The New Obligation Of The Jazz Critic
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Jazz critics are supposed to like jazz. Yet, some of the most pseudo-intellectual and vitriolic music reviews in print are turned in by jazz writers. The current truth of the matter is that with every nose-lowering review, these writers are helping to hasten the demise of jazz as a commercially viable product. These critics, and they know who they are, are unwittingly contributing to the passing of an art form that they claim to love. Does that make any sense?
As a sometimes jazz critic, I have recently made a decision. I am never going to write a bad review about a jazz album. That doesn’t mean I am going to mislead readers and claim a jazz album is good even if it was the worst pile I ever heard in my life. Instead, no longer am I going to write about jazz music I don’t like. I would rather share an examination of some jazz that thrilled me so that my readers will immediately drop everything they are doing and purchase the CD. I have simply decided to do something that makes me feel as if I am contributing to the common good. Using my meager status as a jazz critic to help further the cause of jazz will do that. Does this make me a traitor to music journalism?
It is a tough call. There is certainly some bad jazz in the world. The temptation to point this out overwhelms those critics that come out from the dark shadows only when they have something vicious to say. I don’t have that need.
Movie critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper love movies. Yet, it is not unusual for them to bad-mouth a film that cost a company $200 million dollars to make. Ebert and Roeper will insult and denigrate even the greatest film makers. But they do so because they have respect for the art of movie making and really know how great film can be if done the right way. But more importantly they also know that while they have have loads of clout and a negative review from them can help lower a film’s box office take, they have little effect on the multi-billion dollar film business.
Critics of the other arts are much in the same boat. Their learned, sometimes on-the-money, reviews of architecture and paintings and sculpture and other art forms touch only a few of the millions interested in those areas. To those people, critics perform an important service. But, buildings will continue to be built and paintings will continue to be painted despite the protests of even the most respected naysayer.
Jazz critics on the other hand ply their trade in a commercial industry which many people believe is dying. Their words have substantially larger clout in a substantially smaller universe. Unduly negative reviews of the creative process of jazz could eventually prove fatal to the very art these critics claim to support.
Historically, jazz criticism has produced some of the most creative and insightful writing found in all of contemporary literature. Scores of negative reviews have been beautifully written. But times have changed. Perhaps the role of the jazz critic should be reviewed itself. In a world in which a “hit” jazz record sells a measly 3,000 copies, perhaps jazz criticism, in the traditional sense, has long since lost its purpose.
This particular sporadic critic has no intention of wasting any more words on bad jazz or humiliating the people who play it. I am going to write only about music I admire. I now consider myself to be on a mission to further the music that has furthered me.
Call it censorship if you want. Call it bad journalism if you want. I prefer to call it a joyful obligation.