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.
“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.”
“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over the years, not to mention various bios; during my 23 years as a programmer on WKCR, I also conducted hundreds of unpublished interviews and listened to huge chunks of the recorded canon) or from secondary sources not generated by me.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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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, 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.”
“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.”
“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.