The acoustic bass guitarist (and excellent jazz blogger) Ronan Guilfoyle was kind enough to comment at length on my jazz-critic-question post, and I wanted to respond in a forum that caught more eyeballs than the blog's comment thread.
In his comment, Ronan reiterated his argument that jazz critics should be able to play the music, not to a professional level, but to a point where they have a solid, instinctive understanding of jazz fundamentals.
In my opinion it’s very difficult to get into the depth necessary to write knowledegably about the music if you can’t recognise a 12 bar blues form when you hear it. Or simple song structure – AABA – etc. A jazz critic should be able to hear basic stuff like that in my opinion. They should be able to hear the difference between a modal piece and one that uses changes – they don’t have to know what those changes are, but they should know whether they’re being used as a basis for improvisation or not...The success or failure of the music, is of course subjective, but a good jazz writer should be able to express their opinion on that success or failure from a standpoint of an understanding of the basic structure of what it is they’re writing about.
I find it hard to quibble too much with Ronan's position—a jazz critic who doesn't know the difference between free playing, modal playing, and playing over the changes to "I've Got Rhythm" is probably not only a jazz critic who can't play, but also a jazz critic who hasn't listened to much jazz. The underlying issue here, it seems to me, is all about knowledge and not really about performance ability at all. No one cares whether or not a critic can actually pull off an ersatz Bud Powell piano solo; a reader should care whether or not a critic can accurately explain what an ersatz Bud Powell piano solo would sound like.
As I said in the previous post, any critic who oversteps his knowledge is going to very quickly be exposed as a hack. (Ronan notes, on his blog, a few particularly egregious examples of critical ignorance.) And I'd certainly advocate that any serious jazz critic acquire far more than rudimentary knowledge about jazz structure, theory, etc. You're only going to be able to approach the full spectrum of the music honestly and persuasively, if you actually understand it.
These strike me as self-evident points, which begs the question, when Roanna Forman first asked the jazz-critic question on the Boston Jazz Blog, what was she actually getting at? I can't think of a widely published jazz critic who lacks the basics of musical knowledge described by Ronan in his comment, and if such critics are out there, they should be called to task. At least on the Boston Jazz Blog and the follow-ups that I've read, no one has stepped up to do that. Was the jazz-critic question, then, merely a vehicle for denouncing a mostly theoretical bogeyman, the lazy hack who writes the occasional know-nothing review in little-read publications? Would the jazz-critic question have torn up the blogosphere if it were phrased "should jazz critics know anything about the subject they're writing about?"
The jazz-critic question isn't really about whether a jazz critic needs to possess rudimentary knowledge. Of course a jazz critic should have rudimentary knowledge! Who's going to seriously argue against that point? The jazz-critic question, it seems to me, is really about whether a critic needs to have expert-level knowledge—knowledge that's equal to the musician he's critiquing. I suspect a lot of people (many musicians included) would say, yes, a critic ought to have expert-level knowledge. A critic writing about Steve Lehman, this view would hold, should have a fairly nuanced understanding of microtonal harmony, how else could he understand deeply what was going on? If he didn't fully understand the process, what right would he have to critique Steve Lehman?
I'm sympathetic to this view, favoring a world in which writers are all wildly informed and competent, but its implications for the music make me very uncomfortable. Demanding that jazz critics be as knowledgeable technically as musicians would not only severely restrict the pool of potential jazz critics, it would also strongly bias that pool toward writers who were primarily fascinated by questions of theory and technique. We'd lose a lot of sharp writing that explored jazz in the light of history, culture, and society.
Jazz doesn't want for more album and show reviews—as great as they can be, they're mostly geared toward people who already know about the artist in question. What jazz criticism needs is more long-form writing that can reach an audience beyond the initiated, pieces that have something to say that's bigger than whether a bass solo sucked. Ben Ratliff's remarkable 2005 Times essay on two then-newly-unearthed Coltrane recordings is one sparkling example of this. It begins as an examination of the albums' popularity with consumers and ends with a string of brilliant paragraphs on society, technology, and the nature of art, theorizing that the end of long residencies and habitual club-going have deeply affected the way the music sounds. More writers should be trying to tackle jazz from that angle—to describe it, to make connections from it to other arts, and to ask of it big, bold questions.More: As hoped for, Ethan Iverson weighed in on the jazz-critic question. His headline, "Could Liebling Box?," says it all.