09 February 2011

On Jazz Critics

Last week, the LA Times ran an interview with Wynton Marsalis, in which Wynton said of music critics:
A lot of times, reviewers don't really know enough about what you're doing to have an intelligent comment on it. It's hard to sit down and listen to something one time. A musician has worked on something, it has a lot of references, and it's full of things the reviewer doesn't know. A person doing a jazz review -- how much jazz do they know? How much symphonic music do they actually know? I understand the practical aspect of it. Yours is a piece they reviewed on Tuesday. They have a piece to review on Wednesday. I'm not mad at them.
Martin Williams had this to say about jazz criticism in 1989:
I think that the state of criticism of jazz in America is low, but I also think that the criticism of movies, plays, music in general, and painting is also low. Literature is lucky -- it has a top level of criticism which is an excellent counter to the average American book review.

The innate critical ability is not enough in itself. It needs to be trained, explored, disciplined, and tested like any other talent.
We have all heard it said that the criticism of jazz was once left to amateurs. That is not entirely true, nor is there any lack of amateurs today. But we do have now several writing about jazz who, although they really know what criticism is, don't know enough about music. On the other hand, there are some who know music, but don't know what criticism is. In jazz, of course, there is danger in knowing music since we are apt to apply the categories and standards of Western music rigidly and wrongly thereby. And there is also danger in knowing jazz: we may reject truly creative things because our knowledge of the past makes us think we know what a man ought to be doing [ed. note: Remind you of anyone, Wynton?] -- but that is true in any art.

The man who reviews jazz records has a terrible task: he can never, like his "classical" brother, judge an interpretation or performance against a norm because every jazz record is, in effect, a new work. Also, as George Orwell said of the hack book reviewer, day after day he must report on performances to which he has had little or no reaction worth committing to print -- and that is true of the best critics and is neither a reflection on them nor necessarily on the music.

On the other hand, there could not possibly be as much true creativity in jazz as we are constantly told there is, even though the medium is very much alive. How many novels, plays, poems, symphonies, paintings done in a year are really excellent?

-from Martin Williams, Jazz in Its Time

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