In his most recent column (“A State of Mind,” DB, Aug. 22), Michael Zwerin delivered a sermon on jazz critics and criticism, concluding that critics are “parasites” with the sole function of explaining “the difference between noise and music to people who are indifferent in front.”
In the Oct. 31 issue, Art Hodes, from an entirely different perspective, cast a somewhat less jaundiced but equally fishy eye on critics (he call them writers, God bless him), saying, in effect, that there is no meaningful way of judging a jazz performance, and pointing out that negative criticism can have an adverse affect on a player’s livelihood.
There is another side to the story. Most published writing on jazz is in fact not criticism, but rather musical or personal history and reportage of various kinds, including news stories, interviews, publicity of one sort or another, and socio-political commentary.
Even when a jazz writer “criticizes,” i.e., reviews a recorded or live performance or discusses an artist’s work in musical terms, the results may often be not so much criticism as the kind of journalistic survey applied to the performing arts in newspapers, weekly magazines, etc. True criticism, as rare in jazz as in other fields, requires a profound understanding of the specific art form (its methods, tools, history, etc.) and a more than superficial acquaintance with logic, esthetics and the entire spectrum of mankind’s cultural heritage.
Work that fulfills these requirements has been done in jazz, but only infrequently. It is not the order of the day—nor should it be. A full-fledged critical treatise on the average jazz record would be absurd.
Rather, the working jazz writer is (or should be) a well-informed, competent journalist with the capacity to enjoy and understand what he hears and the skills to communicate the enjoyment and understanding. He should also be a responsible reporter and an honest man. If additionally he possesses the qualifications to produce, when requisite, “serious criticism,” so much the better, and if he is a good writer with a clear style, best of all.
His true function, Zwerin to the contrary notwithstanding, is to deliver to his readers informed ideas and opinions about music and musicians in a coherent manner, with the purpose of stimulating interest in the subject, heightening understanding and/or appreciation of a performer and his work and, ultimately, developing in his readers the capacity for discrimination between the good and the inferior. He should not address himself to those who are “indifferent in front,” unless he is conducting a crusade to convert the masses, but rather to those who already share his interest and enthusiasm for the music but lack his background and insight.
The notion that a man who writes about art and artists is a “parasite” unfortunately stems from the artists themselves. To most of them (painters, poets and novelists as well as jazzmen) praise equals good criticism, while bad criticism is anything that dares to point to imperfections. Yet the artist is the first to complain when any effort of his goes unnoticed. Quite understandably, he wants not criticism but publicity. (There are exceptions, of course.)
But if critical writing consisted of nothing but glowing praise, who’d bother to read it except the subject himself?
The “parasite” cliche has its origin in another misconception. Many musicians (and quite a few jazz fans) are convinced that writing about jazz is a highly lucrative pursuit. All of us in the profession, I’m afraid, have encountered the embittered musician who launches into a tirade about “critics getting rich off musicians.”
Writing about jazz, however, is at best a means to make a modest living (few jazz writers can match the annual income of a moderately successful player; none approach the level of the star performers) and at worst a means to pad unemployment checks. Writers who have been able to make a living exclusively in jazz are few and far between, and even these have not been able to depend on writing alone. they have been editors and a&r men, broadcasters and emcees, publicity flacks and personal managers, concert producers and TV script advisors, songwriters and lecturers, and even so, all but the hardiest have eventually been forced to seek greener pastures.
As for Hodes’ important point about the critical knocks on musicians’ ability to make a living: when I was young and green and had just started to write about jazz, I made the naive mistake of addressing a letter to the editors of the late Jazz Review, occasioned by some unusually thoughtless and unpleasant “criticism” of several veteran players I happened to admire.
They printed the letter, using it as a springboard for public lecturing on the duties of a “true” critic. One of the editors (my friend The Bystander [i.e., Martin Williams]) was kind though firm. The other (now better known as a social critic and topical novelist [i.e., Nat Hentoff]) was less gentle. Love, he said, was not enough; furthermore, the critic’s first responsibility was to his own integrity.
I was not convinced and I’m still not. The writers most inclined to pass judgment in the name of some higher abstraction have pens that are often quicker than the ear. The worst sin a “critic” can commit is to patronize the music on the premise of inflated self-importance.
If we aren’t parasites, we’re not sages, either. The best we can do, I think is to add in some small but sometimes significant way to the enjoyment and understanding of the art we profess to love and the welfare of its makers. We should uphold high but not inflexibly rigid standards of musicianship, craft and artistic integrity, and, above all, inculcate and stimulate intelligent personal listening habits in our readers.
Those who claim that critics are superfluous take a small view of jazz. It is a poor art that elicits no reflective response in its audience, and man, after all, is the verbal animal. It is a poor art, too, that furnishes no useful standards for judgment. Perhaps the “critics” haven’t helped jazz enough, but with all their sins, they’ve surely helped more than they have harmed in performing their generally thankless task.
By Dan Morgenstern
[Originally published in Down Beat, January 9, 1969, p.14]