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A Scumbling Writer: The Process, Mistakes and Lessons

By Published: September 2, 2012
Scumbling is a process in art whereby the artist experiments with glaze or other medium. The reason I chose it as the name for this column was that it allows me to include many topics related to jazz. One of those is writing. Many people are put off writing about music because they either think they do not know enough, are scared of negative feedback from "experts" or are worried they will be unable to contact people or that those contacts will be elusive and aloof. But there are too few people writing about jazz, or writing well, and I would encourage more to do it.

Recently, things changed for me. My work contract finished, I had completed reviews and commissions and suddenly everything, from being manic, came to a stop. Not a slowdown but a sudden, grinding, full stop. This can be a problem because when I am not busy I think and my thoughts can lead me to dangerous places. I began to question why I write or who for. I write a fair amount. Most of the work is paid, some is not, but I do it because I enjoy what I write.

Music is such a broad subject that I cannot see how anyone can fail to find an area which suits them and a genre they feel happy in so, for me, it is like slipping into a second skin when I go to gigs and write reviews and articles.

However, lately a sneaking suspicion crept in that made me doubt the validity of what I do. I began to wonder if it really mattered. It is the answering of this question which led me to want to encourage and share with other writers—or those starting out—the overall message: don't stop. Writers are the voice of the people and music makers, and if we stop there will be no still small voice for musicians, especially those who are losing connections with their listeners. We are their ears and eyes and, even if sometimes it feels like a long hill we climb, if we give up, everything can come tumbling down. Many musicians are surrounded by people who say all the right things. It benefits them to do this but sometimes, it does not benefit the players. A writer has the freedom to be honest, sometimes blunt and to sometimes offer a link back to the real world.

We must not become arrogant. The pen is mightier than the sword is very true, but I learned a valuable lesson recently. It started with a musician who I had been in contact with and felt was becoming a friend giving me his number and saying if ever I was in his area to give him a call. However, when I wrote the next piece and called him to check a couple of things I got a lady telling me that, "the number you have called is not recognized." Suddenly, the penny dropped. While I was writing about him, his music and views, I was useful. I was the voice he had lost because he had been out of the industry for a while. However, once I had "done my bit," I was not worth keeping in contact with so I needed to be put back in the background. I felt an idiot and angry also.

I sent an email which let him know I was upset at his attitude and ended the relationship on a professional and friendship level. However, when I checked the number he had given me against the number in my contacts list, I had keyed it in wrong—I had therefore lost a potentially valuable contact due to my cynical approach. The lesson is never let your heart rule your head as a writer, and always check your facts (and numbers). It is too easy to become involved—after all, that is the essence of jazz listening and it is hard to remain detached as a writer.

And therein lies another potential problem. As a writer, how can you support musicians when some are cynical, overcautious and arrogant? Some have been hurt themselves by journalists and are understandably incredibly cautious when you approach them. Should you, in turn, approach everything with a skeptical view, or should you leave yourself open to being ignored, fobbed off or having to listen to a diatribe, none of which you can use, in the hope of finding a small nugget for your readers which will prove interesting? How do you remain objective in a subjective area populated by people who are as emotionally charged as their music and remain professional?

I have had musicians give me quotes cited from ancient gurus' teaching which is not helpful or other peoples' comments, or they regurgitate past quotes which I recognize, expecting me (and my readers) to believe they are fresh and new.

Then there is the area of reviewing when the gigs do not go well. If the musician is a friend but the gig is poor do you write the review, do you hold your tongue (or pen), or do you provide an honest, open appraisal of how you felt the gig went? The professional answer, of course, is the latter and as a writer you know this, but what if you like the person personally? Then, it presents a dilemma. This is the negative side of writing and it would be very easy to be afraid of ever approaching musicians or expressing an opinion due to the chance of negative feedback.

The answers to all my questions would be easy if we could remain professional, with no emotional input, but for music in particular this is impossible because the music itself has an impact on your soul. You connect with the people you are writing about, especially with jazz which reaches out to the audience in a spiritual way. If someone plays and it touches your heart and soul, of course you are involved—how can you not be? It may make you laugh out loud or take you to places sublime but whatever, you have an emotional price to pay for writing and, to some extent, you make yourself vulnerable to the vagaries of human nature because you may always treat people fairly but you cannot assume they will reciprocate. Some may be naive, ignorant or damn right rude. You are always writing disarmed because of the very subject you write about.

However, all this is far outweighed by the positives. Personally, I have a few policies which work. If I am using quotes from musicians I give them a preview of the part with their quote so they can see the context and comment. This ensures I get the quote and their message right. Some simply say it is OK to use their quotes in any way I like, but others insist on being quoted verbatim which is not always easy because spoken words do not always translate exactly into text and read how they want them to.

Most musicians love being written about—it is good PR, their name gets mentioned and an honest review, even a critical one, can help them to provide better gigs for audiences and increase numbers—an important part of free and improvised playing. One recent review I wrote was critical in terms of the sound the audience got and the level of communication and I admit, I was a little worried because I liked the guy, but he came back thanking me for being honest and agreeing that, if the audience were not getting much from the gigs, the problem needed sorting. I have an invite to another gig and an invitation to write again.

Musicians respect writers who are upfront and honest. One manager told me that it is unusual for a writer to let them see a piece before it is used (though I never promise to change it) but that he really appreciated it. I see it that I am writing about people's careers and few people have jobs where they are vetted and written about as they work. What writers write can have an impact, especially as their work is read more widely so we have a definite responsibility.

Musicians, like any other industry, consist of a range of people and characters. Some are very forthcoming, some take a long time and getting decent quotes is like getting blood out of a stone. Some want to control what you write and these can be the hardest to deal with because any writer worth their salt will always be their own person and never write opinions at the behest of another. Diplomacy and tact are vital tools.

Some musicians insist on direct conversations and are wary of emailing quotes or answers—after all, they do not know you are who you say you are; anyone might say they are "Sammy." This is understandable and it is often from a conversation or meeting that the best articles (and friendships) develop.

Then you get the musician who wants you to write about them and their music and you do not want to. This is tricky because you do not wish to discourage but at the same time, you have to be honest and write about people you can connect with or understand and if you cannot, then someone else should be writing.

Editors can be helpful or not as well. Some are really quick to pick up an idea and commission. Others may come back a few months later and ask you to write a piece for the next week. I ran an idea past an editor several months ago about a band's 35th anniversary and he said it was interesting but outside their remit. Then last month he came back to me and asked for the article and gave me one week to complete. What about his remit? It is paid, I wrote it.

I would say to would-be writers that when you write, whatever genre of jazz (or other music) this is for, you will have setbacks, but if you keep going, understand and respect not only the musicians but yourself and your work, you will find success. Take responsibility and see writing for what it is—the voice of the musicians away from the actual music —and then you will find it easier. Writing about music is a roller coaster. You will meet some fantastic people. I have been in contact with musicians I admired for a long time. I found them mostly warm and encouraging, some verbose, others succinct and to the point, others still frustratingly difficult to get a quote from as they go all round the houses, even with direct questions, before they give you something you can use.

Networking and making new contacts are important as is setting your own style and walking your own road. Some will join you; others not, but always enjoy the journey. Learn, discover, never lose your curiosity and don't be afraid to ask questions. For me, the warmth of free form players has meant I have some great quotes, and because of this, the feedback has been very positive. I think the writers who go the extra mile with musicians gain their respect, and it is to them they will first turn.

My advice is to find the area you love, find the genre which excites you. Work out a theme and schedule for your pieces, email people, forget your ego or being shy, and simply see what responses you get. Always think about your reader and respect them. Genuinely care about your players and contacts. You will, I guarantee it, be pleasantly surprised. Oh, and one final thing—don't forget to keep on the right side of your editors!

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