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Paul de Barros: Critically Speaking

By Published: March 13, 2007

AAJ: What about some of your contemporaries?

PdB: Well the people that I really trust, depending on what they're writing about, are Kevin Whitehead, who does the NPR Fresh Air, Lynn Darroch in Portland, Kirk Silsbee in Los Angeles, these are guys who if they write something, I'll read it from start to finish. I might not agree with them, but I'll take them seriously.

AAJ: Locally, you recently reviewed Doug Ramsey's book about Paul Desmond (Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond).

PdB: I thought Doug's book, as I wrote in my review of it, was like the dream book that any jazz musician would want to have written about him.

AAJ: Jim Wilke doesn't do criticism, but he's been in Seattle broadcasting jazz for a long time, and in a way he's a critic by what he plays on his radio shows.

PdB: Well Jim's not a critic; he's very specifically not a critic. But I guess I would say one of the things that attracted me to those early writers I mentioned is that they weren't just critics, they were advocates for the music and that's the reason I couldn't sit still in 1983 and '84 and just watch the scene go down the drain and say, "Well, here I am writing for the Seattle Times; the jazz scene is going in down the drain, I'll see you later." I couldn't do that; it wasn't in my makeup. I wanted to fix it, I mean I didn't fix it, but I tried and other people came in and tried to help, and that's how I think of Jim.

He's an advocate for the music and he's a voice for the music. He has good taste. He's an honorable person. We're so lucky to have somebody who's so devoted, who tapes people at their concerts and presents them with respect, so that you've got a jazz community here who says, "Yeah, I really like Marc Seales. I heard him on the radio the other night." And they'll say that in the same breath that they say, "I really like Brad Mehldau." Because it's presented with the same honor and respect and in the same (time) slot on Friday night that they might hear that other person (on Jazz After Hours). That really counts for a lot.

AAJ: As a critic you're going to step on some people's toes and upset some people. You've got to deal with a lot of hurt feelings. Is that hard for you to live with?

PdB: Only when people get really so angry that they don't want to talk to me. That's the biggest sorrow that I have with regard to that: musicians who become so angry about a point of view that they just can't see that the world isn't all about them. Ernestine Anderson is so angry at me because of a review I wrote fifteen years ago that she just can't get over herself and that's really sad.

AAJ: I think of the Broadway shows in New York, and I don't know if this is a fair comparison, but this is a livelihood issue for some artists, if they get a bad review the show's over.

PdB: I don't think it's a fair comparison in Ernestine's case; I certainly haven't hurt her career. But you're right, as I tell the Cornish (College of the Arts) students every year: If you get a bad review, unless there's something in it that you feel is particularly valid that you can use, just throw it away and try to forget about it. But some people take things so personally that they just can't get over it. The saddest part of the job for me is that somebody would cease to be your friend because they got a bad review, because I count a lot of musicians as friends and that means a lot to me, not only because they are honest critics themselves of what's going on in the scene, and I like them. That's part of my milieu.

AAJ: Don't you find it difficult to write an honest review criticizing a musician who is also a friend?

PdB: It's difficult, but I came out of a poetry and literature scene in Vancouver and in the Bay area where people did that routinely. In the academic environment it's the same way. To make honest and constructive criticisms shouldn't mean, in an ideal world, that you can't be friends with somebody.

But, in fact, for some people it does; for others it doesn't. It depends on the artist. Jovino Santos Neto is a great friend of mine and I just panned the shit out of something that he did in Down Beat, he knows that, but that's part of my job and part of his job. Other people might feel completely the other way, like you somehow stabbed them in the back. Part of the sadness is that those kinds of friendships, those kinds of relationships are in jeopardy, and I always say that to people, you know, Bill Frisell is coming over here for dinner and tomorrow I could write a review and say, this record sucks. Bill knows what that's about.

AAJ: It makes me think of musicians and how they hesitate to criticize each other's playing, because the moment you criticize someone's playing, then that player is not as comfortable, not following his natural inclinations.

PdB: I think you're talking about two different things. If you're working with a musician and you criticize him, that's part of the dynamics of being a bandleader. So if you're a bandleader and you say, "I don't like the way you're doing this," you can say that in a lot of different ways: you can fire people, you can ask them respectfully to do something different, or you can tell them, "Man, that really wasn't happening, I think you can do better."

And of course that does create tension, but in another arena, where musicians are speaking privately to me or to you or to themselves about other musicians, I find them much harder critics of each other than I am on anybody, in the same way I am of writers. When something's your profession, you don't have to have an Olympian view of the whole scene. I have to take in everything. I have to listen to a lot of music I wouldn't listen to otherwise, but I don't have to read any writing I don't want to read. So when it comes to writers, novelists, poets, other jazz writers, I can tell you straight out who I think sucks, and I'm just not going to fuck with their stuff, I don't care about it, and I think some musicians are the same way: "I'm not going to listen to that shit, that guy can't even play." How many times have you heard somebody say that?

I can't say that in public; that's not really useful to a reader to say, "This guy can't even play." I've said it a couple of times when it really needed to be said, but for the most part that's not a conversation that a reader needs to have with a critic. But I understand what you're saying about the tension created by musicians criticizing each other publicly in a playing situation.

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