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Louis Armstrong, author of countless hilarious missives

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I have been spending much of my limited internet free time on my road trip (hello, Arizona! Almost there …) reading the many impassioned responses to Roanna Forman’s question, “Do Jazz Critics Need To Know How To Play Jazz?” The question has inspired a very worthwhile discussion and sparked a flurry of great jazz writing — precisely the sort of thing that I had been missing when I wrote my last post.

The question gets right to the heart of what has, for me, often felt like a deep, existential struggle. I have spent much of my life playing with these dual identities, Jazz Musician and Jazz Writer, and remain unclear as to how they can best get along in my life. Most broadly, I agree with Peter Hum’s take:

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.

Still, I read plenty of great non-jazz-musician jazz writers, some of whom have very thoughtfully defended themselves at their own blogs. So my answer to Roanna’s question, in a specific sense, is “no, you can write about jazz without playing, but basic music training will always inform one’s criticism and is very worthwhile.” But there are deeper issues to parse here; to understand why this discussion seems so relevant today, it helps to hear it in conversation with the music’s long history of critical debates. Read the rest of this entry »

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