When I got back, I pitched her an idea built around my visit to the San Joaquin Valley’s last historic honky-tonk, which I made the first night of my two-week trip. They eventually published it, and it’s my California book’s first chapter, which is still making the rounds.
From there, they had me start reading stories. As Longreads grew, they let me grow with them. I’ve always wanted to work as an editor, in order to give writers a platform to tell stories. In addition to finding editor’s picks, I also find essays and short stories in print literary magazines to republish online, and I run excerpts of books around their publication date. We’ve excerpted incredible books by Terese Mailhot, Laura Smith, Lauren Elkin and Richard Lloyd Parry, and republished lit mag pieces from Angela Palm, Zoë Gadegbeku, C Pam Zhang and Althea Fann. It’s the most gratifying job I’ve ever had. I still feel indebted to Julia Wick. She changed my life! I’ve never even had a chance to shake her hand in person; that’s the distributed work force for you.
Propeller: And you’re obviously keeping yourself particularly busy, because you had another essay collection out last year—Everything We Don’t Know, which is a finalist for an Oregon Book Award. When did you start working on those essays, and how did you get involved with the publisher, Curbside Splendor?
Gilbreath: Around 2008, not long after I moved from New York back to my native Phoenix, Arizona, I started working furiously on what became those essays. I’d decided against a career in book publishing and needed to figure out my next move, so my parents invited me to move in with them for however long it took. I assumed I’d be there a few months. I stayed for three and a half years. My parents and I loved getting to spend time together as a family again and getting to know each other as adults. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I wish I could repeat in order to savor it all again. Granted, I loathed suburban Phoenix and had vowed never to move back, but living in the city where I grew up conjured so many feelings and memories that it gave me an opportunity to write about the past, to piece together my own history and address many lingering questions about who I was, where I’d come from, and why I’d done certain things I’d done. So I followed those questions wherever they led. During the work week I started locking myself into study cubicles at the libraries at Arizona State University, and just wrote and wrote and wrote. It was fantastic. I’d attended ASU after high school, but I’d never enjoyed my time there as much as I did as an adult sponging their resources to write essays. That period was one of the most exciting, creative periods of my life, and I was just sitting on my ass in a cubicle. With very little money coming in, I lived in those libraries and subsisted on ham sandwiches I made from ingredients my parents generously bought me, and I treated my essays as my full-time job. I wrote all day, every weekday, often from 8am till 10pm, and hung out with friends and family on the weekend. After a few years, a clutch of personal essays accumulated, and when I finally moved back to Portland, Oregon, I had what seemed like enough for a book─not that I imagined anyone would want it.
Back then you always heard how commercial publishers rarely bought essay collections, so I didn’t bother with big presses for long. I read lots of great books from indie presses, so I made a list of ones to contact, and I kept writing more essays. That was my M.O. back then: write, write, write. I was working through some serious things, and I wrote until I had satisfied my curiosity about those subjects. Fortunately, in January 2013, I asked editor Jacob Knabb at Curbside Splendor if he’d read my manuscript, and he said he’d be happy to. They were getting ready to publish Samantha Irby’s singular essay collection Meaty and were making what he called their “first foray into the genre.” I don’t remember how we first got in touch. It appears I just emailed him out of the blue to ask. We were friends on Facebook, of course. Everyone was, before Twitter. I’d enjoyed some Curbside fiction and respected small presses, because I relate to determined underdogs who do things for love over money. He was busy, had a new baby. Curbside was a small press with a small staff. A whole year and many follow-up emails passed before he told me they were accepting the book for publication. Then nearly a year after that, they sent me the contract. Two new editors, Naomi and Cat, took over for Jacob, and the book came out in December 2016. I’m not good at math, but from writing it to publishing it, it took nearly three hundred years. The ice caps weren’t melting as quickly back then, so I didn’t mind waiting. As a writer, you get used to waiting. You just keep writing.
Naturally, during those glacial years I did worry that the press would change their mind, that they’d never send a contract, that this book, like so many things in my writing life, would never happen because the press would fold or the editor was blowing smoke up my ass. When the press finally sent me the draft cover designs, I felt such a huge sense of relief. Unlike the story about almond milk and the California drought that I wrote for The New Yorker website and that they killed at the last minute, this book was actually going to happen! I’ve never relished such solidity before, my god. The creative process is often a slow one, but indie publishing is slow, too. Life moves so dizzyingly fast now that it’s kind of nice getting to savor the whole thing at a digestible pace, to really be in it enough to look around and appreciate the process and its fleeting satisfactions. But one of the great joys of my creative life was seeing those essays evolve from ideas scribbled on notebook paper while driving Phoenix’s endless freeways to their getting named a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. I’d love to win the Award, but I don’t need to win it. This honor satisfies enough. All those long days and cheap ham sandwiches in the library were worth the effort. I hope readers find those essays rewarding, too.
Aaron Gilbreath is an essayist, journalist, and burrito enthusiast whose work has been listed as notables in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. A contributing editor at Longreads, he tells overlooked stories about musicians, authors, food, Japan, the American West, and the natural world.