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Onward and Upward with Jazz Criticism


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For some time--years--I have been bothered by the further deterioration of a craft that too often has not achieved the status of serious criticism. I write, sad to say, of jazz reviewing, in which assignments all too often go to the lowest bidder, or to no bidder. These days, they go less frequently than ever to those who know something about music or are willing to learn about it, or who have qualifications beyond an eagerness to get free records or free admittance.
When a Canadian acquaintance sent me the Montreal Gazette review of last week's Maria Schneider concert at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, I thought it was a spoof of incompetent, malevolent, reviewing. It is not. It is the real thing, incompetent and malevolent. It is also misogynist.

Here are the headline, byline and first few sentences:

Jazz fest 2009: Maria with the long bare arms

07 02 09

My high-school jazz band was never conducted by a woman, let alone a middle-aged American blonde with a penchant for sleeveless black tops that show off her Pilates-styled arms. But then, again, if my high-school jazz band had been conducted by such a woman, I might have been too distracted and never become a gifted clarinet player. Actually, that's a lie; I gave up the clarinet pretty early. So what was so bothersome about the show Maria Schneider and her jazz orchestra gave the other night (Tuesday) at Theatre Maisonneuve? Well, a couple of things: Schneider's irritatingly stiff body-language and the equally stiff sound of her musicians, as excruciating visually and aurally as your run-of-the-mill high-school jazz band. It was creepy, the way the soloists schlumped across the stage to do their number then schlumped back to their seats and their music stands, like adolescents in uniforms going through the paces.

The in-depth misogynism comes in the rest of the article. To read the whole thing, go here. Then scroll down to read responses from readers of the Gazette, nearly all of whom know more about Mr. Heinrich's subject than he does and all of whom are more articulate and civil, even the one who wrote, “Your an idiot." To paraphrase many of them, what were the editors of the Gazette thinking when they assigned Mr. Heinrich to review something for which he had a priori contempt? What were they thinking when they examined his copy before they published it? Did they put it through the editorial process at all? Any answer to those questions is disturbing.

Mr. Heinrich's level of gratuitous nastiness is not typical of most jazz reviewers. All too often his level of ignorance of the subject is typical in both specialty and general publications. There are jazz critics who pride themselves on writing from a base of knowledge, perception, taste and fairness. They have worked, studied, researched and listened hard to achieve that standard. There are, alas, countless editors and publishers who do not hold their staff writers or free lance contributors to high professional values. That is bad for everyone--readers, listeners, musicians and, ultimately, newspapers, magazines and the journalism profession.

As jazz magazines go out of business and coverage budgets at general circulation publications dry up, one part of conventional journalism wisdom is that the web, specifically bloggers on the web, will take up the slack. Please don't let it disturb you if I point out that most bloggers work for nothing more than the challenge, the thrill, the contacts or the loss-leading benefits of using their blogs as adjuncts to whatever they do for a living. It would be a mistake to count on them (us) to provide the standards and oversight that print publishers are unwilling or unable to observe and practice. In journalism as in the rest of life, generally you get what you pay for.

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