THE MUSICIANS ANSWER: “DO JAZZ CRITICS NEED TO KNOW HOW TO PLAY JAZZ?”

When the bostonjazzblog asked several jazz critics whether playing an axe would make them more proficient with their pens, the answers varied from “not at all” to “absolutely.”  Here, we share musicians’ responses to the same question.

Dominique Eade:

I think it is more important that critics listen well whether they play jazz or not. With the amount of music available we need trusted ears who have clocked in all those hours with recorded and live music more than ever.

Joe Lovano:

I think the question should be “Do jazz critics need to know how to listen to jazz?” To be a frustrated jazz musician turned critic could be a true nightmare for everybody. Musicians and critics alike have various degrees of experience playing, listening and studying the history of the music and the people that create it. They either have no roots, shallow roots, substantial roots or deep roots.  As a serious musician I love and live the music day and night.  A serious jazz critic should as well, so his or her viewpoints will be informative, clear and honest.

Marcus Roberts:

As a musician, I am not sure that I can truly say what a critic should know, but even so I’ll share my opinion here. I think that a good jazz critic should first of all love and treasure jazz music. He or she should have a working and ever-developing knowledge of the history of the music, and what has been achieved since its inception.

To me, one of the most important characteristics of a jazz critic is an objective ear, and by that I mean that rather than comment on what he/she likes or dislikes, give the reader a clear sense of what musical events took place. Write about the artist’s musical style, rhythmic approach, swing, blues, texture, dynamic range, relationships of melody to harmony, philosophy of soloists, how the rhythm section interacted, and whether the music moved the audience.

I happen to be a big NFL football fan. Would I be comfortable being a sports critic? No. Would I feel comfortable analyzing a scientific paper on diabetes or cancer? No. That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about these topics. It just means that I lack the expertise to give a proper analysis.

So, I think the more expert the knowledge jazz critic has, the better the “criticism” will be. If playing jazz is part of what creates that state, that’s great, but I’m not sure that it’s essential. Obviously, the more you understand the science underlying a language of communication, the more effectively you can articulate a coherent and accurate description of it, without resorting to personal feelings, opinions, and judgments.

The jazz critic has an important role in the future of our music. So I hope that this discussion will result a greater appreciation of that fact and ultimately bring more people into jazz (and out to shows) rather than drive them from it.

Dave Liebman:

Obviously it is nice and a bit more honest when someone who is commenting on one’s work knows what you are doing to some extent. Of course a critic should be conversant with at least a minimum of knowledge concerning the technical aspects that the people he is critiquing are dealing with. This means speaking the language to some degree….it goes without saying. On the other hand, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing and when someone is an “arm-chair quarterback” (sports expression), there is an inherent danger of thinking FOR the subject: ” I would’ve, could’ve, might’ve played this at that point in the piece, etc., etc…” This is not right.

To be fair, shedding light on how an interested, experienced, non-musician listener reacts to one’s art can be of definite value. I tell students to put themselves in the audience (what theater people call the fourth wall) when they present something…meaning how is what you played perceived “out there?”

I believe in review, not criticism, meaning information, comment, elucidation, historical precedent, stylistic considerations, etc., but please no value judgments. We (the performer) know better than anyone what is going on. No one but us knows the real deal, so let’s keep things nice and clean concerning the role of a critic. Dan Morgenstern, Whitney Balliett, Leonard Feather were models in the jazz world…Alex Ross at present for classical, etc., etc. The problem is money. If a magazine or whomever pays low, they get low. Translation…non-experienced, not ready for prime time writers who aren’t qualified or experienced enough yet and who in a lot of cases need to learn how to write decent prose. Being a “critic” is a serious job with a big learning curve. Done well, what we call criticism has an important role in the history of an art form. It places everything in the scheme of things, historically and contemporaneously when done well.

Tia Fuller:

My experience has been that it is important for jazz critics to be educated and articulate in the jazz vernacular, not necessarily to know how to play jazz.  They should: 1) know the basics of musical terminology and possibly have played an instrument; 2) have a firm grasp of the history of the music; and 3) more fundamentally, be able to recognize proper instrumentation on a song and/or album.  I have read articles that have misquoted the instruments and other pertinent information, which was a direct reflection of the critics having a lack of knowledge on basic terminology. Furthermore, if a critic does not take the time out to gather proper information about the album, that alone is enough to discredit the validity of the criticism.

In addition, it does not take a critic who has played jazz to recognize a great jazz artist, or album. Just be well-versed enough in one’s terminology to intelligently discuss one’s opinion of the album and to draw historical parallels between the album and historically great jazz albums and/or time periods.

All in all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And in most cases, if a critic is a jazz musician, he or she is most likely going to be reviewing some music or shedding themselves, instead of writing an article on someone else’s music.

Vijay Iyer:

I’ve been playing concerts, making albums, and monitoring the public response since 1995, and to be honest, I have found that some of the coldest, most unpleasant reviews have come from critics who are (frustrated?) musicians.  People who have received musical training in the west tend to hear music analytically and not emotionally.  But most listeners respond primarily to music’s visceral, emotional, and spiritual content.

I feel that music critics should be several things:

(1) Great writers.  If I’m going to read it, I want to feel that spark of expression: a personal voice, a passion for ideas, and creativity with language.
(2) Madly in love with music.  Most people are, but too many critics are not.  If you ever stop loving music, then you should stop writing about it in public.
(3) Perpetual students.  Keep learning – about the music’s history, about its inner dynamics, about the political and economic forces that continue to shape it, about its place in the world, about how it came to be and how you came to hear it.
(4) Diverse.  As Amiri Baraka famously observed almost half a century ago, “Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been.”  We could still benefit from a wider range of informed perspectives.  That is not to say that any white male critic cannot possibly be great, but simply that we ought to encourage others to weigh in as well.
(5) Humble.  None of us has all the answers.  Let’s all strive to respect the symbiotic relationship between musicians and critics, to be vigilant about our assumptions and biases, and to acknowledge the limits of our expertise.

Terri Lyne Carrington:

I am a bit on the fence with this question, but basically I lean toward feeling that yes, they should know how to play in some way. I am not suggesting they be totally proficient on an instrument, but just that they know first hand about the discipline, dedication, creativity, intelligence and even physical ability it takes to play an instrument. It is sometimes hard to accept criticism from someone that really does not know all that goes into this kind of mastery. On the other hand, there is something refreshing about hearing what people think or feel about any given music without knowing anything technical about it because we are communicating on many levels and to touch OR offend someone without them knowing exactly what it is we are doing is quite powerful… My issue or problem is when it feels like a frustrated musician is talking about a successful musician with animosity or envy, then it’s not cool and that’s when artist and critics butt heads… I am happy when the criticism really seems like the critic knows what the heck he or she is talking about whether complimentary or not.

Helen Sung:

Webster’s defines “critic” as “one who engages, often professionally, in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances.” Oxford American Dictionary: “a person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, especially one who does so professionally.”

I think it’s best if jazz critics have some sort of experience playing jazz, to have some practical understanding of what musicians do onstage and in the practice room, what they aim for in their music and performance – without this, I don’t see how critics can write about anything other than their personal emotional response and/or opinion and preference. Not that those things aren’t valid, but someone whose opinions and preferences are put into print, often perceived by the general public as “truth,” hopefully would respect (and dare I say, love) jazz enough to have at least some “objective” knowledge.  This encompasses mostly technical aspects: for example, a musician’s prowess on their instrument(s); expertise in their writing/composing/arranging/etc., in their improvising; band concept, cohesiveness, interplay, etc. It is possible to “judge” these aspects of a musical performance – the rest is opinion and personal taste. Ideally, the subjective should be balanced by the objective.

Eric Reed:

With no malice intended here, there is not now, nor has there ever been a critic able to converse with me on exactly what makes Ahmad Jamal a genius. This goes especially for the arrogant penholders that dismissed him as a “cocktail pianist”; that alone makes me leery of the average critic. Unless we can have a detailed exchange about Mr. Jamal’s brilliant pianistic virtuosity and how he developed it, combined with his usage of key modulations, meter and tempo shifts, riffs, interludes, grooves and the like – there should be abject silence. Ostensibly, this goes for discussion of any artist of a diverse nature as Jamal (and there ain’t many, I assure you.)

In order to assess an individual’s work objectively, you must have a keen insight into what they are actually doing and what they are attempting to do. Disparagement is rarely justified because, unlike in pop music, the impetus is not to appeal to the masses. Jazz criticism is akin to forming an opinion about an individual’s nose or ears, not to mention, there’s a general tendency to resort to antiquated quips like “not groundbreaking” or “innovative” (when, in fact, it almost never is.) Let “the people” decide – not five or six writers who have deemed themselves experts with no time in the trenches.

Finally, not only should a critic know how to legitimately play instruments – he should probably spend some time ensconced in Black culture.

 

 

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3 Responses to THE MUSICIANS ANSWER: “DO JAZZ CRITICS NEED TO KNOW HOW TO PLAY JAZZ?”

  1. Todd S Jenkins says:

    As a former jazz critic I appreciate the range of viewpoints here, and I’m glad Ms. Forman addressed the matter with both musicians and critics. In the original article I voiced the opinion that critics should have some practical knowledge of the art of jazz if they’re going to write intelligently about it. Ms. Carrington makes a good point about frustrated wanna-be musicians taking it out on players who have made solid careers, but hopefully those individuals are few and far between. I began writing about jazz because I’ve had a passion for it since my childhood in the 70s, and I studied the performance of jazz along the way. Now I no longer write or perform, but I still remain as rapt a fan and listener as always, and I keep on reading the critics to weigh the scene from their perspective. Big ears and big knowledge should be teamed with a big scope of vision in the truly successful critic.

  2. To me, the bigger question is: are critics necessary?

    Art is not to be analyzed, it is to be appreciated, and the moment one is listening with a critical ear, you have missed the whole point- to enjoy the experience.

    - Nicholas Payton

  3. John Goldsby says:

    First and foremost, a jazz critic should be able to write well. I gladly read critics who demonstrate journalistic, artistic and personal integrity. The ability to play an instrument could inform a critic’s understanding of the music to some degree, but a similar, deep understanding can also be achieved by a critic who has listened hard for years. Engaging writing about any subject—jazz, sports, food, politics—brings the writer’s personal perspective to a particular activity, which he or she has hopefully experienced a lot. But most food critics couldn’t cook a gourmet dinner successfully, and most sports writers wouldn’t fare well in a 100-meter run. I don’t think being able to noodle through a couple of choruses of blues will help a critic write about John Coltrane, or critique a young, unknown tenor player, for example. What will inform a critic’s piece on Coltrane is a thorough understanding of who the man was, his entire discography, where and how he learned to play, his influences and what they sounded like, his contemporaries and what they were doing, and his successors in the jazz tradition. That’s a lot of background for a jazz critic to aspire to use, whether they play an instrument or not. If they don’t have that background, then I hope they have massive journalistic chops—and I hope that through their lack of jazz expertise and experience they stumble on a unique perspective about the music. I’ve learned a lot from certain critics over the years, even when I’ve sometimes completely disagreed with their assessments. Solid writing and critical analysis about any subject can be inspiring. Good writing about jazz challenges and increases my understanding of the music, even though I’ve been playing 40 years. I don’t need to know that a critic can also ‘play a bit’ to read what they write. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t—but the words speak for themselves.

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