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Race and Jazz

Race and Jazz Criticism

By Published: October 3, 2011
To me, criticism is a form of writing, a branch of literature. I think the most important tools that a critic has have to do with the ability to write; you've got to put sentences and paragraphs together (with the good help of editors, obviously). That's an absolute necessity in the tool kit of a critic. I think you have to have a background in the history of criticism. I think you have to have read a whole lot of criticism, and not necessarily just in your field, but across the arts: literature, film, music, art, mass media.

I do think there is such a thing as a critical sense. I think there is a certain kind of person who develops an ability to experience a work of art in such a way that they can understand its formal aesthetic properties, they can make sense of how it works, they can put it into historical context. Most importantly, however, they can write about it in an interesting and engaging way. They may not be right.

The history of jazz criticism and all arts criticism is littered with examples of what, retrospectively, seem to be the wrong evaluations of the music, or the play, or the literature. I don't think you would put together a reader of the best criticism in history, and start by seeking out the pieces that seemed to be rendering what turns out to be a correct thumbs up or thumbs down opinion about something in a review. I think you're going to go for the stuff that seems to help a reader understand something about the experience of listening to the music, or seeing the play, or reading the book.

I think when it comes to jazz criticism, you have to have ears; you have to be a great listener. You have to be able to write about sound. I'm not sure that being a musician or being trained in musicology necessarily trains you to do that well. In some cases it does. In my book I talked about how Martin Williams, one of the great jazz critics, even after he had consolidated his reputation as a great jazz critic with his book The Jazz Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1970, revised 1992), he continued to have anxiety about his authority as a critic. He wasn't a musician. He did not read music. He was always, in that period, hyping Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
. He thought that Schuller's work would eclipse whatever he might've accomplished in The Jazz Tradition.

Schuller's work, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Early Development (Oxford University Press, 1968), had come out before that but Martin was always talking up the proposed three-volume history of jazz, the definitive work. So far there's been the early volume and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1991). I understand that Gunther Schuller is going to have a memoir or biography in place of a third volume. I think I heard that from his son George.

Now, there's some really important stuff in both those books. I think Early Jazz is probably the better book. But I wouldn't say that Gunther Schuller establishes himself as a better jazz critic than Martin Williams in those books, as a result of the fact that he is a musician himself—a French horn player.

AAJ: Well, we should make clear distinctions among the critic, the musicologist and the historian. I'd say, as you've alluded to, that a good critic will have a good grasp of the history of the culture from which the art form springs, and a strong familiarity with literary criticism, and criticism in other fields, other disciplines, other art forms. That allows a critic to have a more rich underpinning and background of reference.

One tool of any writer is the use of metaphor. So, just on a very basic level, the more references you have, the more metaphors you can use, and the more analogies you can make that help the reader to connect with what, in so many cases, is so hard to put into words—when you're talking about a non-textual and a non-narrative artistic medium such as music.

JG: And the kind of writing we're talking about, the target audience for it is not necessarily for people who are trained as musicians. And your job, nevertheless, is to make them hear the music somehow, or to convey your experience of the music as a listener of the music. As Whitney Balliett put it, "Music is not there." The architecture critic is looking at the building and the building is there. The literary critic, there's a text; in music, there's a notated score. But you don't want your criticism about the notated score, you want criticism about the sound in the air, and how do you talk about that?

Metaphor, and the ability to use metaphor, is absolutely indispensable. As long as we're talking about Balliett, metaphor was his thing. People who didn't like him thought his metaphors sucked. And the people who liked them thought they were really clever.

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