22 May 2011

Critiquing the Critics

Jazz bloggers like two things: navel gazing and "what does it all mean?" questions. When the two can be combined, hoo boy does the blogosphere erupt in hand-wringing soliloquies (I'm only being slightly facetious here).

Peter Hum:
There needs to be some critical distance when it comes to jazz writing. It's not quite like holding politicians to account, but even if a jazz writer is an unabashed advocate for the music, I think there has to be some sense that the critic likes some discs or musicians more than others and is more than an uncritical booster. Reader will have a better sense of how their tastes line up with a reviewer. And the absolutely gushing reviews have more meaning if there are lukewarm and even negative reviews to offset them. For comparison's sake: what would you think of a film reviewer who only gave out four-star reviews? And yet, you can easily find the equivalent in the jazz Interweb.
Jon Wertheim:
There are so many jazz blogs out there, and too many of them are wary of making any definite pronouncements. In doing so, they cheat us of their true potential. 
Anthony Dean-Harris:
Should we hold back negative criticism because our scene is so small and squabbling would be detrimental to our overall proliferation? This seems to have been the thinking for some time now in a era of logorrheic praise that borders on the fellacious. Yet while the this positivity may have turned jazz press into the Lollipop Guild (yours truly included), it may be time for us to move on to true criticism. Just as we have in the last few years moved from a genre with a very limited internet presence to that of one in which a jazz blog of noodling pontification is a stone’s throw away, maybe we can start making the Wertheim-noted value judgments that every other genre has been making for a while. It may be time to lift that moratorium.
It should be noted that there exists a variance among types of critics, thanks to the democratization of media through the use of the Internet. Writers like Peter Hum and Ben Ratliff, who are paid to write full-time about jazz, should cover a substantial breadth of jazz such that they are bound to write critical reviews in the course of their day-to-day writing duties. I like that I can count on Hum to opine on just about every significant new release.

But people like Patrick Jarenwattananon, Anthony Dean-Harris, Alex Rodriguez, and others whose jazz writing is only a part of what they do cannot so easily cover as many new releases and performances. Is it better for them to simply champion what they really love, and spend less energy on what they do not favor? Surely their readers are smart enough to figure out that they are not obnoxious fanboys, just writers who have chosen to expend their energy on the musicians who get their writerly juices flowing.

I will say, though, that one of the books which most stimulated me in the past few years was Stanley Crouch's anthology Considering Genius, mostly because I found myself disagreeing with him often. As a result, I had to interrogate my own rebuttals to his points, which made my arguments and thoughts about jazz much better articulated and deepened my understanding of why I like certain albums or artists so much. So perhaps a little negativity is in order. At the very least, the negative stuff can often be fun to write, if the writer is really into a takedown piece.

And which writers among us don't like giving a rhetorical smackdown every once in a while?


Anonymous said...

Hear hear! Thanks for your distinction between those such as Hum and Ratliff who do this full-time and those such as myself and Anthony and Jon who are in many ways self-appointed jazz writers.

I, for one, have spent much less time writing recently because I have been busy programming a new project for WBGO which will launch later this summer.

The "jazz blogosphere" seems to me to be in a transitional place these days, and I'm not sure exactly where it's all going. The camaraderie that enlivened the discourse two years ago when I started blogging does seem to have diminished somewhat ...

Anonymous said...

Hey man, thanks for mentioning me here (and humbling me a bit), and thanks for taking your own position on this.

That aside, I loved seeing Crouch's name here. I've brought him up a few times when I talk about this issue. Considering Genius has an honored place on my bookshelf for the same reason you mention - because I disagree with about 90% of the book! It's refreshing to read, and it's always a reminder to me that negative opinions aren't always a trun-off, but can sometimes be inspirational in that they get me running in the other direction.