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Dance of the Infidels: Some Jazz Musicians Take Aim at Critics

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Imagine that you are working at your job—chef, lawyer, and engineer, whatever. You are a professional, you have attained a certain level in your career because you've performed consistently well for some time. You may have trained for some time in order to obtain the knowledge necessary to practice your particular career. Maybe you worked through graduate school while holding down a job or worked took in typing and waited tables to support yourself while spending long hours studying and writing a dissertation. Now, imagine that someone who knows nothing about your work and has no idea about or respect for the time you've spent achieving the level of skill you hold is going to follow you around for a day and write an article about how well you do your job. This article will be read by a large number of people, including both those in your professional sphere and others who have no understanding of what you do. It will potentially affect whether you get your next raise, whether your clients continue to have confidence in you. Imagine that person doesn't take their task seriously or understand the consequences of performing it sloppily, and they give the impression that you do a lousy job. Now, tell me, what is your first emotion? My guess is anger.

Both Al Di Meola and Russell Malone reacted with extreme anger to these flippant reviews. My guess is that they reacted very quickly. In Di Meola's case, the letter was submitted to JazzTimes via email. I don't know if that was the case with Malone, but everyone who has drafted a provocative email to their boss and then thought better of it knows that the instant communication allowed by email can make for the expression of emotions that are better left to mature and temper with time. In my opinion, these artists did not react the way they did because they received a bad review, even though it's been painted that way on some bulletin boards and in some blogs across the Internet. They reacted in the extreme way they did because after taking the time to carefully craft a set of music, after working to establish themselves as musicians worthy of the public's attention, their efforts were kissed off with little effort to critically analyze them or understand them by lazy critics.

This war between jazz musicians and critics has, of course, been going on for many years, and there are sings that it is accelerating. At the International Association for Jazz Education conference this past January, Oscar Peterson, who received the President's Award, told the assembled group of musicians and educators that "Jazz has suffered from inane and unsubstantiated so-called jazz reviews." Peterson cited aspiring and unknowledgeable critics as a "peril" to the jazz community, and many of the musicians in attendance agreed with him. "In the '50s, everybody went to hear everybody all the time. Now audiences may not come out if the people read that a critic doesn't like the music," saxophonist Jimmy Heath told Carla Rupp.

Most musicians understand that music critics and writers have their role to play in the music industry. Duke Ellington, who received more than his share of critical reviews, once said "Critics have their purposes, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what they did." A healthy attitude towards criticism is expressed by Joshua Redman: "If everyone liked what I did, I probably wouldn't be playing anything of depth." But I think that the British pianist George Shearing hit the nail on the head when he said, "You know, I think we tend to say 'It's bad' rather than 'I don't like it.'" That's really what's at issue here. Rather than Steinberg and Gannon merely saying that they did not like these artists' recent releases and providing a well-reasoned critique, they condemned the recordings they reviewed as just plain "bad." That kind of review can feel like a personal attack, even when that is not what is intended. And people who feel personally attacked are much more likely to strike back in kind. While musicians should not necessarily sit silently by while less-than-knowledgeable critics attack their work, they should probably work through a few drafts of their letters to the editor and try to remain as civil as possible. Flying off the handle when one's work is criticized, even unfairly, is probably not the way to win readers over or get them to check out the music in question. That's what music writing should be about, anyway—getting good music into the hands of listeners who might not otherwise have heard it.
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