Since I may never again share a forum with the likes of Stanley Crouch, Ben Ratliff, Nate Chinen, Ted Gioia (and now for the musicians) Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Marcus Roberts and Dominique Eade, I thought I would answer the question “Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?”.
But first of all, what prompted the question? I’d been listening to jazz, loving it, and in the end writing about it, but I wanted to get “inside” the music, from the player’s perspective. What were those (mostly) guys doing up there on the bandstand? Sure, I had my ears, and was constantly working to improve them, just as a musician does, because the ears are the real tools we have to work with musically, whether we play or not. But I felt I’d hear more, understand more, if I learned the language myself, which it turns out is the position of Stanley Crouch. Also, I wanted to know what experienced people thought, to help me improve. As Dave Liebman aptly noted in his remarks, the learning curve of a critic is steep, and if I were to climb it, I wanted pointers from the best ones.
Secondly, why did the discussion catch people’s attention? I think it’s because it sat at the crux of the tension between artist and critic, historically a hot point whatever the art form. Only one contributing critic (Larry Appelbaum) explicitly defined the critic’s function as evaluative. Among the musicians, Helen Sung started off with a classic definition,(“Webster’s defines ‘critic’ as ‘one who engages, often professionally, in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art…’”), while Dave Liebman admonished, “please no value judgments.” Liebman seemed to echo Randy Sandke, writer and musician, who liked critics to “keep their opinions on merit in check as much as possible.” Nicholas Payton, going further, would fire them all. (“To me, the bigger question is: are critics necessary?”)
No, Mr. Payton, let them keep their jobs, assuming they love the music, don’t write from buried animus or envy, and have a deep knowledge of the discography, history, and culture of jazz. Mostly, a critic needs to listen and learn with open ears. You have to be aware of your own biases. But a critic’s only human, this you should understand. She’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood, just like a…musician. Critics, like everyone else, operate within the limitations of their own paradigms. Witness, for example, how John Tynan in a 1961 Downbeat review raked John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy over the coals for playing “anti-jazz,” after which Leonard Feather jumped on the bandwagon. And they were talking about Coltrane and Dolphy! In a culture where music itself is an endangered species, serious jazz needs good critics to discuss the merits of a performance. If critics are wrong, then time, the listening public, and their colleagues, will ultimately correct them.
Finally, while not essential, if a critic plays or has played at one point, I think it also does deepen appreciation of and empathy for musicians. It develops the ear. Also, the critic will add authority, respect, and ultimately humility to his or her reviews, whether by laboring in the practice room for tone, intonation, and speed, or by being onstage to experience that “velocity of thought” that Stanley Crouch describes as the conversation that is jazz.