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A Scumbling Writer: The Process, Mistakes and Lessons

Sammy Stein By

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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.


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