The following passage was written earlier in the year. It is the review of a record by the Bud Shank Quartet, called Bag of Blues. “Here is the present reigning king of alto sax jazz with a trio support knocking out the greatest beat you’ll hear in many an L.P. The slows are interpreted with maximum taste and musical sympathy; the swingers start and carry on with an intense exuberance inside a highly relaxed framework. The group sounds like a unit that agrees with the selection of each other’s company. The tunes are finally selected by Shank who plays them with a conviction and a swinging style that seems to lack any inhibitions….Bag of Blues, an original by Bob Cooper, has the most interesting chord progression, and both Shank and Williamson are right with it. For swing, one tempo is as good as the other for they are all loaded with it….Bud Shank is making one of the biggest contributions to modern jazz, and he is ever improving with each record.” In its place, i.e. in the record review section of a jazz magazine, with perhaps fifty other reviews, it probably passes unnoticed. Out of its place, deprived of the friendly protection of the other reviews, it is exposed as sheer bad writing. Often it is ungrammatical; everywhere it is ugly and vulgar. And invariably with vulgarity, ugliness and bad grammar goes lack of any precise meaning. If you read through the review a dozen times, you will find that it says nothing. It must be difficult to say something about nondescript records month after month, but in that case it would be better merely to mention them rather than write about them.
It is admittedly the worst example of writing about jazz encountered. It is useful however, because it has in it all the faults that are to be found wherever you look in any jazz magazine. It is badly written. It is vulgar and colloquial, e.g. “…they are all loaded with it…”; many of its words are meaningless, e.g. “intense exuberance inside a highly relaxed framework,” etc.; what little imagery it has is as sad as dough, e.g. “here is the present reigning king of alto sax jazz…”; it is full of jazz jargon, e.g. “slows”, “swingers”, etc. But its worst fault is the number of pre-fabricated phrases (to use Orwell’s term) in it. Such a sentence as “…the slows are interpreted with maximum taste and musical sympathy…” is pre-fabricated. It is not the reviewer’s own. He knew the phrase from his reading of other jazz criticism, had read it so often that it had stuck in his memory and he finally regurgitated it here to suit the situation for which he could find no words of his own.
The bugbear with these pre-fabricated phrases is that they pass unchallenged. They sound fairly euphonious and help to pad out a sentence. A critic has no need to write what he thinks, he has only to rummage about a bit to find a phrase that suits the occasion. Here and there he may have to alter a word or two, but the pattern remains basically the same. Examples: “To my way of thinking” (i.e. in my opinion) this record “shows everyone to advantage” and “afforded us the opportunity (i.e. we were able) to assess the merits…”; “…it is not lacking in rhythmic vitality.…”, “…it caused my listening faculties (i.e. ears) to be alerted…,” for it “swings like mad.” X’s playing “leaves much to be desired.” Musician Y has “evolved a fully personal style” and has an “obvious feeling for jazz (the blues, etc.).” Z plays “with maximum taste” (“inherent good taste”) and shows his “discerning use of….” Here the writer supplies the last word and puts whatever he thinks fit. In this way you can piece together whole, meaningless sentences with the appropriate phrases. The acknowledged way to end a review neatly is to either exhort the reader to buy the record or say “…So-and-so is sorely missed on record these days….” or “…one wonders why So-and-so has not been heard more frequently on record…” It is the perfect end to the paragraph. By using such a ready-made phrase the reviewer can get it all off his chest, can finish his review and feel satisfied with it. It doesn’t mean very much, but it is a convenient way of writing – just as eating tinned food is convenient. Neither way is genuine. In the writer’s case he is not forced to think. A ready-made phrase does his thinking and his writing for him.
The poor writer cannot invent his own images, but finds ready use for those that have been handed down from earlier generations of his tribe, and this is allowed because readers have come to expect nothing better. A drummer, say, is described as “a veritable Gibraltar” or “a tower of strength” in the rhythm section. Among the brass you find that the “highly-charged trumpet passages achieved an electric atmosphere.” They “widened the eyes of modern pundits.” Or a longer example, again written about one of the Basie men. About Henry Coker, one writer said: “At the Royal Festival Hall his section leads and solos shot like rockets to the far recesses of the auditorium so strongly were they projected.” The writer tried to assist his reader to visualise Coker’s section leads by comparing them to rockets, i.e. to something sharp and tangible, in order to form a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. This is praiseworthy. But once more the writer had a hackneyed image in mind and it hypnotised him. He was forced to use it. It had sad results. The only picture he evokes is a ludicrous one, the sort that makes think he cannot be sincere.
Meaningless words are another necessity for the jazz writer, words without which he could not say his piece. The list is a mile long and would be longer if sufficient time had been spent sniffing them out. In this category are found “extrovert”, “introvert”, “spirited” (as in solos), “personal”, “angular”, “esoteric”, “lyrically” (e.g. “Cleo improvises lyrically at a fast tempo”), “sensitive”, “life”, “faculties”, “discerning”, “magnificent”, “wonderful”, “memorable”, “fine”, and “tremendous.” They are meaningless words used not only in jazz, let it be said, but also in art and literary criticism. “Facility” crops up again and again. One writer recently described Flip Phillips as: “A saxophonist with control and facility…” In the next line he says of Phillips’ guitarist (Herb Ellis) “…he plays the guitar with what seems limitless facility…” “Facility” in these circumstances sounds suspiciously as if it has no strict meaning for the writer. Yet “facility” and hundreds of words like it are used repeatedly in jazz writing. This repetition is permitted because they are words that have no precise meaning. They are hard to define, so it is less trouble to accept them as the writer’s opinion.
A close relative of the “meaningless word” family is jazz jargon. Like all jargon it means nothing to an outside reader; and, I suspect, not much to those inside, if only they will be honest. What, for example, do the two words “underrated” and “overrated” convey when they have been applied to literally hundreds of jazz musicians? Each month in any jazz magazine you can find at least five to whom either “underrated” or “overrated” are applied. I imagine a host of the underrated weeping on each other’s shoulders; and a crowd of the overrated smiling smugly because they have been able to fool somebody. These two have become part of the jazz writer’s bag of words, from which they are shaken indiscriminately. Their brothers are “torrid”, “brash”, “booting”, and “earthy”. As words of musical criticism they are peculiar to jazz and unintelligible to layman and jazz fan alike. “Aficionado” is also a jargon word. It was imported into jazz writing, I should imagine, to avoid using “fan” or “enthusiast”. It is met under the forms of “jazz aficionado” or “the European jazz aficionado” or, as one writer had it two months ago, “afficionado”. (Misprints are another curse of jazz magazines.) Yet this word is found nowhere else but in jazz; it sounds a little precious and is just as unsatisfactory as “fan” or “enthusiast” without being English. “Jazz-wise”, “solo-wise” and all the other possible combinations ending in ‘wise’ are also not English, but have been brought from America to add to the muddle of jazz jargon.
I am not against Americanisms when they add something fresh to the English language or make it more expressive. “Guy”, for example, is a useful synonym for “chap” or “fellow”. But often Americanisms are too vulgar and colloquial to be written in criticism. They are inevitably crossed out of schoolboys’ essays with the comment: “You have been seeing too many American films!” That is what our British critics must have done when one of them can write “…Basie never got to play any organ…” or “…and I should emphasise that this is one helluva book to play…” Other inadmissible Americanisms are “from way back”, “in the can” and “for my money”, which latter now seems to have penetrated into spoken English from jazz criticism. And does “outside” require a following “of”, e.g. “he is a major soloist outside of Gillespie?” Or is this the American habit of adding preposition to preposition?
There are other, less tangible faults that mar jazz criticism. They are more wrong approaches to the subject than anything else. They were seen no better than in reports earlier in the year on the Count Basie band’s tour, an event which was the innocent cause of a mass of hasty writing. I quote from one of the reports: “to sit, alternately tensed and relaxed, in my grey plush seat at the Royal Festival Hall in London (a hall, incidentally, so acoustically accurate that the grace of many a ballet performance there has been negated by the continual patter-patter-patter sound of the sylph-like creatures’ footfalls) and witness, from a distance of only twenty feet, Count Basie’s first ever concert on English soil was as invigorating an experience as an initial viewing of an Ibsen play with a West End cast after reading it in book form for many years…” etc., etc.. Of course, it may have been like that. But it does seem a bit far-fetched, and even more so when the next paragraph goes on: “William Faulkner’s volcanic doctrine (after which in the original came an asterisk and at the bottom of the page, The Paris Review, 1956): (‘An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they chose him… His only responsibility is to his art… The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies’) would appear to have fired sixteen zealous missionaries when the full might of the Basie ensemble swings into action.”
On second thoughts I would say it was definitely far-fetched and totally irrelevant to the Count Basie concert. We are not interested in whether the writer was relaxed or tensed at the time, nor in what sort of seat he was sitting, nor in ballet performances in the hall, nor in words like “negate” for “spoil” or “initial” for “first”. Comparing the first Basie concert in England to an “initial viewing” of an Ibsen play is irrelevant and hopelessly complicated. A comparison should be to the point, straightforward and not spread over several lines unless it is a good one. The writer takes the best part of a paragraph to give us Faulkner’s “volcanic doctrine” and concludes that the Basie orchestra was apparently full of this doctrine. It was a wild conclusion. It was a conclusion that could only be thought, but not written. It is the sort of thing one keeps to oneself for fear of being laughed at. It is altogether too naïve and enthusiastic. Enthusiasms need to be toned down to stand translation into print. Yet so many jazz writers, given the opportunity, go on blithely and write out their day-dreams. They must consider that a high-falutin thought or quotation will get them through, no matter what, on the assumption that a man who quotes and seems to be on friendly terms with both Ibsen and Faulkner cannot help but be learned and know what he’s talking about. In reality it sounds comic and obscures the meaning of what is really there. The trouble with enthusiasm is that you tire and the trouble with a high-falutin style is how to keep it up. This article opened to the sound of pomp, but half-way it began to flag and lapse into vulgarities of the “this is one helluva book to play” variety until the end. One style, however bad, is preferable to a mixture, especially a mixture of the inflated and the vulgar. As it was, it had six wearying pages and three photographs. The photos were good, but the writing could have been done with more honour in two pages.
In order to forestall criticism, I must confess to having been inspired by George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language. But I am not ashamed of that inspiration, since Orwell’s remarks bear repeating, and what he said about political writing can be applied fairly to jazz writing. I realise the risk of the method of close analysis chosen, since any piece, if you set out with that intention, can be made to look silly. I hope I have not done that. As wild as they may seem, the quotations (although many and tedious) have not been concocted. They were picked from the reviews and articles of twelve writers over a period of three months, as they appeared in Jazz Journal and Jazz Monthly. Just as many could have been found in any three month period. They are the symptoms of widespread bad writing about jazz. That does not mean there are no capable writers. There are; but these are generally older men with years of experience. I am considering, as far as possible, the usual impression jazz writing makes and saying what I think is wrong with it, although in this no doubt I have not avoided the very errors I complain about. But I am concerned that good English should be written about jazz, even in the humblest record review. I am concerned that, while there is so much talk of establishing valid criteria in jazz criticism, there should also be a language fit to express those criteria.
By Colin Johnson
[Originally published in Jazz Monthly, 1958]
Colin Johnson’s “Jazz and the English Language” strikes pretty close to home, but I doubt if it will have much effect on JM’s crtics—if you were to delete all the “meaningless” words from jazz criticism there would be precious little left. I too have often wondered what words like ’angular’ and ’muscular’ meant when applied to a jazz solo. I guess what you have to do is make up your own meanings, over a period of time, based on some combination of word-assocation and conditioned reflex. Maybe a list of definitions would be of some help in translating these esoteric reviews—although I doubt it. Here are a few of my own interpretations.
Funky: By some miracle, I find myself in complete, or almost complete, agreement with Raymond Horricks about this word. It’s awful. But to tell the truth, I’ve yet to hear it used in conversation. It seems to be one of those synthetic colloquialisms, like ‘liquorice stick’, that never really live away from the printed page or the movie soundtrack. I read in Down Beat that it means ‘down to earth’ or ‘groovy’, but since Milt Jackson seems to be the number one exponent of funk these definitions don’t seem to fit too well. Examples of recorded funk: “Bluesology” by the MJQ (the Atlantic, not the Savoy version) and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” by Carl Perkins.
Muscular: This probably doesn’t mean anything except ‘loud’, but to me it signifies a ‘rippling’ solo. Any documentary evidence notwithstanding, muscular can only be legitimately applied to a tenor solo—any other recipients are fakers.
Virile: This is another tenor word, although altos—usually Phil Woods—can qualify. It means, generally, that the musician in question is very young, probably a Negro—or Phil Woods—and plays the hard-bop style. He ripples a lot, too.
Angular: Russ Freeman’s style of playing. The inference to be drawn when this word is used is that the reviewer doesn’t really understand what he hears but suspects that it may be good, so he cleverly avoids committing himself. May also be used on Thelonious Monk, and, since it is a piano word, Gerry Mulligan, on the occasions when he forsakes the baritone for the keyboard.
Emerge: This is a popular one, although not limited to jazz. “Duke Jordan emerged in the late ’forties”—Whitney Balliett in The Saturday Review. This brings to mind (my mind) a picture of Duke Jordan struggling up from one of those smoky manholes on 52nd Street, dragging after him a piano stool and a briefcase full of transcriptions of Bud Powell solos.
Facility: This has a quite definite meaning—it signifies that the soloist referred to can, and does, play a lot of notes—similarly, Technique. Any other definition is spurious and inadmissible.
Booting: Is more difficult to pin down, but it is usually used when the tenor soloist (this is another strictly tenor adjective) is either playing with a big band or Jazz at the Philharmonic. In either case, loudness is the key factor, and a honk or two won’t come amiss.
And so on, indefinitely. I do think it mightn’t be a bad idea, though, if the various critics were to list typical recorded examples of at least the most-used of these esoteric adjectives. It should make interesting reading and would probably throw a good deal of light on some of the misconceptions we budget-bound collectors have been labouring under.
By Peter Turley
[Originally published as part of “Random Reflections on Jazz” in Jazz Monthly, December 1958, p.28]