After all these years, I find myself unable to avoid an unhappy conclusion: jazz criticism is a bad idea, poorly executed.
Having opened with a sweeping generalization, it immediately becomes necessary to hedge somewhat. I do not think matters are really appreciably worse than when I entered the jazz world. I am well aware that right now, as has almost always been the case, there are at least a few admirable positive exceptions to my condemnation. And the fault by no means lies entirely with the individual writers. (It definitely is a two-step process: a great deal of the problem must be attributed to the critical concept itself.) But I cannot be dissuaded from a deep conviction that the general performance level among jazz writers is embarrassingly, dangerously low.
I have quite deliberately called this an unhappy conclusion: I would much prefer to feel otherwise. Nothing is likely to alter the fact that writing about the arts is a major American activity; as for jazz in particular, the number of words devoted to the subject annually may well exceed the quantity of record albums sold. This being the case, it would be comforting to hope that something valuable, or helpful to the cause of creativity, might come of it now or in the near future. However, since it seems to be a basic fact of jazz life that most new albums will be reviewed and most interviews conducted by young men not especially qualified to do so, there is no real reason to look for much improvement. I cannot be dissuaded from this negative attitude merely by being reminded of writers who may be considered suitably qualified. I am well aware of a number of them, very much including my son Peter Keepnews. More than a few can be capable of cogent analysis, among them (to give some wildly varied examples) Robert Palmer or Stanley Crouch or Gene Lees; the fact that I might disagree with them at least as often as not is certainly not to be held against them. There is a vastly knowledgeable historian like Dan Morgenstern—whom I would probably include as a finalist in any contest for Best of Breed. There is that superlative prose stylist, Whitney Balliett, whose command of the language can be so overwhelming that you might not get around to evaluating the content. Whitney, however, quite often tends to function in a straightforward journalistic fashion, as do such longtime hard workers as Ira Gitler and Leonard Feather. But one can only get into trouble with such indiscriminate and partial name-dropping. It should be clear that my omissions here carry no implications at all; I am not trying to be complete, but merely to indicate that I really am conscious of who is out there.
One problem may be that I have been around too long: the very first jazz writer I read with any consistency was the wonderful pioneer Charles Edward Smith (who, together with Frederic Ramsey, Jr., edited and partly wrote the ground-breaking 1939 book of essays, Jazzmen). Charlie Smith was an often turgid and badly organized writer—I edited several of his pieces in the early Record Changer days—but he combined encyclopedic knowledge with a passionate love and respect for the music and its creators that make most of his successors seem bloodless. Another problem definitely is that the competent writers (those I have named and as many more as you care to add) are vastly outnumbered by the hordes of shallow, opportunistic, and virtually unidentifiable magazine and newspaper hacks.
A sensible alternative might be merely to ignore what is being written; some of my friends seem able to do that, but I’m afraid it is beyond me. In a recent conversation, saxophonist Joe Henderson referred with a shrug to some negative mention: “You’ve got to do what you have to do, no matter what they say.” It struck me as a slogan suitable for framing. Sonny Rollins quite seriously claims that he never reads any reviews of his work, and I think I believe him. I know I envy him. For I am not and never have been sufficiently level-headed, secure, self-protective, incurious—or whatever else might serve as a good enough reason—to ignore the existence of all those writers churning away out there, using their widely varying degrees of competence and their often self-centered positions of authority to pass judgment on individual performances or entire careers. Quite to the contrary, critical commentary has always held a horrible fascination for me. I suppose it’s something like the feeling of a rabbit for a snake, or the appeal Count Dracula had for his full-blooded victims—I simply cannot turn away. Above all, I cannot resist reviews of records I am directly involved with. Since over the years there have been hundreds of such albums, I must by now have read several thousand conflicting opinions of my own work. Rarely, if ever, have I gained anything thereby.
This is a subject on which I have usually forced myself to remain uncharacteristically silent. Recognizing that I am highly partisan and obviously prejudiced, I have felt that caustic letters to the editors or brilliant essays on the theory of jazz criticism, coming from me, should probably be regarded with suspicion and ruled off-limits. So, except for a couple of rare occasions when I found a comment personally offensive or a fact seriously distorted, I have avoided any form of response. That’s how I looked at it for a long time; I now feel I was wrong. Of course I am partisan, but I am also deeply involved, concerned, knowledgeable, and (by nature, training, and experience) more readily articulate on paper than a good many of my equally long-suffering friends and colleagues. A rare opportunity now confronts me. Within this book I am, by definition, primarily a writer and only inferentially a record producer—a position I haven’t been in for many years. Having read this far, you have come upon my opinions and comments over several decades on a variety of related subjects. So you already know that I’m capable of being as unkind as any currently active jazz writer, that I can turn out a gratuitously nasty clever phrase with the best of them. This is very possibly my only opportunity to open up on this subject; it would take a much more generous and tolerant soul than mine to pass up the chance.
I must initially establish a couple of personal ground rules. Most people appear to use the terms “reviewer” and “critic” interchangeably, and even standard dictionaries don’t clearly support my distinction, yet I have always believed that there’s a vast difference. A reviewer provides you with a fairly brief and, one hopes, quite specific description and evaluation of a new play, movie, book, or record. The intention is to pass summary judgment, perhaps to condense everything into some arbitrary grading system (B-plus, or two and a half stars); the presumable purpose is to provide trustworthy evidence about whether or not to spend your time and money on the product. A critic, on the other hand, is concerned with the larger and longer view. His territory embraces entire styles and careers; his time-span can be infinite; and if he does deal with specific commodities, it’s unlikely to be less than half a dozen albums dissected in terms of some continuing major theme.
Admittedly, the lines of demarcation are not always entirely clear. Some writers routinely assume double duty, turning out their share of capsule reviews and writing a think-piece for the same issue. But the distinction does exist, and as a practical rule of thumb has a lot to do with the status (whether earned or self-proclaimed) of the individual. A critic may really have verifiable credentials or may simply have been around so long that he is accepted as a fact of life, a necessary evil. A reviewer might have a good deal of relevant background, or a little, or just a desire to make a name for himself or to acquire free albums; even after some forty years of reading, it is not always easy for me to figure out which category applies. At least in theory, a reviewer is presumed to be working swiftly and may be excused for being shallow as he strives to meet a deadline: for example, it remains an essential newspaper function to let its readers know the rating of a movie or play within twenty-four hours after it opens (although the significance of that consideration diminishes when various current jazz periodicals take almost a full year before getting around to publishing their definitive word on some “new” releases). It should be clear that my quarrel is largely—although by not means entirely—with reviewers and with the reviewing function as it is now conducted. A full-grown critic, particularly one with a lot of space made available to him in a reputable publication, can do major damage, but it’s all those little mosquito bites that really eat you up alive. And by sheer force of numbers, it is the reviewers who turn out the bulk of the words and cumulatively reach the greatest number of readers.
(I recognize that these two subdivisions fall short of covering the full range of jazz writing. I am bypassing one segment of the critical community: writers of books which rarely if ever are concerned with the working-level activities that we in the art/business of jazz necessarily deal with on a daily basis, men I think of as basically “cultural historians.” Again, there are people who have credentials in more than one category—Gunther Schuller comes to mind, or Stanley Dance—but I am not using the term simply to describe those who create entire books from scratch rather than just magazine or newspaper articles. My actual reference is to authors—for the most part, it would seem, inhabitants of universities—whose works advance theories, or offer either relatively straightforward or boldly revisionist histories of the whole subject, and who therefore would appear to be most closely related to those scholars who analyze and footnote other cultural phenomena. In a phrase, men who view the music from an academic tower rather than at street level. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that position, but it has nothing to do with jazz as I know and live it. Since I do not feel that these people impinge on my reality, I will not be so rude as to disturb theirs—except to point out that I am deliberately, not accidentally, excluding them from consideration.)
My other ground rule, equally arbitrary, concerns the actual naming of names. I have no personal vendettas in progress at this time, no embarrassing stories I’m anxious to tell. My quarrel is with an entire concept far more than with individuals. Accordingly, my condemnations will remain non-specific or unidentified. When I do use a name—as I have already demonstrated by strewing a few of them around in an early paragraph—it will either be for description or in praise.
Growing up in New York and paying attention to the popular arts that surrounded me, I rather automatically came to accept and generally to respect the reviewing function as a part of life. Plays, books, movies were analyzed and rated by a small group of usually literate and experienced writers in the daily papers and various magazines; if there were no reviews of jazz records except in obscure and highly specialized sheets, it was quite understandable. Even then I knew that our music—which at that time was New Orleans style and its offshoots as opposed to the much more widely popular big-band swing—was a limited-market product. Besides, recorded music was only available in the tiny three-minute units of 78-rpm singles; not until the late 1940s and the coming of the long-play album was the form substantial enough to justify widespread reviewing. (So it should be kept in mind that this whole genre is still comparatively an infant industry, with no real history or tradition.)
But by 1948, and my first serious involvement with jazz at The Record Changer, reviews were inevitably an important part of the picture. There actually was still a substantial body of single records around; some were new releases, but a great many were the controversial bootleg reissues of classics and legends owned (and ignored) by the major labels. Forced to take an editorial stand, we elected to publish reviews of the pirate labels, on the dual basis of pragmatism (they did exist) and idealism (the initial and larger sin remained the anti-cultural policy of RCA Victor and Columbia). We did keep them away from our Number One reviewer, George Avakian, who at the time was working for Columbia, where he eventually did push through a magnificent reissue program. Which brings me quickly to a major point: the experience of working with the early Changer reviewing staff was a terribly misleading starting point; that was very possibly the most capable group of its kind ever assembled.
Avakian was thoroughly knowledgeable and experienced; he had been a student at Yale when the remarkable Professor Marshall Stearns (who later founded the Institute of Jazz Studies) was teaching English there, and had been professionally involved with the music since the late ’30s as a producer, reissue advocate, and executive. He was joined by Bucklin Moon, a talented novelist, essayist, and editor who was a living encyclopedia of traditional jazz—and the one who had to take on all reviewing of bootlegs. Our initial “modern” specialist was the magazine’s art director, Paul Bacon. Bill Grauer and I had met him on the evening we first encountered Thelonious Monk at the home of Alfred and Lorraine Lion of Blue Note. A good friend of the Lions, designer of Alfred’s earliest album covers and then our first Riversides, and subsequently a book-jacket designer, Paul never really considered himself a critic. But he was an early and astute observer of the bebop scene, and I’m intrigued at how often his comments on Monk and other pioneers are still quoted. A psychology instructor at Columbia University named Robert Thompson, initially known to us as a traditionalist drummer and bandleader, was another early member of this staff, and by 1953 Martin Williams, then an aspiring young writer from Virginia, came on board. To my recollection, he began by taking the tricky job of reviewing the very first Riverside albums; even though they were classic-jazz reissues (authorized ones, I must add), the possibilities of ethical and personal conflict were obviously huge.
I have gieven so detailed a picture of that working group because I have never before ben in a position to acknowledge publicly this remarkably literate, concerned, uncruel reviewing team of my youth. Almost equally important is that the majority of them surely have been disqualified from writing jazz record reviews today. Avakian worked for a major label and, whenever possible, produced reissue albums; Bacon had close ties to a leading independent jazz company; and Thompson was presumably too involved as a working music to be impartial. But not only did they write a long series of informed and valid reviews, they also remained totally above suspicion. Rabid and fanatical as Changer readers could be, I cannot recall a single complaint about any of them. Buck Moon was at an opposite extreme: a dedicated and gifted man who earned his living entirely outside of music. (Jazz was very important to him, but he was a novelist and a book and magazine editor by trade. This surely makes him a great rarity among reviewers of any era—a highly skilled outsider, a non-professional who really knew what he was doing.) Only Williams fitted a standard pattern by being young and eager and quite determined to make his mark as a jazz critic; considering that he has been among the most active and respected in the field from then until now, it would seem to have been a good idea to give him his first assignments. He did, it should be noted, write very favorably about those earliest Riversides, but that basically just meant praising Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds and Ma Rainey—as well as my notes and Bacon’s covers.
So it was not until after (and just possibly because of) the launching of Riverside Records that I began to develop negative feelings about reviewing. Obviously I am often heavily prejudiced in my reactions, but at least I like to think that I function on a somewhat higher level than “favorable reviews are good, negative ones bad.” I’m actually aware of having produced some albums I now would not defend, and others that may have been overpraised. But down through the years my most frequent reaction has been frustration at having my records at the mercy of people who, for whatever reasons, seem unable to understand them. Being part of a record company means that you get to see a great many different reviews of each album, and I’d suggest that there are few more depressing experiences in life than the consecutive reading of multiple reviews. What you are exposed to could most charitably be described as diversity. More often, particularly when they are read in bulk, the effect is more like total chaos. To one writer a record swings like mad, but another feels that same rhythm section doesn’t fit together—why couldn’t we hear their obvious incompatability? One review may praise the originality of your well-planned repertoire; the next clipping complains of trite and unthinking tune selection—the difference, of course, is entirely a matter of the writers’ own listening backgrounds. What one man heard as too strictly arranged, another finds sloppy; entire albums are rejected or overpraised because of blatant bias against (or in favor of) electric pianos, or female vocalists, or the resurgence of bebop.
My negative conclusions have for the most part been reached gradually, as a result of having been repeatedly hit over the head for a long time. But I think I can actually trace the start of my mistrust back to an oddly matched pair of reviews of the two earliest 12-inch Riverside jazz albums, both written by the same even then noted writer and appearing in successive issues of Down Beat some thirty years ago. The first was a very lukewarm reaction to our initial Monk project—his treatment of eight Duke Ellington compositions. The passage of time has long since validated the concept, which began the helpful process of slightly demystifying Thelonious. But this particular critic spoke of how uncomfortable the pianist seemed with much of this material, and accused us of having “instructed” Monk to deal with the music “for which he has little empathy.” It’s hard to say which baffled and disappointed me more: his belief that my partner and I had been able to “force” Thelonious into an unwanted musical decision, or the failure to grasp the deep and stringly expressed musical affinity between Monk and Ellington.
Then this very same reviewer went on to give highest five-star honors to a Joe Sullivan album we had acquired. While I loved Sullivan—as the first piece in this book should make clear—I knew that this specific record was in no way of major stature. So I asked a direct question and, to that writer’s credit, got a frank and somewhat embarrassed answer: he had put this album on his turntable at the end of a full afternoon of listening to West Coast cool; as a result, it had at least temporarily sounded like the hardest-swinging music imaginable!
From such early experiences I began to get a mental picture of an assembly line moving too fast to permit rational evaluations, and that image has stayed with me over the years. I have come upon many variations and permutations, and in time have developed a tendency to fit them into broad general categories. There is, for example, The Critical Bandwagon: when a performer becomes so thoroughly accepted, so deified, that at least for a while you don’t have to worry. Everyone will give each of his albums the same top rating for as long as the ride lasts. Then for no discernible reason it becomes time to toss him off the wagon, perhaps simply because some writer decides to attract attention by playing iconoclast and going against the tide of adulation. I’ve watched this happen very dramatically with Monk, and even with artists who began their career’s as critics’ favorites and thus for a long time seemed invulnerable, like Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans—although death does tend to restore artistic stature. The quality of the specific record doesn’t seem at all relevant to the bandwagon process—a fact that is grotesquely demonstrated these days by glowing reviews welcoming back the reissue versions of albums that were originally trashed years ago. It’s merely that a musician who used to be “out” has now achieved the status of a definitely “in” elder statesman.
There is also the Prior Premise Review: the writer begins with a personal conclusion and structures his view of the album to fit. Recently, I have belatedly learned that it was foolish to have had the Kronos Quartet attempt arrangements of Monk and Evans material, because “everyone knows strings can’t swing.” Many years ago, I read in amazement a destruction of an album involving four-flute charts, by a reviewer who started by making it clear that he did not consider the flute a “legitimate” jazz instrument. The most common use of this category is in defense of the assumption that any commercially successful jazz artist has automatically become aesthetically deficient. (The contention may often be accurate, but it’s hardly a routine matter of cause and effect.) I first directly encountered this form of culture prejudice when I recorded the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in performance at a San Francisco club. Their buoyant and rhythmic repertoire, particularly Bobby Timmons’s funky tune “This Here,” struck all sorts of responsive audience chords and the resultant album became a 1960s jazz sales phenomenon. Adderley, a witty and erudite man with a natural affection for the blues, previously respected by critics while a member of the celebrated Miles Davis group that included John Coltrane and Bill Evans, was immediately savaged in print for selling out. Down Beat didn’t get around to acknowledging the record for several months. When it did, the disparaging review began with a negative reference to its reported sales of close to 30,000 copies, and closed with the quite serious admonition: “If this is the road Cannonball is going to travel, he will only succeed in making money.”
The Assumed Fact Review can place an undue strain on my temper. I have read that the producer must have “made” the musicians play that commercial junk with those electrified sidemen because he wanted to make a lot of money; and on another occasion that the same dictator had “refused” to let an artist play his own compositions. My aggravation in such cases stems from the fact that the evil producer is me. One does just try to rise above it—and I do get beaten on less frequently than certain colleagues who are widely known as studio authoritarians. But there really is no extension of journalistic or critical license that can justify such pseudo-telepathic guesswork being passed on to readers as reality. The problem is of course partly a matter of shoddy ethics, but it is also a glaring example of a lack of any knowledge of what actually goes on in the recording process.
Even this, I suppose, is in some respects preferable to the Immaculate Conception Review, a sadly prevalent type in which there is no indication that a producer even exists. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of my own ego. While his functions and importance may vary greatly—depending on the artist, the nature of the project, and (to a very great extent) the nature of the producer—those functions do exist, and do have a bearing on how things turn out. The basic fact is that the role of the producer and his working relationship with the artist are among the more significant elements in the creation of a jazz record. A good deal of what you have read in this book is of course concerned with precisely that. Yet there has always been a vast (although in all probability, even I must admit, unintentional) conspiracy of silence about us. Record reviews, which often seek the praiseworthy goal of listing every single performer, almost never list the producer; most discographies follow the same rule. (In recent years, as my self-assurance has grown and my never-very-large tolerance for anonymity has diminished, I have on occasion taken to describing my own role in the liner notes, particularly if I’m presenting a new artist or if the album concept is one that I’ve devised. For the most part, however, reviewers still react as if I were invisible.) I have never understood this apparent lack of basic curiosity: if “producer” is a credit that appears on virtually every album liner, shouldn’t more reviewers wonder about the degree of credit or blame that might properly be assigned to that person?
Such thoughts inevitably lead me to wonder about the human being behind each review. There is a byline on virtually every one, but who really is the individual bearing that name and why is he (or, very rarely, she) writing as he does? I feel that identity is a crucial aspect of criticism. Examine other areas in which new material is automatically examined in print. There are very few new plays in New York in a year, and not many people regularly writing about them. Movies are reviewed in virtually every local newspaper, but there aren’t more than a couple writers handling this job in any given city, and probably only one reviewer in each of the national magazines you read regularly. So as a constant reader you get a pretty good handle on these people; whether or not you fully realize it, you come to know at least something about their tastes, and how their views relate to your own. If eventually you become aware of soft spots and prejudices as well as strengths, you’ve become better prepared to extract the information that can enable you to draw reasonably sound personal conclusions about the subject at hand.
This, however, is not fully comparable to the record-review situation, which is actually much closer in format to book reviewing. While there may be only one regular on the subejct in the daily paper, there are dozens of reports in (for example) each issue of the New York Times Book Review, just as there are (also just for example) in Jazz Times. Each item does carry a byline, but with the jazz reviews how can we be expected to identify all those largely unknown and basically unknowable individuals? All too often they blur into each other, so that hardly anyone is disturbed when all that’s remembered or quoted is that an album was given three stars “by Down Beat.” Which of course is an anthropomorphic impossibility: the publication itself does no such thing. It was in fact a conclusion reached by one of their all-but-anonymous writers, and how does one go about learning what that particular person means by “three stars” or whatever abstruse rating system is used? Book review sections, on the other hand, traditionally display a certain sense of responsibility: in virtually every such Sunday supplement there’s at least an identifying sentence for each writer. We are told whether this is a professor or a lawyer or a published novelist; if there is some special reason, some area of expertise that has led to his being assigned to this evaluation, we are given a clue. Some of us may not think it a particularly good idea to have novels reviewed by novelists, or to turn a work on Freud over to a leading anti-Freudian—but at least we do have that identification to bear in mind while reading this critique.
I have yet to see a jazz publication use this valuable device. Occasionally the reviewer is so well known as a critic or for some other reasons that there is no mystery (on occasion in the past, musicians have written record reviews; I recall that both Rex Stewart and Kenny Dorham displayed remarkably good chops in Down Beat). But more often the name means nothing. Perhaps we are not told precisely because there isn’t anything to be told: it may be that many of them have no discernible credentials, just a strong desire to write about jazz and a willingness to do so at the very low prevailing rate of pay. Being a fan is really not sufficient, and having been a music student or a disc jockey on college radio is not much better; but if that’s all there is to say about a published reviewer, surely we should be told that. I am worried by a kind of chicken-or-egg question that is raised by my unfortunately wide range of review-reading. Quite a few of the names found in the national magazines also turn up in the record-review columns of small city newspapers. Which came first? Was writing for his home-town weekly the credential that led to assignments from Jazziz, or was the paper awed by the signed reviews in Down Beat? And does it really matter? Of course everyone must, by definition, begin someplace, but must they begin at—quite literally—our expense?
For in a performance art like jazz, which in our society has always been forced to exist in the marketplace, critics and reviews have a special responsibility. They are not merely delivering abstract artistic commentaries; they are messing with a man’s ability to make a living. This is not an argument in favor of praising bad merchandise because there’s a wife and children to be fed; but it is in opposition to judgments with real economic consequences being arbitrarily disbursed by people who are not qualified to do so. Above all, I suppose, it is a passionate outcry against the smartly turned phrase that is used solely for the benefit of the phrase-turner. I’m afraid I have observed the pattern far too many times to have any tolerance for it: the young writer gets his first chance; being suitably amibitious, he wants to be noticed more than all those other young reviewers. Negatives, he decides, are most likely to turn the trick; brilliant figures of speech in support of something won’t register nearly as strongly as the devastating image; being memorably nasty is surely the quickest way to stand out from the crowd. In the long run he may come to realize that venom all by itself doesn’t really accomplish much. For the most part, his predecessors had figured that out; those with sufficient talent or doggedness to continue usually do calm down and mellow out, but there are enough hit-and-run drivers in each generation to create a noticeable amount of destruction.
To some extent my specific attitude about jazz writers has been shaped by the more general feelings I have developed about the role of criticism in relation to any creative art form, and about the particular problems involved in analyzing one medium of expression in terms of another. The second part of that sentence is probably easier to explain: I have come to believe that language can readily be applied to the explication of a book, a film, a play—anything that is itself directly a product of language—but that writing about paintings or dance or music is a much trickier matter. It is in effect a form of translation, and therefore calls for a more than minimal grasp of both vocabularies. To write effectively about jazz requires, therefore, some actual facility with English prose in addition to some real understanding of jazz. Neither brisk technical discussion of the music, on the one hand, nor mystical flights-of-fancy verbiage, on the other, is really good enough. True sensitivity helps, and so does experience, but both commodities are usually in short supply, and most writers who have a substantial amount of them to offer—like a Morgenstern or a Gary Giddins—have long since stopped being available for entry-level activities.
As for my major reservations about criticism: to put it most bluntly, I consider it to be with rare exceptions an inhibiting force, simply because it invariably tends to take measurements and give ratings and pass judgment. This may take the form of comparison between particular works or specific artists, leading to the assertion that one is “better” than another. Or it can be more coldly objective, making evaluations in accordance with pre-existing standards. None of this actually has anything to do with creativity.
It may be acceptable at the lowest pragmatic level: I admit that I find it hard to read a writer who has trouble handling basic English grammer, and I am uncomfortable when a musician plays wrong notes or fakes the melody line of a standard tune. But there are obviously severe limitations to this approach: it’s not very helpful in evaluating a painting by Rousseau or Grandma Moses; and it was of real disservice to many of us when we were first exposed to Ornette Coleman. (I once got around to telling Ornette about my reaction the first time I heard him play some straight-ahead blues: I had regretted not knowing sooner that he could play “normal” changes, that his avoidance of them was entirely voluntary. I do hope I made it clear to him that the knowledge would only have been to my advantage. After all, he had always known his own truth; my ignorance, or anyone else’s, was quite irrelevant.)
I feel that rules and standards have no valid connection with artistic expression, just as grammare has no specific impact on literary creativity. Actually, I do pay a lot of attention to the “grammar” of various art forms, and find it to be quite important—but only on its own level. Such things have a great deal to do with whether or not you find a work technically competent or properly “professional,” which can be very meaningful when writers or musicians are talking to each other (or, perhaps, when I am criticizing a reviewer). But to consider such things to be in any way binding on the artist is decidedly improper.
It seems to me that by now I have done quite enough complaining, and it might be a good idea at this point to become a bit more practical. I do realize that I am not singlehandedly going to abolish jazz criticism. Since it is going to continue to be done, how might it be done better? Let me switch, even if only briefly, to a somewhat more constructive approach by attempting to codify some of my personal standards, to indicate some elements that I consider essentials.
To begin with, as a onetime editor who greatly respects the leadership potential of a magazine editor, I have to admit the inequity of dumping exclusively on the reviewers. If I find young jazz writers inexperienced, immature, and indistinguishable, at least some of the blame must be allocated to those who hire them, give them assignments, and presumably read and edit what they turn in for publication. A couple of decades ago, when Down Beat was just about the only game in town, I often disagreed with its various editors, but it was certainly true that men like Gene Lees, Don DeMicheal, and later Dan Morgenstern were well-defined personalities, who could readily be perceived as giving instruction and a sense of direction to newcomers. I’m not in a position to condemn the current crop of magazine editors, because I just don’t know what efforts of that kind they might be making, but the empirical evidence is not reassuring. There are some strong veterans out there now who established their own standards and patterns a long time ago; a Stanley Dance or a Douglas Ramsey is not particularly receptive to—or in need of—guidance. But where are their replacements going to come from—writers whom even crusty insiders like me can at least sometimes read with respect or even agreement? Without some editorial leadership, how can the publications ever begin to tap the vast knowledgeable pool of jazz professionals—the same sort of non-impartial potential reviewers that the book sections always utilize, or that The Record Changer relied on almost four decades ago?
Of course I’m aware that musicians have occasionally been spotlighted as writers over the years, usually very recognizable names, often under special circumstances as an attention-getting journalistic ploy. That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean regular use of informed, involved, working-level musicians, sidemen and session players, young and old. What about a producer or two, or something as far-out as a jazz-oriented promotion man who might have an intriguing point of view on quality levels in overty commercial forms of music? What I’m also saying is: where is the editorial courage to take a few chances? Even some really bad choices couldn’t hurt that much, and would at least offer an occasional change of pace. And without a little daring, how can we ever hope to break the disgraceful mold that keeps jazz criticism virtually a white male enclave—after all these years, still no women to speak of and so few blacks that an Albert Murray and a Stanley Crouch remain tokens, and a vibrant gadfly like Amiri Baraka is rarely heard from.
I am scarcely making new suggestions. As far back as 1960, the late Bobby Timmons, then a brash young pianist and composer, angrily asked a Down Beat interviewer why the roster of critics didn’t include “some of the older musicians who know every stage of development young musicians go through.” He went on to complain of the “incompatibility” of critics being “predominantly” white: “They don’t really know this music. They’re interpreting what [we] say and play, and they really don’t understand what’s happening.” There might have seemed an element of irony in the fact that he was talking to Barbara Gardner, a black woman who was then a frequent Down Beat contributor and staff record reviewer —but the real irony is that, a quarter-century later, Gardner turns out to have been unique. As for Timmons’s remarks, the question of their relative or absolute accuracy seems vastly less important than the undeniable truth that they represent a longstanding and still widespread attitude among musicians. there is something seriously out of alignment when so many who create the music are consistently unable to trust or respect critics as a class.
As for that “constructive” summary of personal criteria, I offer a short list of elements that I hold to be necessary but generally missing in current criticism.
Above all, there is an attitude that I would label respect for creativity—which involves the basic realization that the artist is more significant than his critic and which, accordingly, calls for not overvaluing the critical function. In a recent article by Martin Williams, I find this cogent comment: “It’s the business of writers like me to say what we think, but I don’t like the idea of giving advice to musicians.” These are words all critics should strive to live by, for all too often what is called “advice” is merely an attempt to superimpose the writer’s values over the musician’s. As a major example, there are the years of critical complaints about Sonny Rollins’s refusal to return to the way he played in the late ’50s. To my direct knowledge, he has not done so simply because he has no interest in retreating to his musical past—in imitating himself. But the answer is actually beside the point; the question should never have been raised. A writer who professes to admire and respect an artist must accept that artist’s ability to make a “correct” creative decision for himself. He may not agree with that decision, but he must recognize its primacy. There is a truly immense difference between saying “I prefer” (which is proper critical language) and “he should” (which is not). It is far more difficult for the critic to give the same leeway to a young player—it may be almost impossible to stifle the urge to be a star-shaper, to offer paternalistic words of wisdom—but it is even more important. Rollins, after all, will pay no attention; someone less experienced and less confident may even be swayed.
An essential aspect of this “respect” is the realization that it is not the artist’s duty to please a particular writer, and he should not be attacked for failing to do so. Critical evaluation that cannot rise above the level of “I do not like it; therefore it is bad art” is dangerously invalid. This is not a denial of the critic’s right to express personal views and reactions, but it is a protest against the kind of pontificating that seeks to present those views as absolute truth. Jazz, as we all like to proclaim, is a long-lived music; accordingly, its history is full of examples of negative reviews being drastically revised and reversed by the passage of time. Once again, an awareness of Monk can be valuable. I would recommend to all beginners the study of early critical comment on his music; it should lead to an appropriate mixture of perspective, humility, and caution.
Secondly, there is knowledge of the process—which very much includes some understanding of the realities of recording. There is a great difference between the requirements of club or concert activity and the steps that lead to the creation of a record; failure to appreciate this distinction lieterally makes it impossible to evaluate a recorded performance. I see no way to state the point at all equivocally; this is an absolute truth—and I remain constantly astonished at how rarely any critic has ever sought information on what goes on at a studio session or has asked to visit one. I don’t believe they are deliberately avoiding knowledge, or even that they are lacking in curiosity; but I do suspect that, for the most part, they aren’t even aware that there is anything unique to be curious about. There isn’t time or space enough here to go into the details of what is special, but I assure you that there are a great many quite important distinctions and conventions. Effective recorded sound is quite unlike what you hear in person; the approach to achieving an ultimately satisfactory performance is quite different; and there are of course many occasions that necessitate, for a variety of reasons, editing or combining, or the adding or substituting of overdubbed supplements.
I realize that everyone more or less knows this—or, to be more accurate, knows about such things. But a general awareness is not the same as an understanding of the effect that various engineering facts and circumstances have on the art of recording. We who work in the studios are fully aware that only the finished product will be available for the world to judge (and we are frequently very pleased that no one who wasn’t there will know just how much sweat and tension and repetition may have gone into it). But we also take for granted the essential fact that our job is to create what is best described as “realism”—the impression and effect of being real—which may be very different from plain unadorned reality. Ignorance of this distinction is surely not helpful to those who choose to pass judgment on the music. I have treasured for years the memory of a review that complained of our stupidity in having used a percussionist: the writer could hear quite clearly how those added rhythms were crowding and disturbing the drummer and throwing him off-stride; why hadn’t the leader and I realized this? The only trouble with that criticism was (and there had been no attempt to hide the fact in the album-liner credits) that the “bothersome” percussionist had been added to the tape weeks later and in another studio; he and the drummer had indeed met each other, but not in connection with this project. It is not only to avoid such potential for embarrassment that I recommend knowledge of the process—would a film critic want to avoid all awareness of camera angles and directorial technique?—and I remain willing at any time to conduct a basic course in Studio Realities.
As a close corollary, there is certainly a need for an understanding of history. In an earlier period, those with an awareness of the past frequently used a scornful cliche: “When you talk about a jazz pioneer, he thinks you mean Charlie Parker.” With the passage of time, Parker actually is recognizable as a pioneer; to update the remark you’d probably need to substitute Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor. But I suspect the revised version would remain widely applicable. I don’t want to overstate the problem: there are many current writers with a strong sense of history; there is no shortage of historical and biographical literature—regardless of how one might evaluate such material, at least the facts of jazz are readily available. But I’m not so sure about how widely the lessons of history have been learned.
Having begun as a strict traditionalist, I have always had strong feelings about the continuity of the music. In the ’50s, I became aware that contemporary musicians had for the most part very little awareness of the past (Monk, who as a youngster had listened appreciatively to James P. Johnson, was as always an exception). Efforts to bridge the gap had varying results: Randy Weston was fascinated by the incredible right-hand dexterity of Luckey Roberts; Cannonball Adderley began with more background knowledge than most, but was totally broken up by the primitive rhythm section on a Bix Beiderbecke record. It was actually the drastic differences in the rhythmic concepts of traditional jazz forms that presented the greatest problem; now, even thought there have been vast changes since the early days of bebop, there is enough of a connective thread to make that forty-year-old tradition important to today’s players. So many of them grasp the relevance of the past and feel a deep respect for who and what preceded them; it is in a sense a counterpart of the “second line” tradition in early New Orleans, and it is so strong an element in the mid-’80s jazz atmosphere that I’m sure most writers and many members of the public are aware of it.
But do they understand what—in addition to some stylistic mimicry and some pleasant repertoire—the young musicians have learned? One major lesson to be gained from history, for example, is how often time has altered, even reversed, critical judgments. I have already noted how often a reissue of a record that was originally poorly received is now greeted with cheers. I know that many musicians grasp the point that the music exists on its own merits, regardless of initial condemnation or praise, and that time has a way of straightening matters out. I hope that reviewers realize the significance for them of such reversals. They are certainly entitled to their own reactions, uninfluenced by past opinions (although I am sometimes disturbed by the thought that they may also be unaware of them). But do they at least appreciate the implied parallel? For the very same kind of revisionism may well be scheduled to take place when today’s records are reconsidered in the future; the key point being demonstrated is that this long-lived music of ours, when it is young, is not necessarily in tune with the critical standards of the moment. Accordingly, it might be wise for the reviewer to try to be a little tender towards something that may strike him as too advanced (or too old-fashioned), to be careful not to choke it off in its infancy with gratuitous harshness.
As a footnote to the subject of understanding history, let me admit that discographers now seem to be an improving breed. I have been aware since my earliest reissue days of the great gaps in this area that will never be filled because paperwork is missing or players have died. I have also long realized that it is both unfair and risky to rely on a performer’s memory of one long-past session out of many, and I soon discovered that the most likely answer will be what the musician feels the questioner wants (“That’s right, it certainly was Satchmo on that date in Chicago in 1925….”). For such reasons I have for many years—although, unfortunately, not from the very start—tried to set down (and preserve) detailed recording-session logs. For a long time, though, compilers of discographies just didn’t seem to figure out the value of asking people like me. I have some favorite aggravations: notably the celebrated Danish researcher Jorgen Jepsen making blatantly incorrect assumptions in his 1968 volume on Monk. Like deciding that the trio selection which adds John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware to an otherwise solo Monk album, and the three numbers ever recorded by the original Five Spot quartet (consisting of those three men plus drummer Shadow Wilson), were all made at the same April 1957 session. It’s a tidy thought, but the fact is that the quartet was taped a few months later. And the question is: why not ask the producer? Some sort of barrier seems to have been broken in the early ’80s when Michael Cuscuna, preparing a total discography of Thelonious for the Mosaic Records reissue package of his entire Blue Note output, asked me for full, verified Riverside data. Thereafter, a horde of researchers—all of them European, I must note—have probed me for recording truths about Bill Evans, Blue Mitchell, Wynton Kelly, Chet Baker, Kenny Dorham, et al. It can get quite time-consuming, and painfully memory-stirring as well; but of course such specialized, dedicated, and usually entirely non-profit activities must be encouraged; the creation of an accurate body of information of this kind can be one of our most valuable basic historical tools.
Finally, I consider it essential for writers to have an awareness of the context in which the music exists and—to the greatest possible degree—a sense of involvement with jazz and its people. I know an opposite school of thought advocates that the critic keep a suitable distance from the objects of his work; I find that view terribly wrong. A journalist I greatly respect recently admitted, a little sadly, that with only a few unavoidable exceptions he took care to avoid all personal relationships with musicians, for fear of weakening his critical objectivity. I was distressed to hear this; he is a warm human being with a valuable sense of history, and he and a number of artists in his region could learn from each other. I really cannot understand such self-imposed restraint and coldness in as emotional an arena as jazz. Surely an occasional self-disqualification on the grounds of friendly prejudice, or a non-objective interview instead of a review, would take care of the problem.
For there is so much that writers can learn by steeping themselves in the environment of jazz as deeply and directly as possible, by seeking to know the real world that the working musician inhabits. There are many aspects of this world that simply cannot be grasped by detached analysis, that demand a hands-on approach. I have often complained about how seldom I come upon other producers in clubs. Obviously you do writers in such places quite regularly, usually in the first-night line of duty. But I’d recommend a good deal more attendance at the last set later in the week, without pad and pencil, maybe even buying their own drinks. I am reminded of two very different comments about Ahmad Jamal, an artist who has provoked a wide range of reactions over the years. A particularly visual-minded reviewer (he was also the newspaper’s art critic) described the pianist as a “pointillist.” It sounded meaningful, but when I found in my dictionary that it referred to a method of painting that utilizes small strokes or dots, I understood that it was merely a superficial aren’t-I-erudite way of categorizing his rather sparse style. By contrast, Cannonball Adderley, responding to an attempt to dismiss Jamal as merely facile, offered some quite practical advice. Catch him very late at night, and when he knows there are other musicians in the house, he told us; then you’ll really hear him play. A very concrete example of why knowing—and caring—is much more valuable than rhetoric.
No one ever said jazz was easy to understand. I’m sure an “easy” music could not have held my attention for so long. You do have to work hard at it. Consider how many faces jazz presents, frequently contradictory ones and often many at the same time. It is high art, and folk art, and a commercial enterprise; heartfelt and a put-on; instinctive and learned. It is above all a matter of individual expression that depends just as heavily on teamwork and ensemble. It exists through the people who performed it in the past and those who play it now, and they are about as varied and hard to categorize a body of artists as the world has ever known—humble, arrogant, clannish, solitary.
Among the things I am most certain about is that jazz cannot properly be perceived in any abstract way. I suppose you can enjoy it by simply sitting there and letting it wash over you. But to have any chance at understanding it well enough to be qualified to comment on the music, you somehow have to make the effort to get inside. No one can draw you a map, and I don’t believe you can achieve it by taking courses. Jazz insists on belief, but just being an adoring fan isn’t enough. Experience alone doesn’t do it; I’m afraid that in my opinion there are writers who have been at it (and making a living thereby) almost forever without actually understanding it at all.
It may be true that—in approximately the words of Louis Armstrong, or Fats Waller, or whoever is supposed to have said it—if you have to ask, you’ll never know. It should be obvious from my comments here that in my view damn few of those who have elected to pass judgment on the music-makers can be considered to know enough. Despite my strong misgivings about the concept of jazz criticism, I will grant that the music can use informed, intelligent, articulate, and impassioned commentary; and I’m sure it can survive the other kind. It always has survived, up to now, and so I’ll continue to have faith. And now that I’ve discovered how gratifying it can be to complain and scold, I may even continue to do that.
By Orrin Keepnews[Originally published in The View From Within (1987), pp. 219–238]