Writing about music
A talk with Ashley Kahn

Image Credits: Ashley Kahn © Leonardo Schiavone

Grammy Award winner journalist

July 03, 2017
We have met the Grammy Award winner journalist, writer and New York University Professor Ashley Kahn during the last JazzIt Fest Edition in Feltre, Italy. We discussed with him of writing about music and of his new book, Il rumore dell’anima (“The Noise Of The Soul”), which has just been published in Italy.
> Laura Valle

You’re one of the most important musical journalists. How did you approach musical journalism?
They say that music is a calling and music finds you, whether you’re gonna be a musician, or a music professional working in a record company, or a music producer working in a studio, or a music journalist writing about it. I began as a concert producer and as an artist and tour manager, before I became a journalist. The urge to write is something that happens naturally. You know that you’re supposed to do it, and I like it expressively so, I like to creatively support what I love.
Well, I knew that I loved music, and I knew that I could write about it. I also knew that I didn’t want to be a critic, and I was very clear about it. I didn’t want to judge values on albums, recording or live performances, I knew very clearly that I wanted to be a music journalist, I wanted to tell stories about music and the musicians.

You usually write about jazz; are there any other musical genres you like?
I don’t want to only write about jazz, I like to write about the music that I love. I don’t need to review and say what’s good as, if I’m writing about it, it’s because I care about it, and I’m positive about this music, and because I listen to so many different styles, it’s just that I happened to have chosen jazz because I respect that style, maybe because there’s a little more depth, a little more sophistication, a little more connection with me, and that’s why I think jazz matters to me more.

You have a new book which has just been published in Italy by “Il Saggiatore”, a collection of your most important writings and memories, Il rumore dell’Anima (“The Noise Of The Soul”). Why did you choose this title?
It’s funny you’re asking me this question because it’s not my title. My title was Listening under deadline, that is listening to the music while you are under a deadline, which is kind of silly, because you’re supposed to have time to focus on the music and suddenly you think: “Oh my God! I have to finish writing the essay by 9 o’clock tomorrow!”.
So I thought that was a nice way of being “working class”, that being a writer is being a worker, but my editor at “Il Saggiatore”, Luca Formenton, came up with this alternative title and it works really well, it also works really well with the graphics and so, sometimes I’m not right, I mean, sometimes a book, in fact all the times, a book is a collaborative project, it’s a team effort, you can’t do it by yourself, it takes more than one person. I love that title, it honestly talks about the emotion, if I’m writing about Lester Young, or Eric Clapton, or Jimi Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin or by the Beatles, it’s with the same emotion.


How did you select the writings and the memories included in your book?
I didn’t select all the essays, the reviews and the liner notes, it was again a collaborative effort with Luca Formenton. I have to say that as a writer, not often you have the privilege of working with someone who is like a producer, like George Martin was for the Beatles, that’s how I feel with Luca, I don’t have someone like him in America, I had to come to Italy to find someone who believes in my writing, God bless Luca Formenton!

You won a Grammy award for the liner notes to the John Coltrane release Offering: Live At Temple University. What was that experience like?
It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I was nominated two other times, so I was nominated three times and already that felt incredible, cos you’re on the top of the mountain, OK? You are on the top of the mountain with four other people that also are nominated, and then they call your name! And you feel like you’re walking off the mountain, and you don’t fall, you’re standing on the air, that’s how I felt. I was standing on the air.
And what made it even more special, it was for John Coltrane who, for me, is one of my biggest heroes, I don’t know if I have a bigger hero than John Coltrane so, to be honest… I’m just glad that I went to the bathroom before!

How do you normally proceed while you’re writing?
Word by word, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. I think it is like any creative individual. How does a painter do it? Stroke by stroke with the paintbrush. How does a musician do? One track at the time. I want to write sentences and paragraphs and essays and not get in the way of the music, and allow the inspiration and the magic of the music to come through the words. I’m writing to be like a window with a glass you can see through, and that you can see the music behind.
Once Wayne Shorter told me he had read one of my books on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, 4-5 hours of flight, he said he read the book on that flight, and the reason he finished it was that, to him, my words were like water. He said: «I mean, I suppose this isn’t good.» and I told him: «I take it as a compliment, and it’s beautiful, thank you.» And by water, that’s exactly what I want my writing to be. I don’t want to get in the way of the music, I want my readers to get the inspiration, and then go back to the music, and if they do it then I am successful, I’m happy, my job is done.

There were a lot of young people, today, attending your lecture about the future in jazz. Do you have any suggestions for young students who want to approach music journalism?
That’s a good question… It’s a difficult question too. You really have to do it because you want to do it, because you feel it in your heart, as you’re not getting back a lot of money by doing this.
No. 2 suggestion is something you have to keep doing to be good at, you have to keep your ass on the chair in front of the laptop and keep writing, and get to the point where you have a good feeling about what you’re writing, when there’s balance between describing the music, talking about the history behind the music, the stories of the musicians, what details are necessary, what details are not, and that takes time, it gets inside your muscles, and after a while you get a feeling, you get a way of talking to yourself and your head about how you’re writing, and that’s what I was saying.
Be ready to invest a lot of time. One more thing: read other writers, and not music writers. Stay away from other music writers! Read good writing: papers, magazines, websites and, of course, the classics. I still get inspiration from great English writers like Graham Greene, I’m one of his big fans because he is so good at describing characters without describing the character, he describes the characters through action, and that’s a great idea. Can you describe John Coltrane without describing him, but describing who he is and what he does? So get your writing ideas from really great writers, not necessarily music writers.
You have written a lot about very important musicians. Would you like to share and anecdote with us?
Most musicians don’t want to be interviewed. It’s painful for them, because they are asked some questions that are either really boring or really intrusive, like that gets under their skin. There’s a very long Keith Jarrett interview inside my book; one thing I decided when I spoke to him was that I wasn’t going to ask him anything difficult, but at the same time I thought that I was definitely going to ask him about Miles Davis. We never talked about Miles, so even when I have a plan it’s more than what I want to realize.
That was a conversation like this we’re having now, I wanted it to be comfortable, I wasn’t talking to a musician, I was talking to a man in a bar, who I’m having a beer with. So, I think with Keith Jarrett the reason why I got such a great interview, or with Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin is that I took away the idea of question and answer and that became more like a conversation, and I didn’t speak so much of myself, but I allowed them to continue when they wanted to continue, I wasn’t nervous, I made them feel like I was having a beer with them. I think that’s why those interviews are in the book.
Ashley Kahn
Reservados todos los derechos – All rights reserved – 版權所有 – 版权所有; Writing about music, A talk with Ashley Kahn – copyright Jazzespresso 2017.
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