DO JAZZ CRITICS NEED TO KNOW HOW TO PLAY JAZZ?

This question has intrigued me for a while, and I thought I’d pose it to several jazz writers for their thoughts on the subject.  Their responses ran the gamut from “no” to “it helps” to “it’s essential,” and I’ve arranged their quotes in that order.   Let’s see what they have to say.

Bob Blumenthal:

“I’ve always taken the position that, unless music is created exclusively for those who know how to play music, the reactions of those who don’t know how to play, when informed with historical perspective, intelligence and taste, have value.  Also, given that instrumental music is at a particular disadvantage (no visual or literary references for listeners to fall back on), it is worthwhile attempting to articulate how music impacts the passionate listener – and the critic should be nothing if not passionate about music.”

Ted Panken:

“Knowing how to play jazz certainly can’t hurt one’s endeavor to write cogently about the idiom. But, as I don’t play an instrument, I compensate in several ways. For one thing, I try to operate more as a journalist than a critic. I want to be able to transcend (though not ignore) my personal taste, to contextualize, to describe intentions. Why do musicians make the aesthetic choices they make? What’s their influence tree? Who comprised their circle of associates in formative years? Where does their recorded history or stylistic approach fit into the larger picture? Hopefully, I can base my opinions on one or more personal conversations with the artist (I’ve written 400 or so liner notes and perhaps an equal number of articles for magazines, newspapers and zines over the years, not to mention various bios; during my 23 years as a programmer on WKCR, I also conducted hundreds of unpublished interviews and listened to huge chunks of the recorded canon) or from secondary sources not generated by me. I’ve read and transcribed much oral history, and read numerous published biographies, histories of urban America in the 19th and 20th centuries, African-American history, cultural history, Caribbean and South American history. I also have a certain amount of life experience and, hopefully, perceive human nature and psychology in ways that make sense. Hopefully, these disparate information flows coalesce into a sensibility that allows me to say something meaningful about the many streams that define 21st century jazz and improvised music.”

Nate Chinen:

“Musical ability, to say nothing of musical experience, should not be a prerequisite for jazz critics — any more than expertise in the kitchen should be a must for food critics. Having said that, it’s undeniable that firsthand knowledge of any art form will produce a more authoritative critic, and quite possibly a more insightful one. And of course, musicians tend to confer more trust and respect on someone with that knowledge.”

Ted Gioia:

“I’m less concerned with how well various critics can play music, and more interested in how well they can hear what is happening in a performance.  My uncle couldn’t play an instrument, but he could look at an orchestral score, and hear it in his head.  He owned hundreds of books of scores — the complete works of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and others — and would read them for enjoyment and relaxation.  He couldn’t play the music, but no one would have dared challenge his comprehension of it.

Different jazz critics are at different levels in their ability to hear and understand what is happening in a jazz performance.  Those who don’t have big ears are operating with a disadvantage.  But even they can be useful critics, if they have good judgment and don’t falsify their emotional responses to the music.  Some non-musicians are better critics than even highly skilled musicians for that reason.  But this is more the exception than the rule.

The worst kind of critic, in my opinion, is the one who lacks musical expertise, and tries to compensate by jumping on every new bandwagon, embracing the flavor of the month with a grim determination to impress people with a shallow kind of hipness.  Given their zeal to stay fashionable, such critics are virtually forced to falsify their own emotional responses to the music.  They are thus very poor guides to their readers.  I wish I could say that this is a very rare state of affairs, but I believe that it is actually quite common.”

Larry Appelbaum:

“Strictly speaking, a critic is anyone who expresses a value judgment, though I’m reminded of Whitney Balliett’s definition of a music critic as ‘a bundle of biases held loosely together by a sense of taste.’ These days, social media and the blogosphere democratizes access and allows anyone a platform. And while the marketplace for music and ideas may have changed, some standards hopefully still apply. A good critic still needs to have insight, an informed opinion, analytic skills and the ability to communicate ideas in a clear, coherent manner.

A film critic doesn’t need to be a director, cinematographer or actor to write about film. And while it can be useful for a jazz critic to have experience on the bandstand, it’s not absolutely essential for them to be able to play the blues in all keys, navigate II-V-I progressions, or transpose at will. But any jazz critic worth their salt must at least have a grasp of music history and literature (not just jazz), as well as knowledge of form, rhythm, harmony and the ability to recognize originality vs. patterns or clichés. All this helps to provide context and meaning, in addition to interpreting the codes and quotes that musicians express in the moment.

John Gennari has written a landmark study of how critics have approached jazz over time (“Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics,” University of Chicago Press, 2006). It would be interesting to see this work updated and try to measure the impact of jazz critics today beyond publicity or promotion. If everyone now has their own blog or social media platform, are we getting closer to the time when a jazz critic is, as Norman Granz once said, anyone who gets free records from the label?”

Randy Sandke:

“I would say no, but it helps. I think a good working knowledge of the fundamentals of music is important, but good ears and an open mind are the most essential attributes.
A good critic needs to have a healthy appreciation for technique, but just like one needn’t be an artist to be an art critic, or playwright to judge plays, playing jazz is not an absolute prerequisite for being a good jazz critic. It all depends on the individual. No one critic will get everything right anyhow, just as no musician plays a perfect solo every time. We’re too close to the music of our time to judge it properly. (It took four hundred years for art historians to finally acknowledge Vermeer’s genius.) That’s why I prefer critics who try to describe what the musician is doing as accurately as possible (not an easy feat in itself), and keep their opinions on merit in check as much as possible. I think, in our little world of jazz, we need more critics who are on the musicians’ side, and who promote a fuller understanding of the music, rather than promoting themselves by belittling others.  The best critics make me want to check out the music for myself, or listen to it again with fresh ears. And I prefer those critics who concentrate on the music, rather than the back-story.”

Ben Ratliff:

“I am wary of overspecialization and have never considered myself only a jazz critic, so I would say only that it benefits a music critic to know how to play music.   Whether you can improvise on changes through ‘Cherokee’ is less important than knowing something about playing with other people, performing for an audience, and making a recording.”

Bill Kirchner:

“Jazz critics needn’t necessarily play jazz, but I see no reason why they can’t play a musical instrument with at least elemental facility.  I’ve heard Howard Mandel play the flute, for example.  He’s no pro, as he would be the first to admit, but I respect that he’s put some time in to learn an instrument.  I’m sure that that experience has a bearing on his writing and listening.

I also see no reason why jazz critics can’t acquire at least a basic knowledge of music theory.  It’s not rocket science.  If that happened more often, we’d see fewer gaffes on the order of critics saying ‘harmonics’ when they actually mean ‘harmonies,’ or ‘riffs’ when they mean ‘lines.’  Those are things that make jazz musicians like me laugh and cringe.”

Ronan Guilfoyle:

“Yes, I do think a jazz critic should have at least some working knowledge of the nuts and bolts of jazz, of how the music is put together and how it functions on a technical level. I don’t think a critic should necessarily be a great player (though that would be nice!), but they should know something about form and structure and have at least dabbled in the music at some point. If you take the example of a literary critic – most literary critics would not have published novels of their own, but they do know how to spell and are aware of the rules of grammar, and like all of us, they will have at least written essays in their time – even if it was only in school or college. So they will of course have a working knowledge of language.

Most classical critics (at least high level ones) have studied music up to a reasonable level too – however I think jazz music has suffered a lot from poor criticism being delivered by writers who don’t have the first idea about how the music works. As far as jazz criticism is concerned, I think a little learning is NOT a dangerous thing!”

Stanley Crouch:

Stanley Crouch, who was interviewed for this article, feels that the critic who plays jazz benefits by hearing the quality of what individual musicians are playing, and how that relates to what they do [with the band as an ensemble].  Playing enables the critic to discern how many things one hears in the middle of a performance, or, as Crouch says, to pick up on “the velocity of thought” in the interplay on the bandstand. “If critics are interested in understanding the music a bit better by playing, it helps,” he says. “We live in a period where music has been so debased that the idea of singing or playing is an extreme challenge.”

Peter Hum:

“I’m sure there are jazz writers who do good work despite not being players to some degree. My Ottawa Citizen colleague Doug Fischer is one example. But for my part, if I were to somehow subtract my playing experience and knowledge, I would have no idea how I’d be writing about jazz.

I say this even though I’ve been very much a generalist in my journalistic career, reporting on everything from the courts to city hall to education to the high-tech sector, despite never having been a lawyer, politician, teacher or software engineer.  I suppose because I’ve been trying to play jazz for many more years than I’ve been writing about jazz, and because jazz means as much as it does to me, jazz journalism seems to require a greater degree of specialized knowledge that most naturally comes from having played jazz.

Good jazz writing is accurate, well-informed, clear, insightful and, I’d contend, passionate. Having my modest but, I’d contend, significant background as a jazz pianist provides me with a vital grounding in most, if not all, of these respects, I feel.

When I read some jazz criticism that I think falls short, it’s sometimes painfully apparent that the writer doesn’t play — never mind the quality of the writing. Sometimes the descriptions and observations regarding the music are so off the mark. Other times the critical assumptions are to me strikingly out of touch with what goes on in the minds of artists, or with a fully fledged understanding of jazz history.

All this said, the point of writing about jazz for me is not to write for musicians, or get into the nuts and bolts of the music as some musicians might. I’m simply trying to convey to fans and jazz newcomers alike, be they musicians  or non-musicians, just what makes jazz and the artists who dedicate their lives to it so compelling, interesting and meaningful.”

Todd Jenkins:

“In all things, knowledge is power. To write authoritatively about a subject, the writer must have a significant measure of experience and knowledge. This is true for any discipline, but I believe that intelligent analysis of jazz depends upon a solid understanding of its history, its practice and its spirit. I don’t know that the successful writer needs to be a pro-level musician, woodshedding and jamming for hours per week. But, at the very least, the writer must truly know the music’s core mechanics and the heart of what is being written about. Detachment is the writer’s enemy; serious jazz fans can smell a phony a mile away, onstage or on the page.”

bostonjazzblog.com is deeply grateful to the contributing writers quoted in this article.


 

 

 

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17 Responses to DO JAZZ CRITICS NEED TO KNOW HOW TO PLAY JAZZ?

  1. John Nastos says:

    For the reader, I suppose it depends what they’re looking for from the critique. I think an understanding of the fundaments of the topic a writer is critiquing generally leads to a more valuable statement. Knowing how to play is certainly a good way to get a grasp of those fundamentals.

    Not that play-by-play is the same, but I think the analogy still has some value: would you want to watch a basketball game announced by someone who had never picked up a ball before?

  2. Pingback: Do Jazz Critics Need To Know How To Play Jazz? « Let's Cool One

  3. Absolutely not. Though we’d all be appreciative if those who would analyze our music would wish to know more about the technique of what we do and the grueling search for mastery, I’ll echo those that have said that really, we should only ask that they care about (not love – not even like – just care about) the music about which they write. Do any of us set out to make music only for our peers? I certainly hope not. If we’re making music for people who love to listen to music, then we should be prepared to accept feedback from that same demographic.

  4. Pingback: The playing’s the thing (Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?) | Ottawa Citizen Blogs

  5. I’m going to jump on the “no, but it helps” bandwagon. A trend I see now, in music writing in general, is when critics will paraphrase the prepared bio/project description that an artist includes with their CD or EPK. The more a critic knows about form, pitch content, rhythm, history, the more they’re going to be able to judge the veracity of the artist’s claims. The way the analogy to film or book criticism breaks down, is that we have been viewing Movies and TV and reading words since we were in early grade school. Leonard Bernstein used to say that if every 6 year old learned to read music, identify form, when he learned to read, the general level of musical understanding would match the general level of thought about film or literature.
    One great place to notice this disconnect is in SPORTS writing, funnily enough. I am not a sports fan. Whenever I happen to glance at a sports page or see 5 minutes of Bob Lobel on the evening news, I am MYSTIFIED… they might as well be speaking a foreign language. The average sports fan, watching games year after year, noticing trends in a team’s draft picks, batting, defense, whatever, has more background to participate in the discussion and evaluate the validity of the points discussed (or listen to 5 minutes of Sports Talk Radio!).
    I have a pet peeve in music writing, where anyone talks about a “Miles Davis influence” in a trumpet player. Some writers will hear a Miles Davis influence when anyone pops in a harmon mute, or leaves space, regardless of whether the pitch information is in Miles’ language.
    Sorry, lots of “straw man” arguments in my post, here. This is a valuable discussion, and I like the point about “musicians are not the only people who listen to music,” but I’m sure being able to play jazz would only help a fan or writer, or whomever, understand what’s going on.

  6. jon wheatley says:

    Most serious players don’t have time to write about the music, or aren’t inclined to, so we should be glad someone does.
    I read where Joe Venuti said music journalists were complaining that a certain jazz festival, or annual event had been discontinued, when they had done nothing but pan the acts the previous year. Might be a lesson there.

  7. jon wheatley says:

    Wait a minute, let me get the story exactly right. The music journalists were complaining that there wasn’t more live jazz, in that city, in general. The concert series had been canceled after getting poor reviews.

  8. Lofton Emenari says:

    I do believe that the music critic should have an academic and social understanding and comprehension of the music. That is in order to convey the literary to the audience. No question.

  9. Pingback: Do Critics Need to Be Able to Play Jazz? No, but it Helps. « Outside-Inside-Out

  10. In the year 2000, I wrote these words in response to a query on EuroJazzNews041700:

    “The language of music is an entirely different mode of communication than the written word. When a writer chooses a single word to illustrate a form, a ‘school’ or even the approach of a given artist he had better be prepared to explain the context of that term. The art of writing about music implies describing the inexplicable. Categorization of music generally denotes sheer laziness, lack of insight, and in the worst cases, hack journalism on the part of a writer.”

    The prerequisites to excellent criticism of an art form such as jazz are a command of the written language, a knowledge of the vocabulary of the art form, a love for the form, intimate understanding of the motives of the artists, and a grasp of the linear (historical) and creative developments of the art form. The answer to the question is “no, but it can help.” By the way, some musicians are excellent writers, Pat Metheny and Paul Desmond being part of that esteemed host.

  11. Pingback: Does A Jazz Critic Have To Be A Jazz Musician Too? | Hala Musique Music

  12. Pingback: Do you have to be a jazz musician to be a jazz critic? « BRYCE_PEAKE

  13. Ric Harris says:

    Knowing how to play music is the last thing a critic needs; otherwise, the reviews become nothing more than an academic study, providing listeners more reasons not to listen. People should listen to music either to satisfy their intellect while learning or to satisfy their soul while living, and critics are here to help people recognize who can help them live.

    • @Ric Harris… To say “People should listen to music either to satisfy their intellect while learning or to satisfy their soul while living, and critics are here to help people recognize who can help them live.” is a bit limiting.

      There are several instances everyday in which I do both simultaneously or in which doing one quickly leads me into enjoying the other. For instance, understanding the mastery of John Coltrane by being a saxophonist myself leads me to ‘satisfy [my] soul’, or listening to Jason Mraz for the pure pleasure of it leads me to ‘satisfy [my] intellect’. The two are not mutually exclusive.

      ***

      In general, I believe it all depends in how the writer works his/her own musical knowledge into the review. I believe that All About Jazz has a good handle on the idea by saying that there needs to be something there for everyone from advanced musicians to casual listeners. In order to do that, you have to have basic working knowledge of how the music functions. A beautiful example of that is The Bad Plus’ pianist Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do The Math.

  14. Pingback: Writers Who Can’t Play, Players Who Can’t Write | Burning Ambulance

  15. Pingback: Writing Jazz, Playing Jazz: Origins of “The Critic” « Lubricity

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