Thursday, August 25, 2011

On "Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?"

Roanna Forman, over at, recently incited a provocative discussion by posing the simple question "Do jazz critics know how to play jazz?"

This is a fascinating inquiry, and one that gets at the heart of why this profession (I tend to avoid the word "critic" in favor of "thinker-about-music" or similar) is so strange. Basically you have this whole class of people who do not do a thing professionally and yet they are considered to be the utmost authority on that thing, sometimes even more so than the people who do do it for a living. In jazz criticism, the separation between the doers and the commentators—whether literal, i.e., social, or philosophical—is far less pronounced than it is in, say, professional sports, but there's still a divide there. Moreover, anyone in or around a certain art form, whether it's a player or an enthusiast, certainly has the right to ask of any writer who's paid to opine on said art form, "What gives you the right?"

So it's a matter of credentials, and it should be said outright that, in jazz criticism at least, there simply aren't any. I have friends who went to school for three years so that they could pass the bar exam and become lawyers. As far as my career writing about jazz goes (though, as I've stated here before, that's only a part of what I do as a thinker-about-music) I have no such formal training. If someone were to ask me what qualifies me to write about jazz, I would simply have to answer, "I love it."

As far as knowing how to play jazz, I can definitively say that I don't. I have played drums for about 17 years at this point, and I regularly rehearse, perform, record and compose music, mainly for a band called STATS that I'd broadly classify as "metal." I've taken a few lessons here and there, but for all intents and purposes, I'm self-taught as a musician. I have worked hard on my craft, though; there's roughness in my playing, but where it crops up, it's largely intentional.

In terms of my self-instruction, it's almost always been directed toward some sort of rock-based idiom. I have mainly performed rock (and related styles such as metal), so that's what I've studied. My influences as a drummer, those I can often feel myself channeling as I play, are musicians such as John Bonham, Levon Helm, Dale Crover, Neil Peart and Bill Ward. I'm not as good as any of these masters, but on some level, I understand what it is that they're doing; I could break it down for you, whether in technical or plainspoken language, and in some cases duplicate it on the drum set. If I'm a true authority on anything musical, it's the way drums work in a rock context.

As far as jazz drumming, I'm absolutely obsessed with it. Two of my favorite sounds in the world are those of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams interacting with a drum kit. I can definitely say that these musicians have influenced the way that I play—especially Elvin, who is in many ways the John Bonham of jazz, in terms of sheer mass and swing—but in no way could I duplicate what they do, except in some sort of sketchlike fashion. In short, I am not a jazz drummer. I have performed in free-improvisation contexts before, and I can convincingly fake my way through a bebop tune, but my palette is severely limited. When I speak jazz as a musician, I'm doing an impression—it is not my native tongue.

I've been discussing drums here, but the same goes for any of the other main instruments in jazz: Hand me a saxophone or a bass, or sit me at the piano, and I'm not going to be much help to anybody. I have experimented quite a bit with the piano over the years, and even performed on it—again in a free-improv setting—but I'm not a pianist. My knowledge of music theory is rudimentary. I can read rhythm notation, but I would need many hours of concentration in order to make sense of, say, a piano score.

I do write music, though—quite a bit of it. Basically what I do is sing guitar riffs in my head, record them on a dictaphone and then bring them to my bandmates to figure out. Often, these are more rhythmic figures than anything, but I do have melodic movement in mind. It's not a stretch to say that I am in some sense a songwriter; I just do it all mentally/orally rather than on paper. All of the composing that I do has been specific to the specific musical context of STATS (which was formerly known as Stay Fucked). It would not work in a vacuum, in the abstract sense of composition. It works because I have (and have had) friends/bandmates (Joe, Tony, Tom and many others) who are patient enough to sit there and help me realize the ideas that are swirling around in my head. For that I thank them.

Anyway, I've gotten completely off track here. All I really mean to say here is that I am not a jazz musician. If someone wants to take that statement and use it to disqualify my opinions on jazz, that's totally fine. I understand that for some, that might be a dealbreaker. On the other hand, I would have to say that I do feel qualified to comment on jazz. And again, I hesitate to use the word "criticize." When it comes to a given instrument, criticizing someone (whether in the positive or negative sense) ups the ante a bit. That is to say, it would be pretty ballsy of me to peg someone as a crappy saxophone player when I myself could barely summon a single note on a saxophone. Maybe I would have slightly more clout if I were dissing a drummer.

My main point, though, is that it has never been my interest to call anyone out. My entire reason, and perhaps justification, for writing at length about jazz, and researching the music exhaustively through oral history and dedicated listening, is that I am absolutely in love with it.

I view myself as authoritative only in what I am authoritative about. I'm not going to sit here and pretend to know ALL of jazz. I'll be the first person to admit that, just as with movies, I have a problem relating to some of the older jazz styles. I'm a huge fan of late-’30s Ellington, for example, but stretch back one decade, to Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, and I have a hard time relating. I can understand what makes this music great, but I don't feel it in my bones.

Where jazz really starts to get interesting for me is the mid-’60s. My true canon of jazz centers around the Blue Note catalog of this era, records like Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Wayne Shorter's The Soothsayer and Jackie McLean's One Step Beyond. (It's no coincidence that all these albums have Tony Williams on them!) My tastes beyond that are vast: I love both the classic Benny Goodman quartets with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, and I love Henry Threadgill's Air. I love Kind of Blue and I love Interstellar Space. I love Billy Cobham's Spectrum and Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth.

These are all just off the top of my head, but what I'm really trying to say is that the main thing that qualifies me to write about jazz is that I am devoted to educating myself about it constantly, not because I feel obligated to as a professional, but because I feel compelled to as a fan. Jazz is like food to me. Some weeks, I'm off on rock jags, poring over the Black Sabbath catalog, say, but many weeks, I'm glued the jazz discographies, trying to get a handle on a particular artist or period. I'm giving myself homework basically, homework that is purely pleasure-based. Sure, if I'm preparing for an interview or something, listening can occasionally become a chore, but on a day-to-day basis, it's rarely that. What it is, is pure joy.

I guess if I have a credential, it's that: That I do in fact derive a more or less daily joy out of the phenomenon of jazz. And this is a joy that transcends time, in the sense that I'm often obsessed with current jazz (Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo's Songs of Mirth and Melancholy has brought me great pleasure this year) as well as older jazz that just happened to appear on my radar. This "just happened to appear" part is pretty mysterious to me. (I wrote a bit about it here.) I'm sure many hard-core music fans experience the same thing, but I just get into these extremely intense phases, listening-wise, where I need to hear one particular player, or period, or style, or all three at once, and I will absolutely not stand for one note of anything else to voluntarily enter my ears. As you can probably tell from the last two posts, I'm currently ensnared in a Mal Waldron obsession, set off by searching for Ed Blackwell on Spotify and stumbling across the marvelous Seagulls of Kristiansund.

So just to be clear, I do not know how to play jazz in any true practical sense. I cannot speak objectively as to whether or not that disqualifies me from commenting on it in print with authority. That will be up to my readers to decide. I have definitely struggled with this question myself, and I will admit that yes, sometimes I have felt that I simply lack the terminology or the framework with which to analyze or evaluate or even simply appreciate a given performance. But what I don't lack, though, is a kind of addiction to the music, a desire to embed the sounds of all my favorite players in my head. It's almost a synaesthetic thing. I can conjure Paul Motian, or Andrew Hill, or Tony Williams, or Joe Henderson, or Booker Little, or Jimmy Giuffre, or Fred Anderson in my head, the way I would a taste or a smell. I often think of players as "flavors" in some weird, abstract sense.

I am tirelessly devoted to knowing jazz in this way, just through constant contact with the art form, both through recordings and live shows. And in a way, I think that is the chief responsibility of the "critic": to love an art form so much that learning about it is like breathing. So much that if you weren't being paid to do it, you'd still do it just as fervently. With regard to jazz, this is me, and if I have any real qualification, it is that.


P.S. Many prominent critics, including Ben Ratliff and Ted Panken, weighed in on the original post. Right after completing the piece above, I noticed that Patrick Jarenwattananon had weighed in as well. Going to check out the latter as soon as I hit "Publish."

P.P.S. [Updated Monday, 8/29/11] Phil Freeman has contributed a sharp essay on this topic. See here.

No comments: