Writing Jazz, Playing Jazz: Origins of “The Critic”

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.

What has struck me the most from reading all of the responses to the question is the similarity to past jazz discourse, going all the way back to the 1930s. As Bruce Boyd Raeburn points out in his excellent 2009 book “New Orleans Jazz and the Writing of American Jazz History,” the presence of non-musician critical advocates for the music goes all the way back to the music’s beginnings, when the likes of Charles Delaunay, William Russell and C.E. Smith devoted themselves to the promotion of the New Orleans jazz style. These men are the ancestors of those who are now known as critics, although very little of their work was critical (in the sense of the definition of critical as “discerning” that it implies in this context.)

Most of these men were not musicians, although (as the book’s cover photo shows) they were not averse to informal amateur performance. Their efforts were crucial in framing jazz as something more musically appealing than mere syncopated irreverence. They heard great beauty in the improvisations of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and devoted their lives to making sure that others heard it, too. Their dedication as passionate amateurs still serve as models for today’s jazz enthusiasts.

At the same time, the popularity of the music in the 1930s led to the creation of trade publications such as Down Beat and Melody Maker, mass-produced magazines that brought news on the big swing bands of the era. It’s no wonder that musicians quickly began to resent the power that these publications had over their own music.

In both cases, a group of mostly-white, mostly-non-musicians (exceptions in the latter category include Leonard Feather and later Don DeMichael) were primarily responsible for the framing of jazz to its audience. The idea of framing is important here: imagine a Van Gogh hanging in a museum without a frame! Or, worse, with a garish metal one from Target. Consider the case of superstar violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who made a paltry $30 busking at a D.C. Metro stop. Whether we notice them or not, frames matter.

Ultimately, the antagonism that has always existed between musicians and non-musicians (and, in a related but not identical fashion, African Americans and whites) in the jazz community stems from this power imbalance: that frames matter, and mostly white male non-musicians have been responsible for most of the frame-building. This is due in part to the need for practice in the craft of writing, as Phil Freeman argues, and also due to the racialized reality that African Americans have rarely been afforded the opportunity to participate, as Willard Jenkins has frequently and pointedly observed throughout his career.

I am encouraged, however, by this discussion as a starting point in breaking down this antagonism. At the end of the day, we’re all on the same team here: musicians, writers, fans, and anyone else who hears the same transcendence in the music that William Russell and Leonard Feather did many years ago. I am reminded of a brief conversation that I had during the 2010 Jazz Journalists Association Awards with Stefon Harris, one of my early jazz heroes. He told me how grateful he was to be in the room with so many people who cared so deeply about his music, and recognized the importance of those voices in making his music happen. My sincere hope is that more musicians and writers can share his humility and appreciation for everyone who makes this community real.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
This entry was posted in Jazz Journalism, Links. Bookmark the permalink.

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