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A Jazz Critic as Free

as the Squirrels

Not long after music critic Kevin Whitehead moved to Chicago, last June, he gave his friend and fellow writer John Corbett a copy of Nut Music as Free as the Squirrels--the long out of print 1979 album by his old improv-rock band, Starship Beer. To his surprise Corbett asked if he could reissue it on his new label, Unheard Music Series. "I tried to talk him out of it," says Whitehead. "I figured, he's my friend, I give him this record, he has a new record label, and he's swept up in feelings of friendship--so I told him to sit on the idea for two months and then we could talk about it." The passage of time did nothing to deter Corbett: last month he released the album, a bracing dose of post-Captain Beefheart chaos, on CD along with some previously unissued material.

Whitehead, Pat O'Brien, and Wes Mingin met at Oswego State in New York and started Starship Beer in London, where they were studying British fiction in the summer of 1972. Its initial purpose was to annoy the neighbors. "Some of the people living in the dorm were these complete assholes, snobby upper-crust types," he says. "Our first impetus to do it was motivated by obnoxiousness, but there was something about it that we liked, so when we got back we started doing gigs." Inspired by Beefheart and the open-ended live jams on Cream's Goodbye, Starship Beer mixed O'Brien's stream of consciousness sputtering, free-form guitar and bass, and chalkboard-scrape woodwinds in an abrasive, absurdist style that makes them a sort of technically adept cousin to Canada's Nihilist Spasm Band. Unsurprisingly, they failed to develop much of a following. "Our gigs were over when the sound got turned off," says Whitehead.

By 1974 the members of Starship Beer had graduated and dispersed. Whitehead moved to Baltimore to get "that terrible first novel" out of his system. But geography didn't prevent somewhat regular reunions for sparsely attended gigs, and by 1979 the trio had decided to record. Whitehead, by now a rabid jazz fan, had begun writing jazz reviews for Cadence magazine, and he was encouraged by the groundswell of artist-run labels that included John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne's Parachute Records and Julius Hemphill's Mbari imprint. He figured the group could release a relatively inexpensive album. His brother Dennis, a doctor, loaned him about half of the $800 it cost to produce a thousand copies.

The release of the album did nothing to change the band's fortunes, but by the time it came out Whitehead's career as a jazz critic was gathering steam. Soon he was writing for the Baltimore City Paper and in 1987 he became the jazz reviewer for the NPR program Fresh Air. (His predecessor, Francis Davis, had written a positive review of the Starship Beer album and helped him land the gig.) Two years later Whitehead moved to New York, the center of both the jazz and publishing universes, where at first he was a pig in shit, catching live music five nights a week, working for the Village Voice, Down Beat, and Pulse, and writing lots of liner notes.

Unlike many avant-garde jazz enthusiasts, Whitehead has a thorough grasp of the broader tradition, a keen understanding of how things went from point A to point Z. But his penetrating analyses have sometimes alienated his colleagues: In a piece for the Voice in 1993 he questioned Lincoln Center's conservative booking policies--personified by its artistic director, neocon icon Wynton Marsalis--and in doing so painted an enthusiastically inclusive portrait of jazz that treated rigid definitions with the same suspicion all the pioneering musicians have. A piece by Tom Piazza in the New York Times several months later lambasted Whitehead as "combative," asserting that he was resistant to "any effort at definition whatsoever." Whitehead suddenly found himself pigeonholed: "Almost every conversation I had for the next year included some comment about Wynton Marsalis," he says.

Soon he was ready to leave New York. "I wanted a meatier subject," he says. He'd been to Amsterdam a few times in the early 90s and was fascinated with the way Dutch jazz greats like Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, and Willem Breuker had adapted and transformed the peculiarly American form. In '95, he moved there to write a book about it: New Dutch Swing, published by Billboard Books in 1998, is an accessible, engrossing survey of an admittedly obscure topic. "Looking back I wonder why I was so sure that someone would publish it," he told me in an interview shortly after it came out.

Whitehead returned to the U.S. in 1999 and spent four months in tiny Ilion, New York, decompressing. "I already had my eye on Chicago, but I thought it would be too difficult to move directly from Amsterdam, which I think is about the most livable city that I could imagine, to a typical large American rust belt city," Whitehead says. "I needed to remind myself why I couldn't live in a small town."

Over the years he'd developed friendships with colleagues in Chicago, including Corbett, Neil Tesser, and former Down Beat editor Art Lange. He'd made regular pilgrimages to the city's Jazz Fest, and was attracted by the burgeoning new-music scene. "Amsterdam had a nice full-blown scene, but I could see that it wasn't on the way up," he says. "I remembered some years ago, when I was fishing for a new place to live, that I wanted to move somewhere with a scene that was going up instead of going down." Now that he's here, he's busy with freelance work, and in addition to his long-running Fresh Air gig he can be heard on WNUR's jazz show every Monday morning from 10 to 12:30, along with Corbett and Sun-Times jazz writer Lloyd Sachs, in a segment called "Writer's Bloc." He's also working on another book, about the intermingling of various strains of American music. "The Hawaiian guitar, western swing, and the southwestern swing of something like Count Basie--I think these are basically all connected," he says. "The interface between folk and jazz in the 60s--Cannonball Adderly doing folk themes, Bob Dylan using jazz musicians on his first electric single--the influence of Indian music on rock 'n' roll . . . improvisation is the glue among these kinds of music."

Despite all this respectable activity, the project Whitehead seems most excited about is the imminent reunion of Starship Beer, whose last gig was at the old Knitting Factory in New York before Whitehead moved to Amsterdam. To celebrate the reissue of Nut Music as Free as the Squirrels, the band will make its long-delayed Chicago debut on Wednesday, June 20, at the Empty Bottle. It'll also perform live on WNUR that afternoon, between 11:45 and 1.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

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