Do you have to be a jazz musician to be a jazz critic?

***NPR has made an update post to its question here.

The question has been posed a couple times today- first at the, and then on NPR’s ‘A Blog Supreme’. As a new teaching fellow in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, this question is very pertinent to my interests as someone who teaches media criticism and is a jazz musician.

This post started out as my own short comments on the NPR and Bostonjazzblog stories, but I’d like to expand a bit.

First, let’s define what we mean by ‘jazz criticism,’ and not confuse it with jazz journalism (i.e. not reporting, and not the style of sleezy journalism that followed yellow—I think that’s some journalists that cover jazz call it jazz criticism, so as not to get confused). Here in Gibraltar, where I’m working on a labor history of listening to jazz, the practice is journalism of jazz (JJ), which consists of a short little column with three photos that gives a play by play of the local jazz night at the O’Callaghan Eliott Hotel. The basics are included- who was there, who sat in and played a few charts, some adjectives to make people feel into the story, etc. What’s lacking is the criticism. As I’ve blogged before, criticism must be defined as an intellectual experience that digs into the media, and expands it. It’s not about saying Johnny Come Lately has a good harmonic imagination, but his tone is shit—that’s not real criticism. It’s about understanding that Johnny Come Lately’s harmonic imagination is part of a history of racial oppression in jazz—coming from Trane, Monk, Mingus, Roach, Jones, etc.—and asking what it means that we’re still ‘stepping out of’ the changes, or ‘going outside’, in the context of a liberal ‘post racist’ Boston/Chicago/URCITYHERE jazz scene. And it doesn’t matter if Johnny Come Lately says “I don’t do it because of that, I’m more interested in the sound,” because we’re not asking why Johnny Come Lately did it, we’re asking how it was imaginable and what it means in society. Jazz crit is not about covering Johnny Come Lately, either: that’s JJ. Instead, jazz criticism is asking questions about the relationship between blues and politics, to use a famous Mingus album name, and mining the music for whatever traces of contemporary society might be hidden inside. Good jazz criticism, in my humble opinion, is not a play by play, but opens windows so that people can find the historically, culturally, and socially driven meanings that pushes jazz  as a contemporary art form and jazz musicians as part of an aesthetic form of cultural criticism.

So, does one have to be a jazz musician to be a ‘successful’ ‘jazz critic’ (whatever that means)? Yes and no. In order to be a good, and ethical, jazz critic, you have to be a jazz musician AND BEYOND.

If you’re not a jazz musician, how do you know the theory or the theory-less sounds pushing the music? How do you know if what you hear is really an intellectual or emotional expansion of what ‘chord changes’ means, or just pure garbage? If you’re not part of the scene as a practitioner, how do you know what’s being practiced in the scene? What one should also notice here is my definition of musician—and not player. Because musician doesn’t necessarily connote playing jazz, but instead marks that the critic have an understanding of jazz as musical, and not just as medium. A listener too could be a musician. But only in so far as they are listening to jazz as a theoretically informed, or theoretically resistive, musical art form. A groove doesn’t just feel good, it feels good because of a specific chemistry between the bassist and drummer that is as much rhythmic as harmonic. A musician can tell you what both those elements are.

But, like I said above. Being a musician is not enough. One also needs to be a scholar of the art, and given the specific history of jazz in the US and abroad, racially conscious as well. A jazz critic needs to know the history from whence contemporary jazz sounds are coming.

An example: playing ‘outside’ of the changes. The racialized violence—symbolic or otherwise—that gave birth to the progressively dissonant harmonic pantheon of saxophonists Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garret is in the music. Why didn’t the West Coast jazz scene, with all of its slow groove tunes, get on board with the East Coast turn to modal postbop? The journalist of jazz might answer that it was because of the clashing dissonances that filled modal jazz movements, which were relatively rare in West Coast jazz tunes. The jazz critic, however, is willing to go deeper in, to examine the history of listening and sound making on the coasts. West Coasters resistance wasn’t about the sounds. It was about race. ‘And what about the east coast made playing outside the changes sound ‘good’?’ It was the social strife and dissonance of everyday life of people of color—specifically, but not solely, African and Black Americans. So, again, I pose the question: what does it mean to play outside of the changes today. That is the question of a jazz critic. Not, who, what, when, where, and why.

In the end, no you can’t be a jazz critic if you’re not a jazz musician. And no, you can’t be a jazz critic if all you are is a musician. Jazz criticism requires, demands, something more than both of these categories. Jazz criticism demands criticism.

Leave a Reply