ON THE GENTLE ART OF CRITICISM

When the Beloved and I are out for a walk and I have commented on something, a flock of crows may fly by and give their verdict:

and I will turn to the Beloved and say, “Oh, everyone’s a critic!”

When people caw in print it is sometimes more difficult to get the rancor out of the air.  I can deal with the gentleman who wrote in to tell me that I was a “traitor to Jazz,” because he and I no longer converse.  Life is too short to welcome and encourage personal abuse.

But I am disheartened by the anger displayed by people commenting on YouTube videos.  I read comments that seem furious at the audience at a public performance in a restaurant for talking while the music is playing.  I understand the viewer’s unhappiness, but think, “Sir, shouting in print at people in a video-recording for their bad manners may make you feel better, but the talkers can no longer modify their behavior to suit you.  Your comment, although a genuine expression of your frustration, is not the best use of your energy.”

Even more disheartening is the commentary of a viewer that X is playing badly.  One such critic wrote in recently that “the audience deserved better.”  I wonder how someone, sitting at home, is able to judge what the audience did or did not deserve for the price of their tickets.  Does an imperfect performance offend so much that it should be made to vanish?

What bothers me is the implied insult to the musicians, who are working with all their skill, energy, and decades of experience to create something beautiful.  Merely playing one repeated note on the piano for four minutes at a fast tempo and staying attuned to the rhythm is beyond most amateurs, but the amateurs have no problem saying that “Y’s performance is very bad.”  And when we graduate to the difficulties of playing a trumpet or a saxophone . . .

I am not espousing a general bland appreciation for everything.  I go away from some performances saying, “Gee, I didn’t like that very much.  I think L doesn’t always play in tune, or R rushes.”  But there I am expressing my subjective judgment, and it remains personal and private — unless we are going to have all jazz performances measured on-the-spot by scientific arbiters with metronomes and pitch-analyzers.

Generosity of spirit might be what we should aim for, rather than “good” or “bad,” “better” or “worse.”

I wonder if this critical urge comes from a lack of impulse control born from decades of ranking and rating (i.e., the Academy Awards, Playmate of the Year, Best-Of lists), of people sitting in front of their television sets at home, yelling at the football player who has “done badly.”  Or in other contexts, people watching generations of beauty pageant queens compete, and saying to the screen, “I wouldn’t vote for her.  She is ugly!”    Or, in the parlance of the times, “That SUCKED!”

I wonder also if the people who comment so acridly on these videos would find it proper to say to a jazz player or players as the musicians got off the stand, “Wow, you played so badly!”  I think most listeners would think such judgments would be at best rude, at worst cruel or unwise.  “Would you say this to someone in person?” might be a useful rule in criticism.  It is so easy to write something in anger, then press SEND or POST — and what is in print tends to stay visible.  And perhaps harmful.

Once, years ago, I was coming home on the train from a classical concert and I fell into conversation with a man who had been going to concerts for decades.  He was also unhappy with people who could not sit still and listen peacefully.  His theory was that the coughers and talkers and rattlers and paper-shufflers could not stand subordinating their own egos for the length of a performance.  “Look at me!  I’m here, too!”  I doubt that everyone who coughs is possessed by ego-demons, but I wonder how many of the most “offended” critics are upset that X — with the soprano saxophone — is getting all the attention.

Finally.  Jazz magazines still rank recordings with stars.  No stars bad, five stars good (to paraphrase ANIMAL FARM).  I remember reading that a critic in a famous magazine said of an early-Fifties Lester Young performance that it was “bad,” that Lester played with a “cardboard tone.”  He was entitled to feel this way, but I prize those Lester Young recordings, and am happy that this critic was not in a position of imperial power where he could have had the masters destroyed.  That music remains long after the critic’s response has been forgotten.

The crows may be performing a useful function while cawing.  That chorus of sound may say, “Someone dropped half a sandwich!  Let’s go, boys!”  Or their sound may mean, “Watch out!  Hawk’s in town!”

If our criticisms are not equally useful, do they need to be expressed in print?

And who knows who is criticizing You while You are unaware?

Peace, brothers and sisters.

May your happiness increase.

16 responses to “ON THE GENTLE ART OF CRITICISM

  1. Michael, I get your point. And you are nothing if not a gentle critic. However, if you don’t damn a poor recording with faint praise, how will music lovers know which recordings to buy and which to shy away from? If every performance gets a rave review, then those musicians who deserve praise get a meaningless pat on the back. Everyone is entitled to have an off night, but for the perpetually sloppy, it is the critics’ imperative to call them to the woodshed.

  2. And do what, Jim? Take ’em out to the woodshed and give ’em a good licking with the old strap? Seems unkind. I agree that there are distinctions! But my choice on JAZZ LIVES has been silence. If I didn’t like a recording, why make my dislike public? Is it more valid because it is in print? So I don’t write about the music that doesn’t please me, emphasis on the last two words. I agree with your overall point — and you will notice I wrote that I do not espouse a general bland acceptance — but I think some of the criticisms are voiced in ways that are unkind, ungenerous . . . because the “critics” are hiding behind their computers and their “names.” Would we say this in person? — still seems valid to me. With every good wish, Michael

  3. Michael, I think we disagree on this one. I’m not referring to people posting nasty, anonymous comments but serious critics like you. Promoting truly great artists is good. But the poor and the incompetent should not be allowed to promote themselves while the critics stand silent. In our local newspaper, ever concert of every genre gets a rave review. That doesn’t tell me anything.

  4. “Would we say this in person?” is a good question for pretty much anything we print, but especially when it comes to working musicians whose reputation and business might be hurt by careless words. “What is it I want to accomplish by saying this?” also seems like an important question. Critics aren’t there to take anyone “to task” or be deliciously snarky but to report, educate and dialog with the music. Ideally a critic should be able to open his audience, and possibly even the performers, up to new ideas about the music. If those ideas include, “the tempo was a little soggy,” and the critic can bring that up without sounding pedantic or bitchy, more power to him/her.

  5. Reblogged this on Tulsa Jazz and commented:
    This is a real issue in the world of live performances that has been addressed wonderfully…enjoy.

  6. I have to agree with Jim to a point. I think we can all agree that nasty, anonymous critics are not doing anyone any good, but a good criticism can be helpful to an up-and-coming musician. Yes it’s politer not to say anything, but wouldn’t you say sometimes a good critique (even if it seems a bit mean at a first glance) might be helpful in a way?

  7. Bobby Hacksaw

    Great post, Michael. Anyone who does anything creative receives criticism, and I think that the source of criticism is most important. If one of my heroes, mentors and teachers offers musical or performance criticism, it is a treasure which will in many cases drive me to the woodshed (to practice). That type of criticism is beautiful. Criticism from a fan, writer or musician who hasn’t proven themselves to me and who doesn’t have a valid point is usually just annoying, especially if it is ugly. In my lesser moments I laugh at these folks, in my better moments I wish them the best, as you do.

  8. I read this blog not so I can be told what to think, but rather to have my attention brought to music and ideas I might otherwise have missed. *****

  9. I really feel what you’re saying here Michael. When I was younger I may have commented on YouTube videos judging without any real knowledge or understanding of what it meant to be up on the bandstand. I have since matured however and now if I see a performance I don’t like too much I will either praise what I do like or keep my mouth (keyboard) quite. I find that most of the people who make rude and often hurtful comments on YouTube are more often than not “Jazz Fans” and not Jazz musicians. Maybe there is something to that… Not to say that Jazz fans opinions aren’t valid, it’s just that (in my opinion) its easier for people to criticize something they don’t fully understand or appreciate. As wise person once said “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

  10. We live in an era now where our “opinion matters.” Practically every webpage asks openly for comments (as here), to fill out surveys, or to review something – be it book, restaurant, movie, CD, vacuum cleaner, paper towels. Those of us who are creative are, unfortunately, going to need to get used to it, accept what is valid, reject what is not, and move on. Otherwise by wearing our hearts on our sleeves we will be damaged by the thoughtlessness of others.

    A musician friend of mine used to tell me “there is no bad publicity.” It’s taken me a long time to understand that concept, but even bad press can be useful. As my friend also pointed out, “it doesn’t matter what they say or write, it just matters whether they spelled your name correctly. Better SOMEONE is talking about you, than no one every saying anything.”

  11. All of this is undeniable, Chris, but I propose there is a difference between “opinion,” “preference,” “educated judgment.” Would you agree? Cheers, Michael

  12. Michael, please permit me to repeat here what I expressed some time ago on “Jazz Lives” about “taste” in music. I think those comments are relevant when discussing legitimate criticism of music, as opposed to a reckless venting of subjective opinions.

    Taste, I would say, is derived from cultivation. One cultivates his or her “taste” in music by listening, carefully and at length. One listening experience necessarily will lead to another, IF the listener is open to it, that is he/she is curious. I find that many people are simply not curious about music in general, and jazz in particular. Many people simply listen to what they like, and have no desire to explore, consequently their “taste” in music has been limited by their self-imposed limitations. The vast majority of people have developed their musical taste to perhaps a first-grade level, and they choose to stay on that level forever. That is OK, but when I’m looking for critical comment about music, I certainly don’t expect anything very profound from these people. There is a difference between one’s subjective likes and dislikes, and the opinions of people who have taken a lot of time to listen carefully and thoughtfully to a lot of music, read critical comment about music, and talk with musicians about music.The latter group has cultivated some “taste.” They deserve to be heard when they express critical opinions.

    Of course, even the cognoscenti (including most musicians) have their subjective likes and dislikes. But that is quite a different thing from being able to discern what is and is not good music and good jazz.

    Michael P. Zirpolo
    Author,
    “Mr. Trumpet…the Trials, Tribulations
    and Triumph of Bunny Berigan”

    P.S.

    I often create great confusion when I ask people: “what is music”? Maybe it’s like pornography–people know it when they encounter it. Or do they?

  13. I would say that a primary purpose of this blog is to present music that Michael likes and wants to share. Pretty simple. He does not, I am guessing, schlep his video camera all over the world to engage in poop tossing criticism. Nor to publicly hold up for criticism that which the author might feel is unworthy of attention.

    And there is rather gentle criticism offered of books here from time to time.

    Truly creative music and artistic endeavor of all types is in a fragile and vulnerable state these days and does not require additional fragging.

    That jazz continues to live and even thrive these days is some sort of minor miracle, me thinks. Yeah man.

  14. Why bother with idiots? Life is too short to worry about them. Your job is to call them the way you see them. Nobody will agree with everything you say.
    If we didn’t see value in your opinions we wouldn’t be reading them.

  15. An interesting post Michael…..and similarly interesting comments! It also raises a ‘moral’ (maybe that’s too stronger a word?) for me as a musician. I have recently uploaded a few things to YouTube. You were kind enough to write something nice about one; I didn’t bother to tell you about a couple of others, not wanting to push my luck! One of the clips I posted was a version of “Just one of Those Things” featuring a very fine vocalist. She is someone I’ve worked with many times before and she came to ‘sit-in’ with me when I was doing a quartet gig. I was more than happy to let her sing with me, and then to post it. I made a point of mentioning on the clip that the sound quality was not great for the vocal as I’d not been expecting her. Within 24 hours of my posting it, there was a pretty nasty comment about how I was ‘drowning her out’ and that I wasn’t fit to be posting such material on YouTube. Now, I can (and do!) take any constructive criticism anytime, but, my ‘moral’ dilemma was whether to remove the comment. I left it for about 4 days, but, frankly, was getting so many emails, phone calls and comments about the comment – rather than the music – that I deleted it. Was I right to do that? It seems childish just deleting a commment because you don’t like it and I would like to think of myself as ‘bigger’ than that – but frankly, so much attention was being paid to the comment and none to the music! Any thoughts from other musicians – or critics! – much appreciated!

  16. There are many loving people in the world, Pete, but there are also many angry, critical, vindictive ones who sit in front of their computers and leap on someone for what they consider an arror, a transgression, a misstep in taste. “X shouldn’t have played that song so fast, and you shouldn’t have posted it.” Just as we wouldn’t allow someone to call us on the telephone and harangue us loudly for twenty minutes, I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves to protect ourselves from excessive abuse. If I make an error on the blog, I am pleased when someone finds it and politely calls it to my attention: it shows that someone cares for accuracy and I, who do also, am grateful. But I feel no compulsion to allow someone to abuse me in print. Some people are furious at things we cannot see and they take it out on others without knowing or caring where the grenades might land. Be well, Pete!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s