Critical Response

Critical Response

from Jazz Notes 6/3 1994

By Kevin Whitehead
Copyright © 1994, Kevin Whitehead

Our editor has asked me to write a piece on critical responsibility, in light of the shitstorm of criticism that's come my way from Wynton Marsalis and his allies in the last year. They were responding to (often sloppy readings of) my article, "It's Jazz, Stupid," which concerns the scope of the music, and which appeared in a Village Voice jazz supplement in November 1993. That essay has been characterized as a full-page attack on Jazz at Lincoln Center, although only about a third of it dealt with that program. For that matter, many criticisms Marsalis took personally were not aimed at him. One hard thing to deal with as a critic is to be attacked for views you do not hold - although being assailed in the Sunday New York Times (by Tom Piazza) as a proponent of Noble Savagery even as I defend Anthony Braxton has its amusing side.

Anyway, rather than delivering a learned disquisition peppered with references to the ancient Greeks, let me instead thump on a few related issues.

You may have read Wynton's response to my article in the NJSO Journal (5/1), in which he raises one old canard most every critic confronts sooner or later. After listing a slew of musicians he's played with, he asks rhetorically, "Who has this writer studied or played with, and what is the source of his authority other than poor editorial decisions?" The nub, obviously, is that musicians know more about music than we do, so how do we justify criticizing them?

There are a couple of answers. The first is, jazz is not just for musicians, it's for listeners, just as literature is for readers, not other writers. If educated members of the public can't relate to a particular piece of music, maybe it's not great art, on the grounds that great art communicates. (Note I don't say "an educated member of the public," because there's no unanimous opinion about anything, nor is any one person a final arbiter - no matter what Piazza claims I believe.) Musicians, busy making music, often fail to appreciate music which operates in a different way from their own. Witness Armstrong's and Cab Calloway's attacks on bebop as hate music or "Chinese music," or putdowns of Ornette Coleman by Dizzy Gillespie ("I don't know what he's playing, but it's not jazz"), Roy Eldridge ("I think he's jiving, baby. He's putting everybody on"), and umpteen others - or, for that matter, the many musicians in New York and elsewhere I've heard assert that Marsalis isn't much of a trumpet player (not an opinion I share; I sometimes indulge in the perverse pleasure of defending his playing).

Musicians are not in the time-consuming business of listening to jazz, nor should they be; some prefer not to contaminate their own concept by too much exposure to anyone else's. Musicians are in the time-consuming business of making music, and if it bolsters their self-confidence to believe their way is the only right way, that's okay, as long as it helps their music. This does not mean critics should buy into these useful delusions; if anything, we ought to caution the public not to place too much stock in musicians' pronouncements, so often rife with conflicts of interest. Musicians, after all, do compete with each other for gigs.

We critics might also help rebut the notion that none of us are musicians; as far as I can tell, an awful lot of - maybe even most - critics are reasonably skilled players of one or more instruments. Some are better than that; Bill Milkowski could easily work as a guitarist instead of writing about pickers. So it's not as if we all lack technical expertise. The challenge for us is to explain technical matters (or failings) in terms lay readers can understand, where discussion of technique is warranted.

What is the critic's function? For good or ill, in most cases nowadays, it's to be a consumer advocate. With few and enviable exceptions, we're mostly in the business of reviewing records. No matter how few or many record labels service you with promos, you have access to more recordings than all but the most obsessive collectors; our job is to sift through the dross - it's work, no question - to find the good stuff, and to warn folks away from the bad. And, although space is painfully short - shorter every year - where possible we should strive to place a recording in some larger context, no matter how sketchily described. Much of our (real or imagined) expertise is based on this superior access we have to records and gigs. Not that this absolves us from doing our homework. Who've I studied with? Among others, Martin Williams, Wilfred Mellers, Gunther Schuller, John Chilton, Willie the Lion Smith, Jelly Roll Morton - anyone who's written a revealing book or sat for a good interview I've read.

We can learn an awful lot about jazz talking to musicians, and friendships will arise from such contact. But remember: our principal obligation is to listeners, not players. If you're too close to a musician to tell the truth about their work, don't write about them. If they're really your friend, they'll understand.

Some critics believe only positive notices serve the music; that silence is the only appropriate response to records, concerts or musicians we dislike on aesthetic grounds. There's much to be said for that viewpoint, given the limited opportunities we all have to write about this music we love. (I've done very few negative pieces for NPR's Fresh Air over the last seven years, usually on big names with inflated reputations, such as Harry Connick or Mr. Marsalis.) Still, I believe negative reviews are legit, as long as they're substantive.

My thinking on this issue was partly shaped by a collector who'd once complained to me that one magazine had lost all credibility with him, because he'd been burned picking up a couple of sub-standard albums by major musicians which had received favorable reviews there. Even a rave in those pages became suspect for him. Our critical approval means little to readers without occasional confirmation that there's music we don't like too, and that we aren't afraid to say so. As someone who does slam a record occasionally, I can report that to my knowledge only one company (GRP) ever deleted me from its promo list for that reason. It is true that George Wein ordered a story of mine removed from this year's JVC festival guide because he'd heard I'd criticized his piano playing elsewhere; incidentally he then asked my editor to assure me he's a staunch defender of free speech! But such bulldozer tactics are the exception. If anyone knows of a writer being fired by a magazine for not being positive enough (or being pressured to soften a negative review), please share it with the rest of us, and name names, so we know who we're dealing with.

Feature stories, profiles, and (longer) liner notes offer different opportunities, of course, to illuminate an artist's work in relation to the life, to let musicians explain themselves, and to deal with the aspects of an artist's career recordings don't capture; the way they stretch out on a live gig, say, or what stuff they like to play which record companies aren't eager to document.

To climb further up on the soapbox: What we definitely should not do, it seems to me, is shill for record companies, by profiling (or doing liner notes for) musicians we know are a joke, or writing stories about labels or puff-pieces about producers and corporate execs, or obsessing about somebody's latest release in a feature story. If that means turning down an offered assignment once in awhile, so be it. Isn't your good reputation worth more to you than the peanuts we're paid by the jazz magazines?

Nobody should work as a whore at these prices.

What do you think about all this?


C o m m e n t s

jazz reviews 1 of 7
reid October 12, 97

Re: a critics function. If critics are primarily consumer advocates, I think the best way they can help the consumer is by describing the music accurately and precisely vs. "finding the good stuff and warning people away from the bad." When I'm looking to purchase a recording, all I want to know is what the music sounds like. Describe it. Give me other musicians or recordings that have a similar sound.

I know some listeners want to know what knowledgeable critics think are "good" and "bad" recordings, but it doesn't matter if a recording is good (to a critic), if it's bad to that listener. Shouldn't the judgement of whether a recording is good or bad be left to the listener?

For me the best way would be to listen to the recording before purchasing it, but that's not always possible. The next best thing is to get an accurate description of what the recording sounds like.

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