copyright © 2006 Eduardo Hojman
For the March/April issue of Cuadernos de Jazz, perhaps the most important jazz magazine in Spanish, its editor, Raul Mao, asked 10 of his staff journalists to choose seven underestimated and seven overestimated jazz figures in the history of jazz, or more precisely "undervalued" and "overvalued," and explain why in more or less five lines per name. The request didn't sit smoothly with all of them, but they finally did it. Even when "overestimated" was not supposed to mean necessarily "bad," but getting more attention than they deserve (and "underestimated" meant getting less attention than they deserve), some of the respondents did take that point of view and wrote some very negative things about some of the "overvalued" ones. The resulting article, a 22-page long, hot, disturbing, emotional and peculiar collection of assessments, was also the theme of the cover of the issue, with a very graphic "thumbs up — thumbs down" illustration.
In its introduction, under the title "The Critics Express Their Opinion," the magazine says something like this, roughly translated: "The problems arise when we ask ourselves: Undervalued and overvalued by whom? It is well known that there are no collective endorsements in jazz, neither great allegiances and that the heart says a lot when reason ends up without resources. There is a physiology in taste, said Brillat-Savarin; in jazz tastes, only a stark subjectivity reigns, and that's it. This would explain how some of the undervalued appear as overvalued in others' lists, and viceversa. Some unanimity (Don Ellis among the undervalued, Joshua Redman among the overvalued) reassures us and grants some "truth" to this little survey whose result must push the readers to listen to all the ones that are mentioned here in both senses and draw their own conclusions. This can be disturbing: how come this colossus is placed as overvalued? How could they say this jazzman is undervalued, when I see him mentioned everywhere?"
The writers who reluctantly at first and joyfully later accepted this task are Carlos Sampayo, Jorge Garcia, Jose Troyano, Jonio Gonzalez, Angel Gomez Aparicio, Edward Fuente, Vicente Mensua, Federico Garcia Herraiz, Enrique Turpin, and myself. We are all permanent members of Cuadernos de Jazz writers' staff. These are the lists of the victims and heroes, the over- and undervalued:
Overvalued: Joshua Redman (with six votes), Chet Baker (with five), Don Byron, Diana Krall, Pat Metheny, and Dave Brubeck (with three each), Roy Hargrove, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, and Michael Brecker (with two each). With one vote: Pharoah Sanders, Johnny Griffin, Charles Lloyd, James Carter, Esbjorn Svensson, Bobby McFerrin, Herbie Nichols, Eric Dolphy, Wes Montgomery, Sun Ra, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Modern Jazz Quartet, Jan Garbarek, Stan Kenton, Branford Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, Nu-Jazz (as a movement; naming Wesseltoft, Matthew Shipp and DJ Spooky), Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Charlie Haden, Cassandra Wilson, Chico Freeman, Herbie Hancock, Abbey Lincoln, Brad Mehldau, Sunny Murray, Benny Goodman, Original Dixieland Jass Band, Paul Whiteman, Joe Lovano, The Bad Plus, Bugge Wesseltoft, and Miles Davis (in the '80s and '90s).
Undervalued: Don Ellis (with four votes), Woody Shaw (with three), Marion Brown, Dewey Redman, Sonny Stitt, Shelly Manne, and Gigi Gryce (with two each). With one vote: Jim Black's Alasnoaxis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Wah Wah Watson, Harry Connick Jr., Jimmy Scott, Willis Jackson, Warne Marsh, Jimmy Giuffre, Oscar Pettiford, Sidney Bechet, Lucky Thompson, Wilbur Harden, Fats Navarro, Paul Desmond, Von Freeman, Dave Frishberg, Michiel Braam, Thomas Chapin, June Christy, Wynton Kelly, Johnny Hartman, Wynton Marsalis, Mary Lou Williams, Tim Berne, Sonny Criss, David Liebman, Bill Barron, Ted Curson, Teddy Charles, big bands and arrangers (specially modern, naming Bill Holman, Bob Florence or Bob Brookmeyer), Frankie Trumbauer, Peggy Lee, Johnny Smith, Grant Green, Warne Marsh, Richie Kamuca, Elmo Hope, Booker Ervin, Dave Brubeck, George Russell, Abbey Lincoln, Jimmy Lunceford, Billy Mitchell, Mel Tormé, Dave McKenna, Joe Farrell, Bobby Watson, Henry Red Allen, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Harris, and Johnny Coles.
Those interested in curious details may see that some of the musicians appear in both lists, such as Brubeck, Lincoln and Wynton Marsalis. In the case of Marsalis, the same writer put him on both accounts. That was me, and we'll get to this. Some tried successfully to dodge some of the limits of the survey either by placing two musicians together as one, talking about movements (nu jazz, big bands) or referring only to a certain period of the musicians' work (as in the Miles Davis case). Among the reasons given by the writers in the small space they had to choose this or that musician as "under" or "overvalued," there are some differences. While some seem to be venting some kind of anger or disdain, and others seem to be protesting about the general state of affairs, linking the appreciation this or that musician gets with the economic power of their labels or the political and temporal opportunity of their appearance, there are also those who try to be more humble and less aggressive, and yet others who followed the instructions literally and by "overvalued" meant exactly that, nothing less, nothing more. The overall, tacit, and underlying idea, nonetheless, seem to be the same for everyone: we, critics, are very subjective people, and have our own tastes and whims, and all we can do is to acknowledge that subjectivity and display it plainly so that whoever reads our reviews knows "where we come from."
I chose to put Marsalis both as "undervalued" and "overvalued" with that in mind. While it is very easy to criticize him for his views or for the backwardness of his musical projects as well as the way he manages the Lincoln Center jazz department, it is also easy to overlook his wonderful technical prowess and his capacity of creating great beauty. By putting him in both categories I wanted to bring forward and be conscious of an important problem for all critics of all disciplines: the "a priori" criteria that influence our writing.
Much to my surprise, this survey had some interesting repercussions that bring forward another issue, which is the actual impact we have on the general public, or, in other words: Who are we writing for? I found out that we are mainly writing, sadly, for colleagues or wannabes critics. The first and main echo appeared in the website www.tomajazz.com, which is a comprehensive site about jazz in Spain, touching on mostly everything that happens here. Tomajazz has many forums, and one of them, called "Un poco de jazz... toma jazz!" has a 10-page thread called "undervalued & overvalued" and refers specifically to the Cuadernos de Jazz survey. There other threads in other Tomajazz forums that also write on or directly reproduce part of the survey. In the "undervalued & overvalued" thread most of the participants are angry at us and insult us, which I find very funny and cannot but feel that in some way part of this anger is caused by the fact that they are not writing in Cuadernos. They call us all kinds of picturesque names (some of us get the superlative "carbon," which could be roughly translated as "motherfucker," while others are accused of bad taste, poor criteria or "writing bullshit"). But what really called my attention was that someone said something in the order that "the guys with more power in this country to guide the opinion of the average jazz fan" are really showing their true colors. Well, this is really funny: If I am one of those with such power I think I should ask for a raise.
Of course I disagree: in my opinion the only "guys with more power in this country to guide the opinion of the average jazz fan," if such a concept has any truth at all, would be those who write about jazz in general newspapers, wouldn't they? Not in a specialized magazine as Cuadernos. Even when some of the newspapers jazz critics have already proven that they don't know or care about jazz (or write reviews of concerts they don't attend or which they leave 20 minutes after the show begins, as one of the critics from the most important newspaper does).
At any rate, the Tomajazz debate about the article is not without interest, because while some of them insult us for our opinions, they mainly talk about the relevance, quality and opportunity of such survey, and this is something we should pay attention to, specially since their objections bring up some of the issues that affect us all who write on this.
Another, very different, take was the one chosen by the Argentine jazz newsletter Codigo Jazz (firstname.lastname@example.org). What they do is call the Cuadernos de Jazz survey "banal" and then say that through the "high level" comments by their contributors they will "enrichen" it. This is interesting, considering that for many years, at least when I lived in Argentina, Cuadernos de Jazz was the most important (and coveted) jazz magazine in Spanish. Sorry, but, again, to me this looks like envy. At any rate, some of the contributions actually are very worthy, and there is also a transcription of a radio show where piano player Adrian Iaies comments on this survey. Finally, the Uruguayan newspaper La Republica wrote this: "The most astonishing of this Cuadernos de Jazz issue is a singular survey: 20 pages in which a dozen critics vent their opinions on jazzmen of all times, dedicating the even pages to the "overvalued" (they hit them with all they have) and the odd pages to the "undervalued" (praising them with affection). Surprises pop up everywhere (. . .). The critics justify their choices with strong and sometimes surprising arguments."
This is a good result for the magazine. With this sleight-of-hand, Raul Mao really managed to prove the importance of Cuadernos de Jazz in the bleak jazz scene in Spain. But I think that it is also a very ephemeral one. It might have made some of the managers of jazz departments of record labels or musical directors of jazz festivals acknowledge our presence, but they don't really pay us any attention. And, our enthusiastic enemy notwithstanding, I don't think we have such a big impact on the "average jazz fan" (note that this guy is not "average" himself, he is above that and above our influence on such poor gullible people). But still, it was fun.
C o m m e n t s
Underrated/Overrated 1 of 5 Lee Mergner June 21, 06
What an original idea! I wonder if an American jazz magazine should consider doing such an issue? Naaah. - Lee Mergner