I walked into the kitchen at the Village Vanguard and saw the big New Orleanian I call “Bayou Socrates” holding court on a swivel chair. “Bayou Socrates,” I yelped. “It’s So-crates,” he corrected with a grin, before adding, “I thought you’d quit jazz.” Bayou Socrates and I often spar with half-joke jabs, but this time he seemed serious. It was mid-August, and I hadn’t published a blog post about jazz in two months. I’d been to fewer shows. Publicists had stopped emailing me. The deluge of pre-release albums arriving at my office had slowed to a drip.
Why had I been backing away from jazz? Before the summer, traffic on Inverted Garden had been up significantly. I was now writing some of the pick-of-the-week blurbs on New York’s listings pages, getting Guillermo Klein, Peter Brötzmann, and Jenny Scheinman into the space usually reserved for our pop critic’s favorites. I wasn’t exactly expecting David Remnick to ask if I’d be interested in filling Whitney Balliett’s vacant chair (above), but things were moving—slowly—in the right direction.
Part of my silence had to do with the time demands of a new job at the magazine. A larger part of my silence had to do with a question that’s recently been popping up across the jazz blogosphere: “Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?”
The question, first posed on the Boston Jazz Blog, elicited a more or less immediate consensus: “no, of course not.” There were nuances to the responses, handwringing over how much rudimentary theory one needed, but most critics made one key point, which Ted Gioia put most succinctly: “I’m less concerned with how well various critics can play music, and more interested in how well they can hear what is happening in a performance.”
That one's observational acumen rather than participatory skill is the key to being a good reporter is a truism in most areas of writing. Few people lament that crime writing isn’t done by criminals, or that sports writing isn’t done by athletes. All writers, even those who focus on a single area, are, at heart, generalists. Michael Lewis doesn’t know as much about credit-default swaps as the most seasoned Wall Street trader, but he knows enough about credit-default swaps to analyze intelligently their role in the financial crisis. Journalists needn’t be an expert in that field their writing about, but they need to be capable of asking experts in the field the right questions. They also need to be able to write engaging prose. As Patrick Jarenwattananon noted in his response to the jazz-critic question, “It seems to me that [the] skill set [for a critic] is all about storytelling, and it's not taught in music theory classes at conservatory.”
Unfortunately, storytelling skill has never seemed like quite enough when it comes to jazz. In an interview with Jazz Times in 2005, A.B Spellman, one of the great jazz critics, explained why he stopped writing in what should have been the middle of his career.
I wish jazz musicians wrote more. There have been some good individual critics—some great individual critics—but the overall state of jazz criticism has never been great. I just don't think there are enough jazz writers who can really approach jazz from the inside. Classical music has good writing by important composers. I would like to see more of that in jazz writing. There's not enough jazz musicology. That's one thing that stopped me from writing about jazz.
It's hard for me to imagine Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau quitting rock criticism out of a desire to see Mick and Ringo start writing their own analytical works. I can't really imagine any film critic or book critic or food critic doing this either. We've come to expect that criticism isn't written by artists, but rather by the smartest, best-informed member of the audience—someone who knows the art cold but also has some distance from it, the better to properly evaluate what's going on.
Yet the farther you get away from the popular arts, the larger looms the question of expertise. Everyone eats, has food preferences, and has cooked a rudimentary meal. Everyone who graduated middle school has read novels and written papers. Everyone has seen movies and decided whether or not he or she liked them. These things are our lingua franca, and that means that almost anyone has "the right" to be a food critic or movie critic or book critic. We'd all pass the minimum standard of expertise since we all engage with at least some manifestation of these arts every single day.
Jazz isn't like food and books and movies. It's abstract, generally unfamiliar, and sophisticated technically. It's distant from most people's everyday lives, and thus, jazz expertise doesn't come simply by interacting with the culture. The jazz critic isn't just an evaluator. He is, in some sense, an intermediary, a translator. He's claiming to be able to read something that most people can't.
I don't completely subscribe to this view. Good jazz writing doesn't need to be about translating the music's technical process. It can be about how the music works on a more basic level, and that requires only big ears, not years of training. But the anxiety of expertise is hard to shake in jazz, not only driving away many listeners (who perceive the music as "too hard") but prompting the kind of soul-searching among critics that could make the question “do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?” resonate throughout the blogosphere. If jazz is a foreign language in need of translation through critics, are non-jazz musicians who critique jazz akin to non-Spanish speakers trying to parse Don Quixote? I would imagine that some people would answer that question in the affirmative.
And that's the last thing jazz needs. If we allow jazz to be viewed as a foreign tongue that only experts can decipher for the public, then quite simply, the music has no future. Great jazz should be able to stand on its own, winning over first-time listeners and offering an even deeper reward for the more experienced. Jazz criticism should aspire to the same goal. When Frank Bruni was the Times' restaurant critic, he talked about how he wanted his reviews to be literary pieces rather than service journalism since the majority of his readers lived outside New York and likely wouldn't have a chance to follow his advice. Jazz criticism would do well to follow his lead. The chief critical question shouldn’t be “Who understands jazz music best?” or "Who can show off how much he knows about the structure of this song?" It should be “Who can present the music freshly? Who can make the sharpest observations?" and, above all, "Who can make people care?”
I've learned that writers who spend a lot of time asking themselves, “Do I have the authority to write this?” are writers who don't get very much done. Do the research. Talk to people. Keep track of what’s going on. But don’t use the need for more background knowledge as justification for a failure to write. In an ideal world, every jazz critic would listen to every new release, read every article and blog, catch live shows six night a week, possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the music’s history and theory, interview musicians and producers and presenters and scholars, and compose missives on obscure harmonic ideas in their spare time. (All of these critics would be able to cut you on the piano, too.) But we don’t live in that world, and the search for these perfect critics will only mean a dearth of good writing.
Authority in writing comes from the writing itself. Good readers have good bullshit detectors, and a critic who makes claims beyond what he really knows is going to be unmasked as a hack. All writers live in fear of this. Whenever I write about anything, be it a blog post on jazz or a long essay on Jorge Luis Borges or a short charticle in New York on Wal-Mart, I always think, “I need to make sure that people who really know about this aren’t going to call me a fraud.” When you're dealing with a subject as difficult to capture as jazz, this fear gets heightened. And when you have a handful of jazz musicians—Ethan Iverson and Vijay Iyer come to mind—who can write exceptionally themselves, it's tempting to follow A.B. Spellman toward the exit.
But such defeatism isn't necessary. A large part of the reason I write about jazz is because I can't understand why more people don't love it. This is my proselytizing impulse: I want to spread the gospel, and I want to convince people that the music didn't die with Coltrane. I still bristle, as I'm sure many of you do, when I tell people, "I'm into jazz," and they say, "oh, like Miles Davis." How can I get through to these people?
Simply saying "jazz is great" is no way to convince readers that jazz continues to thrive. (It's also dishonest. A lot of jazz is far from great.) Scrutinizing jazz, criticizing its faults, celebrating its triumphs, showing the ways in which it's essential to the larger culture, exposing the ways in which it's isolated from the larger culture, that's what writers do to living art forms, and it's what critics owe jazz. And that kind of conversation isn't going to take place if writers view jazz as a foreign language. It's going to take place only if writers view jazz as a subject through which they can tell stories and comment on issues more fundamental than a drummer's use of 16th notes. Sixteenth notes are part of it, but if jazz criticism restricts itself to the technical, then it's telling a very one-dimensional story. We need writers who know technique cold, and we need writers who can't read a note of music who can dazzlingly connect the music of Darcy James Argue, the build-up to the war in Iraq, and the late films of David Lynch. We should be broadening the ranks of jazz critics, not narrowing them to a club of musicians.
The anxiety of expertise, though, has haunted the music for decades and its going to be tough to overcome. I remember reading a Nat Hentoff column in Jazz Times during my sophomore year of college, wondering whether I should be reviewing jazz shows at all. Maybe if I were still playing piano I could do this, I thought, but writing about jazz without really knowing about it felt dishonest. Hentoff, I was relieved to discover, had experienced the same doubts himself.
I sometimes felt fraudulent because I couldn’t describe what chords or inversions someone was playing. This disquiet intensified one day when my younger daughter, beginning a professional career as a pianist and composer, said accusingly: "How can you dare affect the income of a musician when you give him bad reviews since you can’t say technically what you think he’s doing wrong?" Brooding about this while walking on the street one day, I saw Gil Evans coming toward me. I’d known him since interviewing him when he was arranging for Claude Thornhill. I decided to make Gil my rabbi, and told him what my daughter had said.We'd all do well to follow his advice.
“I’ve been reading you for years," Gil began, "so I know what you listen to and how you listen. I also know musicians who can tell technically everything that’s going on in a performance, but they don’t get into where this music is coming from inside the musician—the story he wants to tell. You can do that some of the time. Stop worrying."
Notes: Also very much worth checking out on this subject are Hank Shteamer and Phil Freeman. Hoping Ethan Iverson lends this discussion a musician's perspective when he returns after his August blog break.