In the five years’ plus that I have been creating JAZZ LIVES and sharing videos on YouTube, I have winced at the ubiquity of unkind words, publicly expressed, online.

I don’t refer to heated political or ideological discourse, but “criticism” aimed at the performances of particular artists I celebrate. A few examples, taken from life: X’s improvisations “don’t work. Sorry!”  Y (a living player) “isn’t fit to shine the shoes of Z” (a senior improviser).  A “shouldn’t sing like that”; B “is rushing”; C “doesn’t know what he’s doing on the tune”; D “has a whiny voice”; E “is out of tune”; F “should lose some weight.”

Why insult artists who bravely stand up in public?

I do understand subjective reactions, how deeply valid they seem.  I am not shocked that a reader might (let us say) think that anyone who doesn’t play like Lester Young is wrong.  That is a prerogative, in just the same way I like my tea prepared a certain way. But do such “critical judgments” require that artists who are clearly working hard at presenting candid, feeling art (for I give them that as a basic premise) should be insulted because a viewer prefers something else? If you think Lester is peerless, does it follow that you have to insult Ben Webster? And since the language of this century has become so coarse, I wish someone would tell me what is gained by someone online writing “[Artist’s name] sucks.”

You might tell me that Ben Webster is past feeling hurt by what people say, and perhaps you are right.  But I have used the examples above rather than put in the names of the real people who have been shot at from ambush.

Writing abusively about a fellow person is different from giving a motel a bad review on Yelp because your room was poor.

I prefer other responses that do less harm.  To quote Chaucer, if you don’t like the story, you turn over the leaf; you choose another page. Or, if the internet is a huge city with a million restaurants, you walk to the next block if the taqueria here displeases you.  But some of my “correspondents” apparently need to smash the plate glass window of the place they are rejecting.  Their expression of “taste” isn’t complete as praise; it has to destroy everything else.

I am not suggesting a moratorium on negative judgments.  I do not propose that we say that your nephew, after his second violin lesson, sounds as good as Joe Venuti.  (I hope he does, but you will agree it is unlikely.)

But should the relative anonymity of the web, the aliases people use regularly, encourage unkindness?  The people you see on my videos, on other people’s videos, those you hear on CDs and downloads, are living persons with feelings. As a rule, online viewers are getting to watch P or Q sing or play for free.  Why, then, be ungracious or snide? Certainly there are other “better” performers to see, to hear — easily accessible.

I also know that such criticisms are often “witty,” and some prefer their “humor” that is sharp-edged.  In very small doses this might be entertaining, but it often sounds like mean schoolchildren, and it certainly stops being amusing when the blade sticks in your tender vitals.  To me, much of this “acerbic” wit is really anger, not well-disguised and not terribly attractive.  And I think it takes great courage, conviction, and generosity of spirit to sing or play in public, to allow oneself to be video-recorded; a small group of people, preferring anonymity, firing darts in public from their computers or phones, seem less courageous and generous.

Being “smart” from behind a pseudonym allows the Masked Critic to pretend to greater knowledge of an art form then musician being criticize.  But “pretend” is crucial here.  These varieties of unkind behavior are nothing more than weapons that the deeply insecure use to make themselves feel superior to people who are getting more attention.  Such acts that masquerade as “free speech” and “expressing an opinion,” if unkind, afford a short-term, mean-spirited pleasure, and the consequences of such unkindness might be much more lasting and wounding than the initial impulse.  Opinions are lovely.  Everyone has a plenitude of them.  Must they all be shared, if their intent, however disguised, is destructive?

I admit, I have watched videos online and thought, “My goodness, that band is awful!” but I had to ask myself, “Is the band really awful or are they simply not playing the way you like?”  And with that question in the air, I have held back from making a public statement of what is essentially a subjective, personal response.  What would it serve if I typed it in and then hit Publish?  Would the band, astonished and enlightened, start playing in a way that pleased me?  Should it?

Should we use our considerable energies and finite time to focus on imperfections, or should we celebrate what we see, in all its flawed human glory? Spread love, not hate.

In some New Orleans restaurants, the sign BE NICE OR LEAVE is prominently displayed.  Those words are too tough for me, but I offer another version: KINDNESS BEGETS KINDNESS.  If you are generous to others, they will return that embrace.  And we all need kindness.

May your happiness increase!


  1. This needed saying and you said it beautifully. You’re the best jazz writer I know. All those other critics stink.

  2. Great post and a great reminder to all of us who post. I was distubed earlier this week by a picture of a large woman on FB and people were asked to describe her in one word. The cruelty unleashed on this lady was unreal.

  3. You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but . . . ! Sending love to you, Mister S.

  4. You’re fighting centuries of musical and critical tradition here, Michael. Nicholas Slonimsky didn’t write a Lexicon of Musical Encomium, and there’s a reason. Not a good one, but a real one.

    People who commit their lives to music traditionally have to believe in subjective value judgments as if they’re essential truths. That creates a tension, a touchiness, and yes, even an arrogance that became enshrined as part of the character of the artist, the art lover, and maybe even the art itself.

    Nowadays many artists don’t grow up in hothouse conservatory isolation and have lost that touchy, subjective truthiness. It mostly belongs to the fans, who, as you have noticed, are more than proud to uphold the old ways.

  5. Michael,

    Well stated and right on target. I have a policy of not reviewing CDs, performances or books that I do not find pleasing. It is not in my DNA to write negative reviews, and I simply do not have the time or energy to do so at any rate. I know that many performances that do not please me strike others as wonderful. Taste is a very personal thing, and I try to remember this whenever I make my judgements.

  6. Sometimes “truth” can be a polite name for unkind speech. I think kindness is worth arguing for, Paul.

  7. I actually agree. Just know what you’re up against!

  8. Occasionally, I used to tell a story, although it is fiction. It was that while shopping in a used record store one day, I saw a record and held it up, loudly (and rudely) claiming, “Who would ever have made this record in the first place because it is terrible – a piece of junk.” Then, I say that I noticed a person come close to me and quietly ask, “Sir, if you decide not to purchase that album could you please let me know. I have been looking for that record all my life.” I would not behave that way, but it was my way of making a point similar to Michael’s in this wonderful posting. One of the things that makes us human is that we react to music in very personal ways. It touches us in ways that may even be unique. Certainly not everyone should respond the same way, even when we think that a particular performance is magical.

  9. Michael,

    Thank You …for “hitting the nail directly on the head” with this post…..see you at Chautauqua. Keep on Keeping on with your great Work! Jim Wills

  10. Merrilee Trost

    I certainly agree with you. Kindness, complimentary words, brings out the best in people. Mean-spirited criticism hurts and stunts growth. And, actually, these remarks often tell more about the writer than the artist.

  11. John Choquette

    VERY well said. But, a little psychological insight into the darker aspects of human nature leaves no “mystery” ; There is a certain kind of negative pleasure many derive from “casting aspersions” from a safe redoubt.

  12. John Choquette

    I once personally knew an American writer and teacher who wrote many books such as the type one would find in the “spiritual” or “spiritual psychology” sections in book stores. He said that very often the shorter the aphorism, the truer it was. One of my favorites has to do with resisting the impulse to just blurt out ( or type) something that just flits through your mind. He said that before you say anything to anyone, consciously slow down your racing mind and ask yourself – “Is what I am about to say true, kind, or necessary?”

  13. Absolutely! Long friendly pauses would make for a happier cosmos.

  14. Following up on Tom Hustad’s excellent illustrative fiction posted above, and in the spirit of Michael’s exhortation to kindness, a true story told here about a famous musician, identity protected by way of pseudonym…

    A friend of mine, a record collector, was canvassing for 78s in Watts some years ago, going door to door and asking if the people who lived there had any old records that they might be interested in selling.

    An old man answered one of those doors and my friend posed the question, which was answered in the affirmative and followed by an invitation to enter the house, where he walked to a hallway closet to show a pile of sleeveless shellac. My friend, trying to ignore the gigantic dog that followed him too closely for his comfort, went to the pile and started to work his way through it. One after another, it was nothing but disappointment. Common postwar instrumentals by a horn player he didn’t like…and my friend almost expressed his thoughts, almost mentioned that these records weren’t what he liked…but he remembered his manners and thought twice about casting aspersions on the owner’s taste.

    The old man watched him, until finally my friend reaiized that the guy was looking for conversation, and so he put a positive spin on it, best he could: “Wow, you really like Studebaker Washington,” he said (fake name replaced here, in keeping with Michael’s policy of never saying something unnecessarily negative about another person).

    “Son,” said the old man, “I AM Studebaker Washington.”

    Thanks for your swell writing, Michael, and for the sublimely brief, effective and affective anecdote told so well by his reader Tom Hustad.

  15. An excellent essay..I’m a musician and I work hard to improve my skills but I do know that no matter how good you are (or think you are) there is always someone more competent / fluid / creative etc etc..But then again there are other musicians a lot less competent than me. I cant expect every one to like my style of playing and anyone who does criticise me I say “Hey! you might be right. Sit here on the stool and show me.” They invariably go away..I do know however that another musician no matter how he is percieved can always do something that you cant do yourself

  16. jOhn P. Cooper

    A few times, I have responded to a comment here and there on YouTube by saying to the harsh poster, ‘what are you being so mean for?’. No one ever replies.

  17. Well said Michael! See you soon my friend Davide

    Davide Brillante Via Idice 111/A Ozzano dell’Emilia 40064 Bologna Tel.+39/3288699455 Fisso: +39/0516515206

  18. A couple more things…maybe…
    1. The cutting contest was fundamental to the growth of jazz, and it wasn’t just about showing people what you could do – it was about winners and losers.
    2. So much of jazz culture is really New York culture that it’s bound to have that blunt competitive ethos that drives the city, with undertones of arrogance and backbiting.

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