not a birch-twig for the castigation of offenders. — Arthur Symons
The role of the critic in jazz is the same as in the other arts: to serve as a bridge between artist and audience. At its rare best, criticism enhances appreciation and understanding and facilitates the development of perception and taste.
Music, the most abstract of arts, is perhaps the most difficult to criticize. Words are not equivalent to notes, but frequent use of musical notation and technical terminology-aside from restricting the critic’s audience to those familiar with them-is not a substitute for insight.
Before discussing the critic’s role, however, it is necessary to briefly distinguish between criticism and other forms of writing about music. In the jazz world, unfortunately, almost anyone who writes about the music is reflexively called a critic, though only a small percentage of the published words about jazz can legitimately be defined as criticism. A record or performance review in Down Beat or a college newspaper, for example, is almost always just that—a review. Which is to say, a reflection of the writer’s personal opinion, without reference to a larger judgmental framework and bereft of historical or aesthetic context. Such writing is useful only insofar as it contains specific information, such as how well a particular artist is featured, how good or bad the recorded sound is, when the music was recorded, etc. Everything else depends on prior acquaintance with the writer’s work, which enables the reader to determine to what extent his own taste overlaps with that of the writer.
Nor is the kind of interview with an artist that makes up the bulk of articles in jazz periodicals representative of criticism. It is a species of reporting, in which the writer/interviewer’s voice and opinions are secondary to those of the subject. Reviewing and reporting are facets of journalism, not of criticism as such.
True criticism is as rare in jazz as in other fields. It is a discipline that requires thorough acquaintance with general principles of aesthetics and the specific nature and history of the music, as well as the writing skills necessary to clarify and explicate the critic’s ideas. And these ideas need to be original and stimulating. Clearly, it is impossible to become a critic overnight. It is impossible to take seriously the opinions of a writer on jazz whose listening experience begins with John Coltrane, or even with Charlie Parker.
The bulk of writing on jazz, even in books, is not criticism in the sense I’m defining the term. Much of it is biography and history, some of it is musicology and analysis. Many jazz fans are acquainted with at least the outlines of the life of Charlie Parker; few have any genuine understanding of his contribution to the art of improvisation. A book like Bird Lives!, which tells you plenty (much of it untrue) about the former and next to nothing about the latter, is fairly representative of the bulk of jazz literature.
What, then, is a true work of jazz criticism? The list is not long: Andre Hodeir’s Jazz: Its Evolution And Essence, Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz; Martin Williams’s The Jazz Tradition (recently revised and enlarged) and The Art Of Jazz (a collection of essays by various writers, edited by Williams); some of the pieces in the many collections of Whitney Balliett’s New Yorker essays; Albert Murray’s Stomping The Blues; Gary Giddins’s Riding On A Blue Note; the pieces on jazz and jazz musicians in Ralph Ellison’s Shadow And Act, and a few more.
The writers represented in this admittedly personal selection by no means always agree with each other, but they share a solid knowledge of the music’s history, an understanding of its nature and aims, and—not least—good ears and writing skills. They also share the ability to distinguish between the timeless and the ephemeral, and a sense of the place of jazz in the artistic and social scheme of things. No one who reads these critics can fail to come away with an urge to hear or re-hear the music they write about, and with an enhanced appreciation of that music.
That, in a nutshell, is what the role of the critic should be: to guide the listener (who of course may also be a player) to the best the art has to offer, and to make the listener aware of what to listen for—and why. Hearing and responding to music is not a passive act, and should not be only an emotional and visceral reaction. The true critic must have an intense commitment to what he writes about and be able to transmit his sense of its value.
This is not to say that other forms of jazz writing have no significance. We want to know what musicians think about their own (and others’) music and what motivates them. We want to read about the lives of the great jazz creators, just as we want to read about other extraordinary people. And we need the day-to-day reviews in the jazz and general press as a guide to keep up with what is going on and coming out. The duties of writers in these areas are clear and simple: to report fairly and factually and not to misquote or misrepresent. Do your research diligently and present it clearly if you’re writing a biography or biographical essay; be fair and keep in mind what the artist’s intention is when reviewing a performance, live or recorded. And never patronize your subject (or your reader) or assume the mantle of omnipotence.
In fairness to the jazz journalist, it must be pointed out that a critic has the advantage of selectivity; he can concentrate on masterpieces and draw on years of leisurely listening, while the reviewer must deal with what he is assigned to cover, be it good, indifferent or bad, and has to write against a deadline. But that is good discipline and training. Most critics began as journalists, and the best journalists are careful and conscientious craftsmen.
Ultimately, it is the fault of critics and reviewers that the term criticism has acquired essentially negative connotations. To criticize is not synonymous with pulling apart or finding fault—to the contrary, as I have tried to show, it ought to be synonymous with discovery or illumination. The true role of the critic is to lead the listener to the best, and to explain why it is the best—to be a guide, not a judge.
By Dan Morgenstern
[Originally published in 1984 in the program for the twenty-sixth annual Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival]