If we assume that it permissible to talk or write about jazz, how should one do so? In other words, should criticism be couched in lyrical, poetical, technical, dogmatic, or philosophical terms?
The first specialized jazz critics felt that their task was to judge and classify. With one hand they would weigh the merits of each individual jazzman and with the other, file him away in their catalogues. This filing system also had a certain effect on the grades given each musician, according to the critic’s personal taste: “A is probably more talented than B, but B belongs to the New Orleans school and therefore deserves a bonus for purity.” We all know that this sort of thing soon leads to dogmatism; categories give way to boundary lines and black marks to excommunications.
Why is it that we younger critics, though we may have begun by imitating our elders, have since taken a very different tack? Why do we feel that the work of our forerunners was, on the whole, very harmful, even though we are indebted to them for a number of contributions without which we might not have been able to get under way at all? It is because they seem to us naïve, impulsive, opinionated, hyperbolical, and, in the last analysis, rather futile. We do not like music to be discussed with a quaver in the voice; we do not like to see artists given grades like schoolboys by peremptory dogmatists. What was the use of those facile outbursts of lyricism, those value judgments and idealizations? What do I care if some self-styled oracle thinks such-and-such a musician is “terrific” or such-and-such a chorus “awful”? Either I am capable of realizing these things for myself or I am not. And if I am not, why should I go to swell the ranks of a congregation, persuading myself that the God-given word is right?
We have attempted to replace this form of criticism — which seems to have had some influence on you — with another, based on different standards. Our primary concern is objectivity. Like our predecessors, we feel that an examination of a given musical phenomenon should begin with a description of it. The difference lies in our choice of methods. In the past, critics were generally content to describe the emotional state aroused in them by the music under examination. Allow me to borrow from one of our readers this excellent parody of the authors you seem to appreciate: “Toward the end there’s a terrific note, not immediately after it’s gone up, but almost; then it goes down into the bass again in a crazy way and after that it’s really gone.” In this kind of criticism, the subject is often little more than a mirror in which the critic complacently gazes at his own reflection. I grant you that jazz critics are not the only ones who succumb to this temptation, as one can easily see from reading any newspaper. But this is no excuse.
It is not and cannot be the critic’s role to step into the shoes of the artist in an illusory attempt to convey to readers the poetic resonance of a piece of music. If this beauty has not been experienced, the most lyrical commentary in the world can only obtain a superficial approval from the listener. This is the pitiful result generally attained by criticism based on value judgments. We, on the other hand, refuse to assume that the world revolves around our likes and dislikes. Though we often state our preferences, handing out praise or making reservations, it is merely to acquaint the reader with our attitude toward artistic phenomena, so that he may compare his viewpoint with ours, while remaining free to form his own opinion. The practice of giving “stars” is justified only on the lowest levels of criticism, such as record tips for busy readers.
How, then, is one to describe music? Merely by stating the facts as clearly as possible. On this score, it seems, our views are farther apart than ever, for I find this statement in your letter: “Let us leave musical dissection games to those who enjoy that sort of thing; fifths, sixths, sevenths and ninths, diminished, augmented, upside down or inside out, this is not music.” I can understand your being dismayed and even revolted by these apparently forbidding terms which no one has ever bothered to explain to you. I would like to know what sort of monsters these harmless words conjure up for you. I should point out that here again you are not alone. “When I hear someone mention a seventh,” a fan once said to me, “I run.” And yet if one is at all concerned with precision, one is forced to use the only exact terms which the language has to offer. It is not, I repeat, a matter of dissecting music but merely of describing it clearly.
When musicians hear the name of an interval, it suggests something as familiar to us as the name of a color to a painter. Instead of referring to an ascending ninth, perhaps you would prefer me to say “it goes up.” And yet precision does have its advantages. If I happen to read an article in which a “sequence of augmented fifth chords” is mentioned, I shall have a very precise notion of the musical passage referred to, and if I later have an opportunity to hear the piece containing these chords, I will be able to recognize them fairly easily when they occur. Moreover, it is possible to hold and aesthetic discussion on the basis of this precise and incontrovertible fact. I should certainly be at a loss in either of these cases had the critic merely referred to “a group of tortured harmonies” or, worse yet, made up some sort of vaguely literary — or literarily vague — phrase depicting the “metaphysical anguish” allegedly produced by these fifths.
I already know your answer to that. “Your scholarly descriptions are useless to me since I don’t understand them.” Unfortunately we live in a country where children are taught to distinguish between colors but not between notes. I therefore admit a priori that the young critics — at least insofar as they deal with difficult subjects — can expect to be understood by only a few readers. There is just one remedy for this: the reader who wishes to acquire a deeper knowledge of musical matters must make an effort of his own. I feel that a young man of twenty, whose passion for music is real, should not shrink from devoting a few hours of study each week to a better understanding of the mysteries of artistic creation. For the goal of intelligent criticism is to provide the music lover with a lens enabling him to magnify, as it were, the details of a work and, at times, to glimpse certain aspects of it which are partly hidden to the naked eye.
Needless to say the problem is not a simple one. Though it is possible, through analysis, to shed light on the technical mechanics of improvised music, no one has yet been able to elucidate the outward manifestations of swing; similarly words do not seem capable of describing phenomena having to do solely with the texture of sound. These elements may simply defy analysis, though this is not absolutely certain; our intelligence should be able, in one way or another, to grasp what our sensibility has been able to feel. Man is not so compartmentalized as all that. The fact remains, however, that our methods of analyzing rhythmic and purely aural phenomena are still in their infancy. We must not forget that jazz criticism has only just emerged from childhood and must be borne with for a while.
The description of musical realities must be carried as far as may be necessary. It must be thorough, impartial, and display a maximum of intellectual honesty. This is indispensable if aesthetic meditation is to be carried out in proper perspective, for such descriptions serve to polarize meditation by making it a direct and continual function of factual observation. Analysis enables us to ground our meditation on objective, concrete reality. This does not make meditation any easier, but it can, at least, relieve it of the gratuitous character which it so often has. Please understand me. I do not believe that genius is subject to demonstration. When I describe and comment upon one of Armstrong’s or Parker’s choruses, I know perfectly well that something essential will be missing from both description and comments, something which my faculties as a whole can apprehend, and without which even the most technically perfect work can never transcend certain limits. When we feel the presence of this “something,” all we can do is say so, for does there even exist a genius capable of taking it as a theme of critical analysis? A great poet might be, though even Baudelaire’s attempt to convey the poetic essence of Wagner’s music remains unconvincing. One of the most glaring mistakes of the old-style critics was their attempt to convey the incommunicable when they were not equipped to do so. For want of any poetic genius they were reduced to homily, and floundered about ridiculously in a hodgepodge of adjectives.
I know that I have by no means exhausted the chief problems raised in your letter, but I would like to think that I have given you food for thought. I decided to step into this debate because it distresses me to see young people turn their backs on the art forms that are truly representative of their era, whether in jazz or any other field. I also felt that I had to come to the defense of criticism as I see it. You, after all, rather priggishly reduce criticism to a game for highbrows who are interested only in slaking their shameful thirst for “crossword puzzles.” I hope to have rehabilitated in your esteem a form of criticism which takes pride in limiting its investigations to tangible realities, and which has the courage to keep still rather than talk nonsense, even if this discretion is interpreted as “intellectualism”; a form of criticism which does not seek to impose prefabricated views on the reader, asking not merely his adherence, but his actual participation.
Published in Toward Jazz. New York: Grove Press, 1962, pp. 45–50.