Recently the French jazz critic and composer Andre Hodeir died. The elegies I read made much of his severity, his intolerance for anything that he felt was inferior. This discussion took me back to his famous essay about the singular trombonist Dicky Wells. In his first book, JAZZ: ITS EVOLUTION AND ESSENCE, Hodeir praised the “romantic imagination” Wells showed in his early solos; in a later collection, TOWARDS JAZZ, Hodeir wrote the disillusioned essay, “Why Do They Age So Badly?” — which emerged from his disappointment in hearing an older Wells in the flesh in 1952.
My citations come from memory, but what sticks in my mind is the ferocity of Hodeir’s critical rancor. Candor and critical objectivity in his hands became punitive. For one example, when the young Hodeir wrote about the recordings of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, he praised Louis, but scorned the vocal efforts of Mae Alix as “among the ugliest and most grotesque things ever recorded.” I am paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Confronted with an aging Dicky Wells, Hodeir seemed furious at what he perceived as a disappointingly diminished musician.
Had he written, “Wells no longer sounds the way he did in 1937, and I am sorry that this is no longer possible,” I would not complain. But his pique was so strong that it was as if he felt Wells no longer had a reason to play in public. There was little human awareness of the ways a creative style might change over the decades, and no compassion for the great physical effort it takes to play the trombone or sing. No, Hodeir was personally disappointed that Wells had not remained the same artist he was in 1937 — as if his favorite restaurant no longer cooked his dinner in the manner he was accustomed.
Of course we are entitled to our reactions — our subjectivity tethered to some vestiges of objective “evidence.” But I find the harshness with which some of these “critical assessments” are delivered to spring from cruelty, not enlightenment. “Let’s give that one no stars, and let’s click on DISLIKE while we’re at it.” (There is something to say about the “star system” in art — where viewers and listeners have “heroes” and reject others as inept pretenders . . . but that’s another essay entirely.)
Perhaps thirty-five years ago, when I encountered the fine jazz pianist Dill Jones on a gig, he was nearly tearful when recalling the review given him by the Toronto “jazz critic” Patrick Scott. Scott had written that Dill’s fingers should have been broken if they weren’t already. That makes for “good journalism,” if one savors cruelty, but it still seems inhuman some thirty-five years later.
“I like the way X plays” is a statement hard to find fault with. “X is a better player than Y” is more suspect. By what standards? And this variety of criticism is especially prevalent online. A good many musical commentators — and I don’t know their basis of musical knowledge or experience — share what’s on their minds in very bold strokes. “A’s performance is mediocre.” “B’s band played that song too fast.” “X was a bad player.”
Some of this criticism I will take as valid (if amusing): Sidney Bechet had a right to tell an eager Yank Lawson, “Young man, you played that song too fucking fast,” after Yank had stomped off an impetuous tempo for JAZZ ME BLUES.
But I would urge all the jazz critics — professional and avocational — to be kinder in their public judgments. We ought to be supremely grateful for the music that we hear and see. Were we to say, “This isn’t the tempo I prefer,” or “I like the way A sings this,” our objectivity won’t be compromised. And generosity is always a good thing.
If we allow others to be imperfect, who knows? They might extend us the same courtesy.