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

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And where was Matt McCoy, the paper's editor, when this review came in? Both he and Kornelis should have recognized that it was incendiary, particularly with Malone in town that weekend as part of the Hampton Festival. I'm not suggesting that a good review should have been substituted, but surely these editors must have realized that critical analysis was nonexistent in this review and that the writing was weak? McCoy insists that there was nothing wrong. "We believe anyone is qualified to review music, theater, art and literature" said McCoy in an editorial about the incident. There's a difference between saying that anyone has a right to express their views and maintaining that everyone is qualified to do so. I wonder if McCoy believes that anyone is qualified to edit a newspaper? "There is likely correlation between education and the appreciation of the higher arts," writes McCoy. "But this doesn't mean uneducated or highly educated individuals must be stupid for not liking opera, classical music and stuffy 19th-century British novels." It may not make them stupid, but neither does it qualify them to review these works in publications that purport to offer critical analysis. In any case, it would appear that college students are no longer required to study the arts, writing, or critical analysis. And why should they? It's much easier, and probably more lucrative to just get out there and say the first thing that pops into your head, like Simon Cowell on American Idol. McCoy goes on to say that "a negative review doesn't mean what people are doing isn't worthwhile." That's true, but what can one take away from a critique such as "I read in a review that Malone played soft pastel chords. Yes, and this one is beige"?

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.

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