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.


Jason Crane | The Jazz Session said...

Great post, Hank. I couldn't agree more.

Speaking for myself, I've definitely carved out a niche with The Jazz Session (even the title is restrictive), but that seemed like the way to go when I started and I still think it works best for me, helping me define some ground to stand on.

That said, I try whenever possible to steer my conversations beyond the narrow confines of whatever album the guest and I are discussing, and in my own listening I spend as much -- and maybe more -- time listening to non-jazz music as I do to jazz.

In fact, one thing I've noticed many times in my conversations on the show is that a musician will mention a pop or rock or country act and all but apologize for liking that kind of music. I reassure them that it's OK to not be part of the jazz priesthood.

Anyway, I'm very glad you're out there writing at such a high level. You're a must-read for me and I sincerely appreciate your thoughtfulness about music of all kinds.

All the best,

Jason Crane
The Jazz Session

Anonymous said...

David Adler here. Thanks for this, Hank, and since I'm mentioned in the post, I should say that I agree with much of what you say too.

I have no problem describing myself as a jazz journalist. But this in no way means that I'm uninterested in a wide variety of music, or fail to recognize the wide variety of music that has informed jazz throughout history, and continues to do so.

I studied jazz guitar for many years, but when I play today, I'm fiddling around with songs by Marvin Gaye, Squeeze, Laura Nyro, blah blah. I don't care about playing jazz at all, frankly.

And yet as you've touched on in the post, I respect the world of current pop and indie music too much to do a half-assed job covering it. Even in jazz I feel spread too thin. I listen on average to some 700 CDs a year. I cannot listen to 1400. I greatly admire you and all the writers you mention for their wide-ranging music coverage. But I'll tell you I have absolutely no idea how they do it.

In bluntly pragmatic professional terms, it makes sense for me to continue to focus on jazz as a critic. It's where my knowledge is (I hope) strongest, and it's the world in which I've made the inroads among editors, publishers, etc. It's easier to slide around among the genres, like Nate and Ben, when you have a job requirement to do so, plus a lot of infrastructural support, and labels servicing you up to your ears with every kind of CD from every kind of artist. I don't. And I'm not sure I want to.

But yes, you're right, there's a ton of vital music out there beyond jazz, and knowing about it isn't a matter of cynical marketing or positioning. It's simply enriching. One of my 2011 resolutions is to work harder to hear more of it. - DA

Anonymous said...

Hi, Hank, Ted Panken here through James Hale’s Facebook posting -- I'll post in two parts.

First, since I don't believe we've met, I'll preface with the remark that at the times I’ve scanned your blog (I don't read Time Out), I've found the analytic aspects of your writing strong and insightful. I hope to say hello at some future point.

I don't disagree with your remarks as such. If I'm going to patch into why Brad Mehldau or Ethan Iverson or Robert Glasper or Jason Moran or Anthony Braxton or Muhal Richard Abrams or Wynton Marsalis or Branford Marsalis or Don Byron or Uri Caine or Sonny Rollins or Butch Morris or John Clayton or Joe Lovano or Phil Woods or Rudresh Mahanthappa or Roy Hargrove -- or any jazz/creative music/speculative improv artist (pick your term) operating on a high level does what they do, then I need to know something about their source material, High, Low, or Middlebrow, and be able to say something about it, regardless of my personal taste. If I do a Downbeat Blindfold Test with Dr. John or Hugh Masekela or Nellie McKay, or am interviewing k.d. lang or Groban or Smokey Robinson for a website, I'd better have a sense of where they're coming from, or the results will be bullshit. This is so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be stated.

Anonymous said...

Part 2 from Panken:
I’m not closing or insulating myself from any musical genre. But I’m not clear why an adult who isn’t assigned to write about Justin Bieber needs to be intimately familiar with his work, or, for that matter, LCD pop culture aimed at people under 18. That doesn’t mean I haven’t heard any number of them (I have a 14-year-old daughter who’s on top of everything that’s cool...she thinks Justin Bieber is so yesterday—give her Eminem or L’il Wayne). I've heard cool hooks and clever well-placed samples in lots of otherwise drecky stuff. I don’t think Led Zeppelin rules, I think they’re bombastic, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be informed about what they do, or know the histories of their personnels, or understand that a lot of jazz drummers like John Bonham. Metal sounds dangerously nihilistic to me (I think Tea Party when I hear it), but it’s in the consciousness of many musicians I respect, so I need to know something about it. If Jason Moran tells me that he was influenced by something Ghostface Killa did, I’m damn well going to listen to what he heard, personal taste or not. Ditto Radiohead or Nick Drake, etc.

Actually, I hear lots of things, but jazz, however you want to define it, turns me on consistently in a way other musical disciplines don't. I won’t apologize for it. It has nothing to do with obscurity. It's a fresh, ever-evolving, inter-generational medium, governed by the creative juices of its practitioners, and it feeds a lot of the outside-jazz artists to whom you refer in ways that they may not even be aware of. It is connected strongly to an art-oriented -- not a corporate-oriented -- cultural context in which the life of the mind is key. By the way, jazz musicians exploring forms that "conventional wisdom" tags as "traditional", who've mastered changes playing and have something of their own to say in it, whether or not the tonal personalities they project are experimental or curated, have every bit as much to do with that progression as the genre-bending jazz people whom critics seem to favor. Except for the issue of gender, Nicki Minaj isn't exploding convention or critiquing anything, and that doesn't seem to be an issue for you. Why does it need to be a criteria for a here-and-now jazz musician to get journalistic cred? You write: “In my personal pantheon, jazz mingles with metal, with classic rock, with punk, with pop, with hip-hop and more.” Do metal and classic rock and punk and pop and hip-hop need to mingle with jazz to enter that exalted space? Why shouldn't metal drummers be expected to bring humanity to the drums a la Billy Higgins? Joey Baron does it; why shouldn't they be held to that standard?

I see no reason why I should feel that holding these tastes somehow places me culturally out of the loop. However, I am quite sure that if I were to state these views in a room with a group of establishment music journalists and other media gatekeepers, I would be dismissed as an atavistic, cultish outsider. Or they might respond like the New York Press editor at the meeting who couldn't really say why jazz isn't "cool" except that his friends conjure up the image of berets, which, in any event, the beboppers borrowed from French intellectuals -- they presumably would code to this editor as "cool" -- after World War 2. (By the way, I'm not clear why non jazz journalists shouldn't be expected to know as much about jazz as you are exhorting us to know about the genres you mention, the mantra that Miles Davis plugged in and expanded the borders forty years ago doesn’t cut it any more.) They know what they like...or is it that they like what they know?

Anonymous said...

David and Ted have said a lot of what I have to add, but I have also expanded upon my thoughts from the panel at my blog:

I welcome your comments and hope to hear some follow-up from you after all of the insightful responses your post has received.