JAZZ CRITICS AND JOURNALISTS
Jazz Audience Advocates
As a youngster while learning the music, I read the reviewers who published in jazz magazines. I found that certain jazz journalists and critics raved about musicians who simply couldn’t play, or criticized those who could play. I began to question my own opinions, thinking that perhaps they were less valid than those of the “jazz elite.”
As evidence, in 1957 I purchased a great album, A Long Drink of the Blues, by Jackie McLean, one of my jazz heroes. It featured Art Taylor and Louis Hayes (drums), Paul Chambers (bass), Mal Waldron (piano) and Curtis Fuller (trombone) among others. My all time favorite version of the beautiful ballad, “Embraceable You,” a Jackie McLean gem, is on the album. I read a critic’s review in Down Beat, the best jazz magazine of the day, that dismissed the album as “just another blowing session.” Even as a teen I realized that this individual simply couldn’t hear the music. It was an epiphany for me. It was the first irrefutable evidence supporting the view that certain jazz “experts” don’t necessarily have expertise. Until that time, my assumption was that the comments of jazz magazine reviewers were sacrosanct.
Often when you search beneath the veneer of some experts on jazz, you will discover that they are simply listeners with opinions like us. However, I’ve found that while nearly all of them are good writers, their ability to hear the music is all over the map.
Some have good ears. One of my current favorites is a first class Detroit-based critic, Mark Stryker, who writes for the Detroit Free Press. He is a superb writer with big ears for jazz and classical. He is an alto player as well and loves Jackie McLean. How can he go wrong? I enjoy Gary Giddens and while I don’t agree with him regarding the “greatness” of a number of players and despite our opposing views on the merits of avant-garde, I am a fan. His book, “Visions of Jazz” is a good read. Another favorite is Barry Kernfeld, an academician with an astounding resume whose books include, “The Grove Dictionary of Jazz,” a well edited encyclopedia of jazz, and, “What To Listen For In Jazz,” a how-to–listen-to-jazz book and CD, helpful if you have a bit of music theory under your belt. Bret Primack, another favorite, is a wonderful freelance writer and web-based contributor who is involved a wide variety of jazz-related activities. Finally, I enjoy Stanley Crouch, who is occasionally controversial—well, perhaps more than occasionally. But he has good ears and good judgment about players, with a few high profile exceptions that may be politically motivated. He has good writing chops as well. I especially enjoyed his pieces on Sonny Rollins (1), and John Coltrane (2), both of whom I love. It just seems that we think alike about these two brilliant players. And finally, I’m sure there are a number of good writers I am not aware of and I should become familiar with their work.
And what of those writers whose ears are questionable? Well, I won’t be diplomatic – what about those writers whose ears are bad? Here is a good example. A very well known jazz journalist, who makes his living today writing articles for all the major jazz magazines as well as liner notes for a plethora of new jazz albums every year, wrote to me in 1981. His letter commented on Joe Henderson, an extraordinarily talented post bop tenor player. I still have this journalist’s hand written letter. He wrote, “Joe Henderson is ridiculed by his contemporaries for his bad time and lack of true musical roots.” Good Lord! In fact, Joe has killer time and if you need evidence, listen to his astonishingly precise yet relaxed time on an up-tempo stop-time version of the tune, “Bye Bye Blackbird” from Kenny Garrett’s album, Black Hope, (a wonderful album by the way). Regarding his “lack of true musical roots,” Joe was an innovator who drew stylistically from Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, with a hint of certain free or avant players such as Ornette Coleman. In my years of studying and playing jazz, I have heard nothing but praise and respect for Joe, a giant of jazz. So much for an “expert” who purports to educate and enlighten. Actually, it’s a bit distressing that a putative jazz authority can get it so wrong.
To confuse you further, in the forties through the seventies, articles on musicians in jazz magazines were essentially informative. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but today, in a number of jazz magazines, the “informative” pieces written about musicians are actually well disguised ads for current albums or marketing for the latest trendy players. And, as you might suspect, the musicians who are the subject of these articles without exception are considered wonderful.
However, I continue to learn certain details about the music from many who write for a living. And while I don’t consider myself a skilled writer, I do find myself working on my own collection of clever jazz journalists-speak, such as, ”expanded minimalist” and ”attenuated complexity.”
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not critical of most who write about jazz. I am simply suggesting that you should be discriminating in your search to find those who are truly knowledgeable and agenda free. And above all, remember that you are the ultimate authority on your own taste in jazz writers as well as jazz players. As you spend time on this site, you may become a well-informed, skilled listener and a burgeoning expert in your own right.
1. Stanley Crouch. The Colossus: Sonny Rollins on the bandstand. The New Yorker, May 9, 2005, 64-71
Copyright © 2012-2013
Thomas R. Brown
All rights reserved.
Back to Top