Saturday, January 08, 2011
I am not a jazz journalist
[UPDATE: This post has elicited a number of insightful responses, some of which you'll find in the comments below. Howard Mandel has shared his thoughts on his own blog.]
I'm just returning from a Jazz Journalists Association town hall meeting—"What is the state of jazz journalism now and what are its future prospects?"—held to coincide with APAP and NEA goings-on about town, as well as with Winter Jazzfest, which I attended last night and which I'm enthusiastically headed back to in a few hours. For a number of reason, mainly my own over-politeness, I failed to get a word in at the gathering, and I left feeling frustrated by that fact. I had a few things to say, and so I'll say them here.
The question at hand in this meeting was, as I gathered it, "How do we survive as jazz journalists?" The laments being aired were familiar ones: Print outlets are drying up, and even as online outlets are proliferating, online outlets that pay well are scarce. In one sense, I felt a bit distant from this conversation due to the fact that I have a staff job writing about music at Time Out New York. For this, I am infinitely thankful—it affords me a highly visible platform, as well as a good deal of freedom to express myself elsewhere as I see fit.
But I also felt distant from this conversation in another, more important sense. When I interviewed Anthony Braxton a few years back, he said to me emphatically: "I am not a jazz musician, and please put that in your article." Though I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues in the JJA—such as Howard Mandel, David Adler, and Laurence Donohue-Greene and Andrey Henkin of All About Jazz—and I'm proud to be a card-carrying member, I feel like I need to make a similar stipulation in terms of my own work as a writer, and more broadly, as a lover of music: I am not a jazz journalist.
It's absolutely true that I love jazz and—as any reader of this blog, or for that matter my fiancée, will tell you—and spend an inordinate amount of time listening to it, analyzing it, hearing it live and just generally obsessing about it. BUT all this activity does not occur in a vacuum. As I took great pains to stress in this 2006 post, one of the very first things I ever wrote on this blog, I experience music in a countless ways: listening to the radio while driving, singing karaoke, dancing at the weddings of friends and families, writing and performing with my band STATS, listening to promo downloads at the office or to my iPod on the train. By the same token, my tastes are wide open. In other words, I love jazz, but I am in no way wedded to it as a listener or as a writer, and though I realize that my position is unique and privileged, I'd state with caution that anyone who is wedded to Jazz Journalism—i.e., rather than, say, Music Journalism (or even Cultural Criticism or even something way broader)—per se as a profession may have a difficult road ahead.
David Adler acknowledged this in the meeting by indicating that he was probably less familiar with mainstream pop than he ought to be. The mention of Justin Bieber elicited quite a few snide smiles. But the plain fact of the matter is, a fact that ought to be acknowledged by anyone who's being paid to think about music, there's a lot of REALLY GREAT STUFF going on in mainstream pop these days. I don't need to bore anyone with some paean to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but I think it needs to be stated that we writers-about-music who love jazz shouldn't make it our beeswax to learn about pop because it might make us more marketable, we should do so because if we don't, we're cutting ourselves off from some really wonderful and fascinating music.
This is a lesson I've learned gradually. I've been a music snob my whole life, prattling on and on about esoterica, and when it comes down to it, some of my favorite music ever made is music that very few people have ever heard of. But over time, I began to realize that obscurity was not in any way a sign of quality. I came at music backwards, learning about DIY rock and metal first and then catching up re: all the classics. It was only a few years ago that I finally realized what every drive-time commuter has understood for decades: that Led Zeppelin is considered one of the greatest bands of all time because they FUCKING RULE, not because they play to some bullshit lowest common denominator. I'm not saying that all pop is great, but I am saying that to willfully insulate yourself from popular music, or from ANY music is to cut off a crucial air supply, not just regarding your career but regarding your enrichment as a lover of art.
When I first got to Time Out New York, I came carting a portfolio of pieces on jazz artists, pieces on experimental artists, all kinds of super esoteric stuff. I held these up as a badge of honor: "Look at how exclusive and rarefied my knowledge is," etc. And I'm still very proud of those pieces, as well as all the pieces I've written for Time Out on little-known artists ranging from avant-jazz pianist Burton Greene to death-metal visionary Steeve Hurdle. But you know what? I'm just as proud of my pieces on Francis and the Lights, and Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj. Having the opportunity to sit down with the latter for an interview was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating things I did in all of 2010. Taking on that assignment wasn't some sort of concession or compromise: What it was, was straight-up enlightening.
And our best writers-about-music show us this on a weekly basis. Think of Ben Ratliff, who can inspire you take a second look at either the doom-metal band Salome or soul-jazz great Dr. Lonnie Smith; or Nate Chinen, who can do the same for Josh Groban, Marnie Stern or the Tristano-ite Ted Brown. Or my TONY colleague Steve Smith, who could school you on Nas, King Crimson, Henry Threadgill, Edgard Varèse or a million others as the situation demands. Or Phil Freeman, who can—and frequently does—start provocative discussions on anything from Borbetomagus to Iron Maiden to Miles.
And that latter name (Miles) is an important one. Now it's fashionable to turn up our noses at the out-of-it critics who dissed Miles's electric experiments. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that he had just outgrown the tidy genre tag of "jazz" and needed to grow, right? But by emphasizing our jazz-journalists-ness over our lover-of-music-ness, maybe we're just echoing those critics' narrow-minded approach. If we expect broad-mindedness, resolute outside-the-boxness from our greatest and most widely influential artists (our Miles-es and our Beefhearts and our Kanyes), we need to expect the same of ourselves as thinkers-about-music.
BUT let me say, that I'm not advocating for some nebulous nonspecialization, some completely level playing field wherein we insist of ourselves that we GIVE EVERYTHING A CHANCE, do or die. No, that would lead to a world of spread-way-too-thin dilettantes. What I'm saying is that we need to foster a non-monogamous approach to the idea of specialty. Every writer-about-music worth anything has certain areas of affinity, a handful (finite yes, but always expandable) of styles or areas that make their heart flutter with excitement. And by the same token, every one of those writers, has massive blind spots—stuff that they don't know a damn thing about. What I'm saying is, let's celebrate the multiplicity of the former, let them play off of and inform one another. (In my personal pantheon, jazz mingles with metal, with classic rock, with punk, with pop, with hip-hop and more.) And let's also say, in certain cases, "You know what? I really don't know anything about MUSICAL STYLE X, and at least for today, I'm okay with that." Let's follow our innate tastes and distastes, in other words, without walling ourselves off.
Again, I'm not saying, "Don't specialize." I'm just saying, "Let a little air in." Our best outlets for music coverage are the ones that allow you to glimpse the world beyond their particular area of focus. A Blog Supreme, which alludes frequently to the indie-rock sphere; Destination Out, which makes a constant effort to portray avant-garde jazz as vital and inviting rather than some pallid curio. And stretching further out, Burning Ambulance and Signal to Noise, which celebrate the esoteric spirit while still maintaining their authoratativeness, and Invisible Oranges, which cheerleads for the metal underground while at the same time calling B.S. on the scene's inherent hypocrisies.
All I'm really saying here is: Let's not pigeonhole ourselves right out of the gate. Let's bond over our shared love of this music without building a fence to keep non-jazz-obsessives out, and to blind us to the possibilities of the pop world and beyond. The best jazz I heard in 2010—records by the Bad Plus, Chris Lightcap, Dan Weiss and others—didn't need some sort of rubber-stamp Seal of Jazz Approval to convey its message. It just sounded beautiful, in a way that didn't need to be explained. As I noted in my Bad Plus post, my fiancée, Laal, often helps me to open my mind re: how I think about the jazz I take in: The operative question isn't "Was that a great jazz show?," it's "Was that a great show?" Full stop.
All of the real movers on today's jazz scene know this well. Adam Schatz, say, or Darcy James Argue, or Ethan Iverson, all of whom have demonstrated their engagement with the world outside the jazz bubble in a number of shrewd ways. Aside from all the great music I heard at last night's Winter Jazzfest, one of the coolest encounters I had was with the saxist Darius Jones, a scary-good musician and an extremely nice guy whom I've known for a few years now. I shook his hand, congratulating him on what a fine set he'd played with Mike Pride's From Bacteria to Boys, but all he wanted to do was grill me about what it was like to interview the great Nicki Minaj. So again, all this great music exists on one plate for the artists—let it also be so for those of us who cover it.