By Scott Yanow
Speaking of Overrated
from Jazz Notes 1997Copyright © 1997, Scott Yanow
When I first discovered jazz in 1970, I quickly recognized that it was continually evolving music that required an open mind to fully appreciate. There was not only one correct way to play jazz and, because it attracted very creative individuals, it was up to listeners to allow the musicians to grow rather than to expect them only to repeat past successes. The recording history of jazz is so rich and vast that I have not been bored since!
I started with dixieland and swing and a year later, thanks to multiple listenings of Charlie Parker playing a tune I recognized ("White Christmas"!), I was able to blast through to bebop and soon far beyond. It was only a few months before I was able to appreciate and enjoy Miles Davis' Live-Evil.
Among the jazz critics whose writings really helped me learn about this remarkable music in my earlier days were Leonard Feather, Ralph Gleason, and Nat Hentoff (at least before I discovered that he seemed to consider Teresa Brewer to be a great jazz singer!). A little later I discovered Stanley Dance, Ira Gitler, and Whitney Balliett (whom I still consider #1). In more recent times I have been greatly impressed by Chip Deffaa, Francis Davis, and Gary Giddins, along with a few others.
However, it was obvious even from the start that many jazz writers either do not know their subject, only care about one style (while still feeling free to write about areas that they despise), seem to put themselves on an equal level (or even higher) than the creators, or are more concerned with musicians' personalities (and judge them accordingly) than trying to understand their music. One of the reasons that I started writing about jazz is that I knew I could do a better job than the majority of the writers out there (many of whom frustrated me), not because I have a brilliant command of the English language, but because my mind is open. Also, I knew that it was more important to describe the music a bit in my reviews and give readers clues as to whether they would enjoy the recording or performance, than to just merely say whether I like it (although that is part of the review too).
Fast forward to 1997. Jazz Times' survey of "Who's Overrated and Who's Underrated" was quite despicable on several levels. No one minds the underrated part, but is anyone in jazz really overrated when the average person has never heard of Miles Davis or Coleman Hawkins? I can understand Jazz Times (which is arguably the top jazz magazine of the past few years) hoping to get plenty of publicity by being controversial, but to have 13 writers (some of whom I have respected) throwing dirt on the music they allegedly love by claiming that this or that person is rated too high is pure poison that harks back to the moldy fig vs. bebop wars of the mid-1940's and the bebop vs. free jazz battles of the 1960's. Everyone loses and the field of jazz criticism looks even worse than usual.
Considering that some of these so-called critics belong in an overrated list on their own, let's run down a few of their comments. Writing off two of them quickly, Hilarie Grey in her "Currents" column regularly praises some mediocre records (Rick Braun and Nelson Rangell) while criticizing some other similar releases; I've yet to find any real consistency. She thinks Earl Klugh is overrated and Mark Antoine underrated! Tony Green writes about acid jazz (much of which is really r&b in disguise) as if it belongs in Jazz Times and I confess ignorance as to most of what he is talking about.
We all know that Stanley Dance dislikes bebop, so his comments on Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Stan Kenton, Keith Jarret, and Ornette Coleman offer few revelations. I'm only surprised that he didn't include Dizzy Gillespie in the list since he always cuts him down whether it is relevant to the review he is covering or not. Years from now Mr. Dance will be fondly remembered for his major contributions (particularly his four classic World Of books, which have timeless recollections from swing greats) rather than for his desire to turn back the clock.
Moving up ten years evolutionwise, there is Ira Gitler, who still feels any music stylistically beyond hard bop is blasphemy. His comments on Archie Shepp make one wonder if he realizes that 1967 was a long time ago. Since he believes that every jazz musician should be playing bebop, his analysis of Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton (whom he doesn't consider to be a jazz musician), and Betty Carter border on the nonsensical and reveal more about his own taste than anything having to do with those players. However, we do owe Mr. Gitler gratitude for his books Jazz Masters Of The Forties and Swing To Bop along with his many liner notes for Prestige in the 1950's. I just wish he would stick to bebop.
And then there is Bill Milkowski. His excellent book on Jaco Pastorius (Jaco) and his ability to sort out the good from the bad in fusion are strong contributions, but his recent Jazz Times piece on producing Pat Martino was quite self-indulgent, endless, and a major conflict of interest. In the Overrated piece he misses the point in his juvenile remarks about Ron Carter (whose major flaw is not his intonation but his desire to take too many solos on his own projects), is very insulting in his "analysis" of Keith Jarrett (calling the pianist's supporters "latte/decaf espresso drinking bootlickers"), doesn't understand Benny Carter's contributions, and shows complete ignorance as to Eddie Daniels. Try listening to Daniels' Breakthrough before you feel compelled to write him off!
Bill Shoemaker clearly holds the recent acclaim given Charlie Haden, Cassandra Wilson, and Medeski, Martin & Wood against them without giving any reason why; one can only speculate what he must think of Dave Brubeck! His comments about Pharoah Sanders ("If you didn't like him when you were 20, you had no soul; if you still like him at 40, you have no brain") are embarrassing and make one wonder why Shoemaker did not choose another field.
Doug Ramsey has shown the desire to take on the three worse faults of Leonard Feather (down with dixieland, the avant-garde, and fusion), waging battles in the article against Bunk Johnson, Glenn Miller, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band! The ODJB was by far the best band on records prior to the Original Memphis Five in 1921, Bunk Johnson is properly placed in jazz history as a legendary if erratic trumpeter, and Glenn Miller had the most popular dance band of the swing era and provided the soundtrack for a generation. Ramsey's statement that to David Murray "harmonic changes are distant acquaintances" shows a complete lack of understanding.
I am particularly disappointed that Willard Jenkins took part in this "survey"; he really should know better. His comments on Keith Jarrett find him rating the pianist purely on his personality and he completely misses the point as to the value of Oscar Peterson (faulted for having too much technique) and Stan Kenton (faulted for not swinging like Count Basie).
Joel Siegel probably fancies himself as an expert on jazz vocalists, but to say that Andy Bey is underrated and Susannah McCorkle (who ranks at the top of her field) is overrated makes me scratch my head. His comments about Weslia Whitfield are insulting and his criticisms of Diane Schuur for faults that she fixed five years ago cast doubt on all of his observations.
Tom Terrell holds the great publicity given Joshua Redman against him (saying that he should listen more to Gene Ammons even though Ammons is an obvious influence on Redman), compares Diana Krall to Shirley Horn (they have rather different styles), and claims that Keith Jarrett cannot swing. He also uses cliches galore, some of which are quite embarrassing (saying that Keith Jarrett should "get a life").
Neil Tesser also faults Redman's good fortune (shouldn't he be happy that someone deserving in jazz is making some money?), complains that there are too many Chet Baker records out, and misses the point about Abbey Lincoln (her singing is dramatic, not virtuosic). And how can he call Oliver Nelson overrated when, despite being a masterful player on tenor, alto, and soprano, Nelson was unable to make a decent living just playing jazz?
Josef Woodard calls Kenny G overrated despite G being the main musician that jazz fans love to hate. He also misses the point about Herbie Mann (who is still a brilliant flutist). Jack Sohmer blasts Stan Kenton for not swinging, thinks that Miles Davis sold out, and clearly does not appreciate anything about Ornette Coleman (listen to his late 1960's quartet records with Dewey Redman for proof that Ornette could swing and was certainly a very able altoist). Of John Coltrane he says "Self-admitted confusion is not divine prophecy."
All of these critics have done some damage to jazz and owe the music an apology. In my wish that some good will come of this, it is my hope that some readers will realize that they can easily do a better job and will eventually uplift the field by becoming jazz journalists themselves.