September 16th 2009 02:21 pm
Copyright © 2009 Lyn Horton
Recently, Chris Kelsey wrote a blog entry that brings to light a question of the difference between jazz “journalism” and jazz “writing.” (September 5: http://chriskelsey.com/blog/) This is my response.
Journalism, by definition, requires that certain rules of reportage be heeded. Right. OK. That holds true if a story were being written that necessitated arranging facts in order to build a story. I have done that before; there was absolutely no room for poetry. But as far as jazz “criticism” goes, “criticism” does not fit well within the category of journalism.
“Criticism” itself needs to be defined in order for the word to make any sense in its application. In the online dictionary source I use, the first ranked definition of criticism is: “the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.” This is a broadly based, but perhaps a good way to begin to deal with the idea of criticism in general.
Rep. Joe Wilson’s verbal attack on President Obama during his Congressional Address on September 9, 2009, is an outright passing of judgment on how the President is doing. “You Lie” is Wilson’s subjectively drawn conclusion, criticizing the President’s shaping of Health Reform. Wilson’s accusation is an act of Freedom of Speech, but it is also an act for which there is an editor, blatantly ignored by Wilson, that takes the form of public decorum within Congress. Wilson could say the same words in another socio-political context; for instance, in his office or quite possibly on the Congressional floor in a speech about Health Reform. The practice of Freedom of Speech means accepting the responsibility for that freedom. There is no freedom without responsibility, which means complying with rules and with laws and one’s own common sense of human dignity and morality; otherwise, anarchy would prevail.
My mother, who was born into the arms of decorum, was extremely critical. Nothing was right in her eyes. Everything had to be perfect and conform to the acceptable, which was defined by her peers and her elders. This attitude placed a terrible onus on her children, including me. Her critical nature spawned my fear of punishment for everything I did within her ken. It was not until I left home that I became aware of my own capabilities and strengthened my language for making art. When I left home, I walked away from the stranglehold of conformity, but I chose not to become a protester. My commitment to developing my own spirit and work was a means to supplant conformity and foster my individuality…my own voice.
It has not been until I began “writing” about music that I have witnessed that voice rising from within in a different guise. Were it not for a particular editor with whom I work, I would have lost that voice: he allowed it to blossom and helped me to shape it. That voice is concerned with how I approach music: not from the standpoint of measuring all music against that which has come before it; or whether or not I have a personal dislike or like for it, necessarily; or whether or not I regurgitate the PR that accompanies the music I listen to, live or recorded. My view is not the right or the only view. It is simply my view. It is an expression of my voice.
I have been chastised for writing a negative review, which, for me, was a freak occurrence. Ironically, that review was printed in one place and not in another. That situation was supposedly a lesson to me not to write about music with which I could not identify. I had no motive for writing negatively. The music for me was ill-conceived, poorly designed. Within the article, I commented on how technically adroit the musicians were; certainly, no criticism there. The negative remarks, I directed towards the lead artist’s interpretation of his subject matter. Previous to this incident, more times than I can count, upon receiving recordings I cannot relate to, I have been in touch with the senders, telling them that I would not do service to the music and it would be best to select another reviewer. Did I learn my lesson? I don’t know; it depends on the music.
When writing, nearly always, I take steps to tell the reader how the music sounded. After all, I am writing because of the music. Certainly, facts germane to the article I will without doubt research, but the number of words allotted me to observe “objectively” are few. If I were to pack the article with biographical facts on the musician/group or quotations from the musician(s), or proclamations of my opinions, no room would be left to describe as accurately as possible the sounds I have heard or create verbal metaphors for readers to imagine the music.
My approach to writing about music is one of validation. This is what I hear. This is how I hear it. I have honed my methods. I try desperately to separate myself from the pressure of competition to stay on top of the music as if I were tweeting. I am a thinker. I connect intensely metaphysical dots with dissonant string notes, or high-pitched sax squeals, or the agglomeration of piano note clusters, or the cascades of instrumental arpeggios, or incessant cymbal sibilance, or stick to snare drum clatter. I listen to music as if it were a first-time exposure to it…fresh, alive and filled with feeling.
The music is telling a story and it is my place as writer to translate that story as best I can. I do this through a process called jazz “writing” that excludes describing how horrible or even how great it is. Because who, outside of the musicians who make the music, really knows how to make that decision. The music just is.
I thank Chris Kelsey for inspiring me to compose yet another statement about how I write about music. The statement expresses an opinion; it is not law. The statement just is.