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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Opinion/Editorial

Some Notes on Jazz Writing and Scholarship

By Published: January 29, 2007
Abstractly, such anecdotes tell us little or nothing about the music itself, but they do create a sense of closeness to these individuals and of being "present at the creation. At best, such writing becomes part of the legends of the jazz world, the stories that we suppose are also expressed through the music itself. At worst, a kind of snobbery is involved, in which the critic places himself above the mundane worlds of players drifting across the country and world, their personal struggles, their flirtations with narcotics and the law, their idiosyncratic tastes and distastes. Such pseudo-sophisticated and pompous drivel unfortunately populates many pages of what passes for jazz scholarship and criticism. The identification, which should make the music accessible to our hearts and minds, degenerates into gossip. That is why many musicians do not like critics and journalists. They appreciate honest criticism, but they know that smugness and superiority interfere with the musical experience.

Not too long ago, I went to a hotel bar to hear a favorite singer, Joanna Pascale, with a great backup quartet. She and her band know me as a jazz writer and friend, and came up to me during a break. I found myself wanting to say something brilliant to prove my mettle as a journalist. Suddenly, I realized that for me to proseletize to them would be the height of arrogance on my part. The spirit of jazz is the joy and sorrow of living. With all it's profound musicological innovations, jazz is fundamentally a "gut level blending of happiness and sadness, light and dark, rich colors and shades of gray. For the musicians, it's "instinctive and "intuitive . For the listener, it's "relational and "evocative. Let it be.

Another level of jazz writing, requiring more skill and musical sensibility than the above, consists of the musical insight that help the listener understand the music itself, and sometimes sets a tone for a genre or trend in jazz itself. A quintessential example of such insight occurred when Nat Hentoff referred to John Coltrane's emerging fluidity on the saxophone as "sheets of sound. This simple phrase gave all of us an image and a metaphor for Trane's evolving sonic beauty and for his aesthetic sensibility.

Lewis Porter's comparison of Trane's intensity to the vocalizations of a Southern preacher, extended this understanding of "the Coltrane sound. All About Jazz itself is rich with such analytic gems that enrich our appreciation of what the musicians are trying to "say, and how they are trying to say it. The best of such writing is simultaneously abstract and concrete, analytic yet relevant to the necessity of the musical moment. To "know means both to cognitively grasp the context and at the same time to have "carnal knowledge, to establish an intimate connection. Barriers are broken, yet structure emerges.

The down side of these proffered critiques and insights that occur within the ongoing process of jazz journalism (sometimes collected into books, such as the prolific work of Ira Gitler and of Gary Giddins) is that, intended or not, they often establish clichés that inhibit the spontaneity of the listener and force the musicians into categories. The phrase "West Coast Jazz, for instance, is, in my view, totally meaningless, both geographically and conceptually. One of the progenitors of this so-called "style is Bob Brookmeyer, who comes from Kansas City. Gerry Mulligan himself spent relatively little time in California. Anyone who considers Chet Baker as an exemplar of the "West Coast approach misses his inspirations from Bix Beiderbecke and his indebtedness to Charlie Parker. "Cool jazz is another such misnomer. The recording The Birth of the Cool was neither a new gestation ("birth ) nor was it especially "cool. What that recording did accomplish was to bring together a diverse "committee of up and coming players who were extending bebop in various directions. There is no particular "cool style that characterizes this recording. What is amazing about it is the wide variety of approaches that somehow came together for that event. Throughout his multi-phased career, Davis had a unique way of bringing musicians together and creating fresh ideas. But his music had many musical sources, even the "hot work songs of Southern chain gangs and plantation workers. Jazz critics have unfortunately closed their readers off to such connections by taking a small element in the music and blowing it out of proportion.


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