DON’T BE CRUEL

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.

14 responses to “DON’T BE CRUEL

  1. I believe Hodeir also said he thought Sidney Bechet played like a pig.
    Or words to that effect.

  2. It was Michel Legrand who, in an interview with Down Beat in the 1950s, said Bechet played like a pig. I still have the copy of Down Beat. As we all know, Legrand was a leading authority on jazz authenticity.

  3. Thanks for the correction. I couldn’t remember whether it was Legrand or Hodeir who said it. Of course, Bechet did have a tendency to play loud all the time and drown out everyone else, didn’t he. Still, he was one of the half dozen greatest jazz artists of all time, no question in my mind.

  4. Dear Michael,

    Your closing line in this write is beautiful and for me sums up the essence of living the short span of time we have here on Planet Earth.

    I didn’t know Pat Scott had said that terribly cruel and unkind remark concerning Dill. When I was up there in Toronto with Bill Davison he remarked that I was an “unknown equation” and had “a look of disdain.” Lord, where do they come from?

    Most importantly– All the music you have been posting recently has been marvelous. The selections of Rebecca Kilgore (Harry Warren)… and then the solo recital of Keith Ingham were simply out of this world!

    Thank you!

  5. There is an honest and true angle to all this: when much-loved jazz heroes are past their best, what do we say? No-one would seriously argue that Louis in the 1960’s was the equal of his young self in the ’20’s and ’30’s. And Dickie Wells’ playing in the 1950’s *was* in decline, compared with his great work in the thirties.

    Buck Clayton, as I understand it, stopped palying the trumpet in the late sixities, not because his chops had given out, but because he wanted people to remember him at his best, and not in his decline. More players should follow his example.

  6. Music lives on in our memory even when a player is long gone. Critics help perpetuate the memory of great players but no one takes jazz critics seriously – everyone has their own opinions. Good or bad? Jazz, more than any other music is about personal taste.

  7. ‘I like Michael Steinman’s writing.’

  8. What you say is a poignant reminder about how we are all so quick to judge and are all self-appointed experts on EVERYTHING. There is so much joy to be gained from the trenches, I feel so sad that no one seems to want to pay their dues and enjoy the ride in doing so.

  9. Thank you for a lovely read, Michael! In my religion, Hodeir shall occupy a unique place in hell, sandwiched between Patrick Scott and Leonard Feather. Mercifully, history will forget them.
    I wish all performers the courage to ignore these folks. As for playing past one’s prime, I intend to keep playing until no sound comes out. Will it make some folks unhappy? Probably. Will it keep me alive? Most definitely.

  10. A year ago I discovered the book: How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An alternative history of American Popular Music, by Elijah Wald.The title doesn’t give that impression, but it has become my Jazz bible, because Elijah starts his 300 pages of musical exploration with ragtime!. His basic idea: jazz and all the music connected with it is a melody on a danceable rhythm. And that’s why I reply: Elijah says: all Jazz journalists are male. And most men don’t want to dance. So they are from the beginning against all danceable music. And that’s what make some of their comments so bitter. Cowards!
    Joep Peeters, Breda, The Netherlands.. .

  11. Yes, gratitude is so much more life affirming than criticism and I agree that the musicians deserve the former. Cruelty in print is one of the most petty and cowardly types of criticism; it’s a power trip and there’s nothing constructive or life-affirming about it.

  12. Ross Firestone

    Thoughtful, soulful and very enlightening. Thank you so much.

  13. Lots of good sense in these comments. Unless someone is obviously technically inept it is better to say something is preferred because one likes it more, rather than being nastily superior about it.

  14. Pingback: HOW DO THEY AGE SO WELL? (WILD BILL DAVISON, TOMMY SAUNDERS, GEORGE MASSO, CHUCK HEDGES, DAVE McKENNA, MARTY GROSZ, MILT HINTON, JOHN BANY, RUSTY JONES, WAYNE JONES: “Eddie Condon Memorial Band,” Elkhart Jazz Festival, July 1988) | JAZZ LIVES

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