May 6th 2008 10:39 am
Copyright © 2008 Lyn Horton
By Lyn Horton
In March of ’08, an email came into my inbox from The Jazz Institute in Darmstadt, Germany about a three-day panel discussion on jazz journalism.
Here is the way the topic, “Quality in Jazz Journalism,” for one of the day’s discussion was described: “In principle, jazz criticism faces the same dilemma as music criticism dies in general: there is no professional training for this field. On top of that, jazz first had to assert itself against so-called serious music in the media because providing information on the musical genre jazz was long considered an alibi for a medium’s youthfulness. Furthermore, jazz criticism was often written by jazz enthusiasts who saw themselves as defenders of jazz or by journalists who were more interested in the spectacle than in artistic composition. The fact that jazz involves a lot of improvisations and that there are rarely musical scores to hand down does not make criticism any easier. But despite all these problems — How is it possible to pursue high-quality jazz journalism?”
First of all, making jazz journalism semi-dependent on the existence of musical scores makes no sense because a musical score is not the object of assessment. It is how the music within the score is realized that bears significance.
In order to perceive improvisation and convert those perceptions to words, the writer needs to both identify with and objectively witness the music. Only then can words describe how the music or “artistic composition” occurred. Jazz reporting should be concerned with telling it like it is, rather than speculating how it should be. Of course, reportage encourages adopting an approach as a means to begin writing. But not so much of an approach that the music is lost as the subject for the writing and the opinions of the writer overshadow what is heard.
The activity of reporting becomes like taking a picture with a camera. The settings need to be reasonable enough for the photograph to come out. Then, the question could be asked: How are the settings chosen? The settings are chosen according to the subject matter and according to the experience of the writer.
The experience of writers is as various as the music that is heard. Most jazz writers have heard a lot of music. And that is a plus only for the reason that the background allows the writer to be comfortable with what is heard, rather compare what is heard with something else that is known.
And this is the crux of a seemingly irresolvable conflict that pervades jazz journalism. The subject matter of an article about either a concert or a recording is the music itself, not how much the writer knows about the rest of the music world or whose music is the most similar to the music at hand.
To help to describe the music, it is a valid enterprise to explain it through metaphor or simile in relation to visualizations or other sound elements. It is also valid to put the music into historical context, if necessary. But, without measuring influence which automatically predisposes the reader to deal with the idea of the music in a way that is relative rather than specific and individual.
How the writer puts music in context lends the music depth and interest. To say that an improviser lived in New York City in the 1960s or in San Francisco in the ’90s or went to Berklee College of Music or Mills College and studied with so-and-so or was involved with this or that artistic, philosophical or political movement is going to surround the musician with a cloak. But the cloak is not the subject matter of the writing. Only the springboard. How the musician, who wears the cloak, plays the music is the subject matter.
Furthermore, the writer needs to extend and apply a kind of consciousness that reveals the essence of the music, takes it apart and puts it back together and gives it meaning for the reader. Which activity invests the writer with credibility as well.
How is meaning extracted from music? Saxophone player Marion Brown once described the improvised music with which he was involved as being the kind of music that made people think… think about how the music was expressed, the emotions the music conjured up, the texture that the music wove, the commitment of the musicians to the sounds that were being created, how the intensity of the commitment came across, the cultural boundaries the music leapt over, the cultural impact the music had, the origins from which the music was derived. Making all of that and more accessible to the reader as accurately as possible is the key to good jazz journalism. If the music gives the writer nothing to think about, then is the music worth writing about?
Is a picture worth a thousand words? Maybe. Words can often be as precious as pictures, especially when they can bring out the best in them and invite more exploration and more looking. In the case of music, words can invite more listening or listening for the first time. And to invite listening is the whole point of writing about music in the first place, isn’t it? To support the musicians, to support the culture, to point towards a better life.