Tag Archives: criticism

MANTLE or MARIS? and other PLAYGROUND ARGUMENTS

I have never been involved in sports as participant or spectator.  But when I was not yet ten, at recess, there were intense discussions, often arguments, among my male classmates about the merits of baseball stars Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris, competing to break Babe Ruth’s home run record.  I tried to join in, because I wanted to belong, and it would have been foolish to say, “Who cares?”  Looking back at least in this situation, we had statistical evidence: hits, runs, RBI’s and the like.  But this hierarchical squabbling struck me as silly then, and seems even sillier now when applied to art and creativity.

I should preface what follows by writing that jazz is a holy art to me, to quote Schubert.  And if what follows sounds irritable, you can say, “Michael’s gotten crabby in semi-quarantine, I see,” and I wouldn’t argue the point.  But the reason for this post is that it disturbs me when I see people who believe themselves experts and advocates about the music debasing it by their reactions.

A day or so ago I made the mistake of entering into a Facebook discussion on a wonderful page devoted to Lester Young, where someone with fine taste posted Lester’s 1942 version of BODY AND SOUL (Nat Cole and Red Callender).  The first response that caught my eye?  I quote, “Sorry, but coleman hawkins owns this song.”  Various people chimed in to proclaim the superiority of their favorite player, and I, rather than leaving the keyboard, wrote, “Art is not a competitive sport,” which also met with a variety of responses, which I won’t go into here.

On another page, someone posted that a revered drummer was the “GOAT,” or “Greatest of All Time,” not an omnivorous animal.  You can imagine the discussions that ensued, the rimshots and ride-cymbal crashes.

I found it odd that fans were so much more vehement about presumed superiority than most musicians were and are.

I don’t deny that some musicians were competitive by nature, wanting to show their powers, their mastery.  Some of the greatest lived to “battle,” among them Roy Eldridge, and “cutting contests” have a long history.  Norman Granz, knowing his audience, made these tests of strength and audience appeal the center of Jazz at the Philharmonic with “the drum battle” between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, or gladiatorial exercises between Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips, between Roy and Dizzy GIllespie.  However, when the concert was over, these musicians were friends who rode the band bus in harmony.  Artists with even a small amount of self-awareness respect each other, because they know how hard it is to play or to sing well, how it requires great skill and constant devotion to the art and the craft.

So these discussions of WHO’S THE BEST? are driven by audiences who want to see their team win.  They are also fueled by journalism and press-agentry.  Jazz has been weighed and measured by people who gave recordings and concerts stars and letter grades, in magazines that encouraged readers to vote for their favorites.  People would then buy the next issue to see how their votes counted.  All of this seems inexplicable now, that in 1956 a new record that we think a classic was given two stars in Down Beat when it appeared.  Or that X placed forty-seventh in the Critics’ Poll for that year.  Polls and year-end lists of the Ten Best CDs of the Year still go on, the latter energized by people of good character, but I think of them as marketing tools, not much else.  These competitions were good business for winners: if you won the poll, your price would increase.

We continue to live in a culture that greatly values the subjective opinion of the audience member(s).  I bought kitchen knives recently, and the company invited me to “submit my review.”  I was happy to, because the knives are exceedingly sharp.  But my review was a way of their getting free copywriting.  What I wrote might motivate someone to buy a knife, but it would have no effect on the knife’s quality.  It remains that way in art.  If you say that Tatum is your favorite pianist, does his work get any better: if you say he is too ornate, does he falter?  I am also reminded of someone who ran a jazz club, who told me that the way they knew if a band was good was the number of people in the room.  To me, the symphony means more than the volume of applause.

In print and in person, there were and are the jazz ideologues offering verdicts.  M “is the greatest jazz singer,” where P “is just a pop vocalist.”  C is “ground-breaking,” “harmonically adventurous,” “innovative,” “cutting-edge,” “genre-bending.” Reading this, I must assume that everyone else is sitting in the dirt, looking sadly at their dinner, a half-done potato covered with ash.

Art does not lend itself to the collection of evidence that baseball does.  If a singer has a larger range, is she a “better” artist?  If a drummer has a more dazzling technique, is he the King?  Is the superior musician the one who has more gigs, more fame, more money, more recognition?

I understand that there are artists who have been justifiably elevated to the pantheon (which, to me, is different than anyone’s “Hall of Fame”) but this also speaks to the Star System in Jazz, where there must be only one supernova in the galaxy.  For you, it’s Miles or Trane, for you Bird or Rollins, for you, Duke, for you, Louis.  The Star System is evident in what passes for “jazz criticism,” but perhaps most forcefully in Jazz Studies textbooks, where the Stars whiz by at blurry speed.  Louis-Roy-Dizzy-Miles.  James P.-Earl-Teddy-Tatum-Monk-Cecil.  And so on.  No room for Tony Fruscella or Buster Bailey because the publisher’s budget only allows for 650 pages and this price point.

Mind you, not only have I no objection to a rainbow of personal tastes, because I am a walking collection of them, and I revel in this.  If the music that makes you most happy is on an Impulse CD or a Dial 78 or an American Music one, who would I be to say that your feelings should be challenged?

But let us give up pretending that preference is empirical judgment.  Let us not treat individual reaction as law for everyone.  To write that someone is “the best,” or “better than,” is an attempt to say, “I like this.  Therefore it is good, because my judgment is always valid,” and then, “Why do you assert that something else that I do not champion is better?  Are you attacking my discernment?  I must defend my family’s honor!  Pistols at dawn!”

We are thus back at recess, a bunch of quarrelsome fourth-grade boys.  Art deserves reverence.  And the most reverent response may be rapt silence.

Try it here:

May your happiness increase!

WHO’S THE BOSS?

Some readers of JAZZ LIVES may scan this post, see that it is not brimming over with new performance videos of their favorite band, and turn to something more interesting on their phones.  I do understand: words and ideas don’t go down as smoothly as videos.  But humor me on this, if you will.

I was alive and reasonably capable in the world (I had a job, I’d earned some degrees) before I encountered a computer, and at first it was merely a hip typewriter.  Some years later, email, YouTube, social media, and so on, changed my world as they did yours.  I still marvel at the ways human behavior and decorum have been warped by the ubiquity of the internet.  This is most apparent to me in one of my chosen playgrounds, YouTube.

For a long time, the anonymity of an alias has made it possible for some people who might have gastric reflux disorder or other internal sournesses to be “critics” with high-powered scopes.  I take this personally, which is my problem, but when I post a video, it’s never by someone I think inept or amateurish.  Florence Foster Jenkins, Mrs. Miller, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards are not artists I cherish for my listening.

So when someone writes, “This sucks,” I delete the comment and lock the gate so they can’t do it again.  In the same way that if you invited me for lunch at your house, I wouldn’t say, “This food tastes like shit,” I expect people to keep their harsh estimates to themselves.  This lack of restraint encourages my reciprocation.  Someone writes of a 2008 performance, “Tempo too fast,” I may respond, “You’re so right.  I’ll go back to 2008 right now and ask them to slow it down for you.”  Childish, perhaps.  But I won’t have people I admire shat on.

I’ve given up on the possibly logical rebuttal to “The drummer is lousy,” which is, “Sir, can you tap your index finger on the desk for the length of this performance and keep good time?”  Or “Her screechy voice gets on my nerves,” which is, “When is your next concert tour?” but I think the platform from which one issues a critical judgment ought to be built on some informed experience.

Certain scornful comments have immense validity, but we must (as they say) “consider the source.”  Yank Lawson told the story of the first time he played with Sidney Bechet, wanting to impress the Master, he sailed into JAZZ ME BLUES at a dazzling tempo, and when it was through, looking to Bechet for praise, Sidney said only, “Young man, you played that song too fucking fast.” To me, those words are hard, but they are also the syllables that the Sage delivers when you’ve climbed up to the cave in the Himalayas.

But Bechet’s assessment is galaxies away from such inspired nit-picking as “She should have introduced the drummer and bassist by name instead of referring to them as ‘my friends,'” to which I nearly wrote, “Have you considered volunteering for Habitat for Humanity to put all that energy to better use?”  (I did write back and say that the two musicians had been introduced lavishly through the concert, but why I spent energy on this is mysterious even to me.)

I learned early from my mentor Sammut of Malta that what was particularly offensive about such “criticism” was its false courage — as if one could pin an anonymous note on another middle-schooler’s coat, saying what one would never have the courage to say in person.  Sammut wisely suggested to me that the rule of criticism might well be, “Would you walk up to the musician and say this to her face?”  Let that sink in.  Imagine, if you will, someone walking up to Louis at the intermission and saying, “You know, you’re supposed to be a great jazzman.  Why do you play the same solos?” but that was printed over and over.

But there’s a new wrinkle in this anonymous sociopathy which I’d like to ask you to look for, because it’s a thrilling arrogance.  I realized recently that the commenters no longer looked upon themselves as Wise Critics (DOWN BEAT staff, giving this two stars and that five) but . . . . Employers.

Slowly, the criticisms have edged from “I don’t like this,” to “This isn’t good,” to a more haughty disapproval, as if the waitperson had brought our salad too warm or our entree too cool.  The subtext is, “You have not delivered to me the product I wanted, so I will be unsparing in pointing out the limitations of what you have done.”  It’s also worth noting that no one pays to see free videos.

Artists are not members of a service industry.

So “The band isn’t as good as the band I think is really good,” is no longer a statement of personal displeasure but a more powerful expression of official censure, as if the listener could say, “You guys play that tempo again, and OUT with you!”  I wonder where this will go, this impulse not simply to disapprove but almost to punish.  I want to be present with my camera when a fan walks up to one of my admired musicians, stands in front of her, claps his hands to get her attention, and says, “I think that song should be played slower, and I prefer Bb to C.”  You may think I exaggerate, but the notion that the audience is the boss of the musicians is gaining ground, if the comments are any indication.  What’s next?

I entered the land of performance, whether live or in another medium, with the basic assumptions that the musicians had worked long and hard (“ten thousand hours”) to make music at something nearing a professional level.  In performance, I observe someone mis-finger a note, play a wrong chord, slow the tempo down, and I notice such things.  But I also know that I am not at the level of even making such a single mistake in a performance; I’ve been listening all my adult life, but a performance by me would have more errors than gratifications.  So I approach even imperfect performances with a modicum of admiration.  I might not like the way X band plays; it does not appeal to me; I like Y so much better . . . but I wouldn’t mock X in public from behind the paper shield of anonymity.

I can stop the video or the CD, I can leave the club or the concert hall in mid-performance, but I haven’t the right to yell at the people onstage.  And I don’t assume that the musicians exist, or play, to please me.

I went back through my collection of other people’s comments and couldn’t find really dramatic examples of this tendency, and then I realized I had deleted them.  It’s the only way I can protect the artists I admire from sneers of people who think they have the right to be mean-spirited.  Keep an eye out as you travel the byways of YouTube and other organs of public expression: you will find that what I describe here is not an over-sensitive fantasy of my own invention.

Great art outlives its critics.  The writer who called Trumbauer’s SINGIN’ THE BLUES “disappointing,” Mike Levin, who mocked Lester Young’s “cardboard tone,” are no more, but we can still listen to Tram and Pres and exult.

To paraphrase Jim in Huckleberry Finn, we don’t own the musicians.  They own themselves.  And we should bless them rather than carp at them.

May your happiness increase!

 

DON’T BE A GOOP, PLEASE

When I was a boy, my father brought home books from the public library and perhaps in an anthology of verse for children, I encountered the simple poems by Gelett Burgess about the Goops stick in my mind decades later.  Here are two — didactic, but also witty and pointed.

Table Manners

The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth —
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop–are you?

and

The meanest trick I ever knew
Was one I know you never do.
I saw a Goop once try to do it,
And there was nothing funny to it.
He pulled a chair from under me
As I was sitting down; but he
Was sent to bed, and rightly, too.
It was a horrid thing to do!

This is not a post about table manners, and I think practical jokes of the latter kind are vanishing from the earth, or I hope so.

But it is about the people we know who are Goops.  Being a Goop in the twenty-first century, to me, is based in self-absorption, heedlessness, and the desire to make a splash, often through being unpleasant.

I have wanted to write about Goopish behavior as it intrudes on my sphere.  So here are a few examples, and you can add more.  I think mostly of the Video Goop, the Spectator Goop, and the Online Goop.

THE VIDEO GOOP holds his iPhone up in the air to catch a minute of his favorite band, never thinking for a minute that it is now in our line of sight.  Or he shines the light from his phone in the musicians’ eyes; perhaps he has a camera that clicks loudly or one whose strobe flash blinds everyone.  He doesn’t think to ask permission of the musicians he videos and is astonished when they object to hour-long sets of their work appearing immediately on YouTube.  The Video Goop has a cousin, the “Professional Photographer” Goop, who gets in the way of the audience because he is working — so that we see his back and his camera constantly.

THE SPECTATOR GOOP treats the music as background to their conversation.  Concert hall or dive bar, when someone who wants to hear the music asks for lowered voices (raised voices and alcohol go together) the answer is often a huffy “I’m just here to have fun with my friends.  What the hell is wrong with you?”  At jazz festivals, where the audience has sometimes been following bands for decades, the Spectator Goops start speaking immediately when the music begins, socializing, “Isn’t it a SHAME that Marcia couldn’t make it this year?  I hear her husband is VERY ILL!”  (I feel very sorry for Marcia and Mr. Marcia, but I came to listen.  Kindly go away.  Far away.)  The talkative Spectator Goop is often the first to whistle or yell at the end of a solo, to offer us loud whoops about music that they can’t possible have taken in.

I witnessed an amazing corollary to this some months back.  At a jazz venue distinguished by superb music and loud conversation, both were in evidence.  The latter got louder — imagine my pleasure at being able to write that sentence — and one of the apparent jazz fans got madder and madder, offering loud assertive shushing.  The AJF, in his righteous rage, even confronted the noisy group and “gave them what for,” as my grandparents might have said, which led to near-violence.  The talkers were escorted from the venue, and one would think that Right had prevailed.  Alas, no: the AJF spent the rest of the evening loudly congratulating himself on his virtue and how he had done the right thing, unaware that his talk was as loud as the people he had vanquished.

THE ONLINE GOOP is so prolific and energetic that I will not do him justice here.  (An attentive reader will note my conscious use of the male-gendered pronoun.  Women are often SPECTATOR GOOPS but rarely if ever VIDEO or ONLINE ones.  Draw the conclusions you will.)  For me, their sub-groups are MEAN and FOOLISH.  The MEAN ONLINE GOOP is the person who fires off a scathing critical comment, sometimes cloaked in a thin veneer of “comedy,” that offers his harsh opinion.  “Nothing worse than a bad _______ band.”  “X can’t play the violin.”  “This band sucks.”  “Y sucks.” Sometimes, this person is inarticulate but still derisive, hence the vomiting emoji.  This Goop finds fault, not only with the musicians (who play badly, who don’t perform as he thinks they should, who don’t smile) but with the person who records them, to him, imperfectly.

A word about such criticisms.  Not every musician is perfect; not every performance pleases.  And listeners have a right to say they like this and don’t like that.  But the prevailing anonymity has fostered astonishing meanness.  I have been guided in this not only by one of my professors, Mr. Sigman, now gone for decades, but by Sammut of Malta, who says quietly, “Would you go up to the musicians and say this to their face?  Does anyone really need to read how you disapprove of someone’s vibrato?”  I have strong opinions, but does it do the world good for me to put my disdain into print?  Is my subjective disapproval the same as criticism valid enough to share with everyone who has a lit screen?

Occasionally, all of these cardboard figures become one: my example is the anonymous commenter who is furious about the loud talkers in a 2011 video and says, “I’d like to kill those people who don’t shut up.”  I suppose I empathize in theory, but I have written back that wanting to kill people in a video from almost a decade ago seems a vain expenditure of energy.

THE FOOLISH GOOP is hardly malevolent but is still exhausting.  When I read a comment that asks a simple question, “Who wrote that song?” “Where can I get the chords for this tune?  What year was this done?” “Is he the same person as the one who did ______?” I sigh noisily, and think with no regret of decades of teaching where we — as faculty — were asked to swallow constant doses of this insipidity because our students “were young,” and perhaps because we knew that if they were intellectually curious, some of us wouldn’t have jobs.  But I want to say, “You have a computer.  Perhaps several.  You have a smartphone.  Have you ever heard of Google, and have you ever spent time looking up something before you launched your question into the world?”  There is also THE JOKESTER GOOP, one who has to make comedy out of everything, but he is not a serious threat to one’s emotional equilibrium.  And — this just in — THE SHOPLIFTER GOOP, who sees something (a photograph, a video, a piece of text) and presents it as his own without giving credit to the source.  I know this is presumably a democracy, but would you walk through the diner taking a fry or a cherry tomato off of the plates you pass?

My favorite collision of the various online Goops happened just recently.  I had posted a video of an excellent band playing a piece that required a great deal of virtuosity.  And someone with a YouTube name suggesting hysterical laughter commented, “Nice playing. Just felt it might have gone better without the [insert name of instrument here].”  It was a polite enough comment, but I felt as if I’d been standing in front of a Vermeer and heard someone say, “Those curtains should be green.”  I wrote back, with some irritation, “Why don’t you send the musicians a note with your opinion?” in hopes that he would recognize some slight disapproval, some irony.  Alas, he took the comment literally, “Thanks, I tried, but couldn’t find contact details. Anyway, it’s only one person’s opinion. They make great music, that’s the main thing.” I should have desisted but I was disarmed by his politeness, so I wrote back to say I had not been serious but that the band had a website.  And there it lies, I hope.

What does all of this mean?  Why have I expended my time and perhaps yours in what some will take simply as “Michael is complaining again.”?  I think it’s important to encourage people to be considerate, empathetic, kind, to know that each of us is not the only organism on the planet, that our pleasure might interfere with someone else’s, that we should be gentle rather than cruel.  Fewer Goops would be a good thing — I don’t mean they should be exterminated, but that they should be introspective enough to ask, perhaps in front of the mirror, “Is what I am doing something I would like done to me?”

And should you think that my words come from a position of unearned moral superiority, I hope that is not so: I have made serious mistakes in my life; I expect to make other ones, but my goal is to have them be smaller and less frequent — or at least to make new mistakes.  For variety’s sake.

But all the Goops in the world can’t take the shine off of this: joy and energy at the highest:

May your happiness increase!

“SOUNDS LIKE”

apples-and-oranges-708686

If we would generally agree that jazz is an art form where individuality is prized, why is so much praise expressed in terms of one musician’s likeness to a more famous one?  Or, a living musician to a dead one?

When one is new to a certain art, like jazz, one instinctively gravitates to certain sounds, certain personalities, as those sensations offer great pleasure.  Early in one’s aesthetic / critical development, one might assess each new experience by how closely it comes to the great ideal, the source of pleasure. Years ago, deeply in thrall to Louis (this hasn’t stopped) I remember listening to a particular Buck Clayton or Joe Thomas solo among other enthusiasts, and we would shout or cheer when Buck or Joe was most Louis-like.  As a youthful pastime in private, it harmed no one.  But as a formalized kind of appreciation and analysis, it would have serious, even damaging limitations.

When this impulse emerges into public speech or prose, it’s most often attached to the phrase “sound[ing] like.”  Not long ago, I posted a video featuring a young brass player, not well known but superb.  And the response to her was strongly positive.  But more than one jazz fan and musician wrote, “Wow! She sounds just like [insert Famous Name here]!”

I understand that unsophisticated but sincere reaction.  Famous Name always made me  happy; New Person makes me happy, too.  But I wonder if the praisers are able to hear the New Person at all, or only the memory of the pleasure brought by Famous Name.

I can imagine the thoughts passing through the head of an artist who has been thus praised, “Gee, don’t you love ME at all?”  — as if improvisers were impressionists who had spent decades perfecting their Jimmy Stewart.

Another anecdote: a friend of mine has made a deep study of certain New Orleans instrumental styles that not everyone is familiar with.  She could explain chapter and verse the origins of her style, its antecedents, its heroic figures.  But she’s been on gigs where other musicians, assuming that her style was a matter of ignorance, not choice, have asked her, “Excuse me, have you ever heard of [another Famous Name}?  You really ought to listen to Famous Name?”  That takes aesthetic oppression to new heights: “You play in a way I don’t quite like.  If you knew better, you would play differently.”

Over such offenses we draw the veil.

When I was young and socially raw, I believed that the highest praise one could give a living musician was by comparing him to the dead.  Yes, I know, phrased that way, it sounds deeply foolish, but how many liner notes and CD reviews and Facebook postings do just this?  In my defense, I was sincere, assuming that everyone felt as I did.  If I told a trumpeter, “You really sounded like Frank Newton on that blues,” it was the greatest compliment.  [To jump ahead, I now say, “That blues was really moving,” and that’s it.]

I’ve even heard the wonderfully silly extension of that, “You must have been thinking about Mouse Randolph in that last chorus,” which, translated, says, “Your playing made me think of something I heard Mouse Randolph create on a record.  You and I must have been thinking of the same thing.”  Musicians have practiced their best vacant polite smiles in the face of such adoration.

Now, when I assess an artist’s work in print, I work to avoid the simple and ultimately demeaning equation: X’s ballad chorus on DANNY BOY sounds just like Ben Webster . . . because I really should be praising the individual for herself.  If your stated goal is to sound exactly like Ben or Billie, then the rules change.  But how many artists strive to be exact copies?

Moreover.

We have no problem going to a new restaurant, ordering, and sinking into a happy swoon, mumbling through food, “My goodness.  Doesn’t this fennel salad remind you of the wonderful one we had at that little taverna years ago?” and we know we are not only eating today’s fennel but the emotional memory of an experience.  But the fennel salad, as far as I can tell, is long past finding such comparisons demeaning.

Imagine, though, that one meets a new Love and falls into a first entrancing embrace.  Consider the effect of saying, “Oh, my God — you kiss just like the _____ I was in love with in eleventh grade!”  Such an utterance would seriously impede the flow of future kisses.

I think of Barbara Lea’s wry salty wise comment in the liner notes for the Dick Sudhalter / Connie Jones recordings, “If you want to talk about Sounding Like, you’re on your own.”  And I take that second clause as a polite way of stating, “Don’t do it here, please.”

Jazz cherishes and celebrates the individual.  Let us not lose the individual in our eagerness to place wreaths on the statues of the Great Ones.

May your happiness increase!

KIND WORDS NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE

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!

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.

QUESTIONS OF “TASTE”

Once upon a time, I was a very eager student in Miss Golab’s middle-school music-appreciation class.  She knew I liked jazz and introduced me to another student who was similarly obsessed.  He was much hipper.  He had a chin tuft.  He asked me, “Well, who do you listen to?” and I said “Louis Armstrong!” (my unspoken “of course” hung in the air).  Quizzically, he replied, “What about Archie Shepp?”  I said, “That stinks.  I say to hell with it,” and he, indignantly, said, “And I say to hell with you!” and stalked away.

Two jazz critics in the making, I point out.

A few years later, I still couldn’t hear Archie Shepp . . . but I also had little patience for Charlie Parker, late Lester Young, and a thousand others.  If it didn’t sound like the 1937 Basie band, Louis, or the Blue Note Jazzmen and their modern heirs, my ears were closed.

It has taken me forty years to be able to listen to a much wider variety of musics, and I am happy that my horizons have widened: if you can find beauty in Ran Blake as well as in James P. Johnson, aren’t your delights multiplied?

But not everyone feels that way.  One JAZZ LIVES reader told me that I was a traitor to the real jazz, which he defines as happy music played by “Negroes” in New Orleans.  All I can say (having calmed down) is that I hope he gets much pleasure out of the music he loves — as much as I do in listening to what I love.

This brings me to the question of what we call taste.

“I have good taste,” we say to ourselves.  “I know what I like.  What I like is really good.”

Others, we think, have slightly less reliable taste.  And we gossip about them in jazz terms.  “I can’t hang with him at the festival.  All he wants to do is go hear the Roly-Poly Piranhas play AT THE CODFISH BALL.”  Or, in more intimate terms, “I could never sleep with a (wo)man who digs the Roly-Poly Piranhas.”  I understand this sharp-edged perspective, but I am working hard to tame the snobbish divisiveness in my personality.

For whatever reasons, we grow attached to certain artistic expressions early in our lives.  Dr. John Money, an eminent medical researcher on the subject of sex (based at Johns Hopkins) said that our erotic attraction was based on childhood experiences we might not have been conscious of — not Freudian so much as experiential and genetic.  He called it a person’s “lovemap.”

Before I was able to vote, I heard records by Louis Armstrong (with Gordon Jenkins and the 1947 All-Stars), Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Jo Jones, the Boswell Sisters . . . so they are part of my musical “lovemap.”

And still — for all the ecumenicalism I am encouraging about “taste,” which, after all, is just something we make up to make ourselves feel better about our visceral reactions — if you tell me that you find Louis Armstrong boring, if the Basie rhythm section irritates you, I will feel pity . . . and think, “Wow!  That is WRONG!”

If you say “I do not like the way Hot Lips Page plays the blues,” I will try not to look at you as if you had just said, “I dislike breathing.  Breathing bores me.”  I might ask you, “What don’t you like about his playing?” and then we could get into a discussion.

But the word “like” is important here, because it shows that Hot Lips Page’s essence is not really in question; what is up for discussion is your subjective visceral reaction to it.

If you say to me, “I prefer the way Tony Fruscella plays the blues to the way Hot Lips does,” at least I can understand this, although I may still be surprised.  However, if you say, “Hot Lips Page is a bad trumpet player.  He can’t play,” then I must take my leave, because you have raised your subjective assessment into a statement of what you consider to be factual evidence.  I would say, as I go away, “You might want to ask a professional trumpet player if your assertion is correct.”

Ultimately I think that such “expressions of taste” are about what moves us deeply.  Does Connee Boswell’s singing of IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND store make you want to weep?  Does Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE solo make you want to get up and dance around the room?  (Please insert your own examples here.)  Are they the only musical expressions that move people to tears or joy?  I think not.

But maybe we could back off a little.

mushrooms

I don’t like the flavor of cooked mushrooms.  Too dark, too earthy.  I will eat them to be polite, and I don’t wrinkle my nose, gag, or toss my plate on the floor.  But if you think mushrooms are the most delicious thing in the world, and you pity me my culinary myopia, we could still go out to dinner.  And while you are thinking, “Michael doesn’t like mushrooms?  What is WRONG with him?” I would give you all the mushrooms on my plate so that you could enjoy them.

It holds true for music.  To my ears, there is little better than art of the musicians I hold dear.  But if you really want to go off and hear a band I don’t like, perhaps you hear something in them I do not.

Back to food.  If we are going to go out to lunch and you want me to join you for a paper sack full of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, I will not only say NO but I will tell you what I know about processed genetically modified food from animals that have never been allowed to live.  I might even say, “Hey, do you want to die?  Have you ever had real roast chicken?”  And we could not dine together, at least not at the Golden Arches.

However, should I think you are evil or stupid?  I think the most rancorous I should allow myself — in an echo of CASABLANCA — is to say, “You were misinformed.”

But if you want to spend all your time at the festival listening to the RPP, I hope you get a chance to walk in and hear a lyrical cornetist take a beautiful solo on a ballad.  Only then can you say you want to be exclusive.  Telling me that the lyrical cornetist “would put you to sleep” is true for you, but it makes me sad.

The principles of criticism stand solidly here: what are the artists attempting to do, and how well do they accomplish those goals?  If a band proposes to swing in a certain manner, to improvise on themes in ways that are melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically varied and skillful . . . we should judge them on those criteria.

For me, if the tempo drags or races, if the band is not in tune, if they rely on crowd-pleasing volume rather than shadings of dynamics, then I feel sad for the people who are hollering joyously in that room.  And also I feel sad that such displays of enthusiasm often shape the decisions of festival promoters.  I once talked with someone who ran a New York City jazz club, who told me, “The only way I know if a band is good is if they fill the room.”  That was understandable in economic terms, but not always so artistically.

I will hold on to my set of experiences and loves and I hope you will allow me to.  And I will try to be gentle.  If you tell me that the RPP is THE BEST BAND YOU HAVE EVER HEARD.  I might say, “Gee, have you ever heard Louis and Lonnie Johnson on HOTTER THAN THAT?” but I will try to disperse my unspoken scorn.

Want some mushrooms?  (Could I have those olives you aren’t eating?)

May your happiness increase.

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.

EVERYONE’S A CRITIC (April 28, 2011)

I live in a suburban community east of New York City, and my second-story window faces west-north-west.  So while I sit at this computer, early in the evening, the most beautiful sunsets appear and change, minute by minute.

Although some natural wonders don’t stir me, the colors of the sky never fail me — and often I scramble to find my camera.  (All the photographs in this blogpost are mine.)  As the sky this evening shaded from blue to azure to orange to pink, depending on where I looked, I wanted to record what I was seeing — to marvel at it in future.

Before I turned to the sunset, I saw this vista:

A moment later, I was standing on the sidewalk, astonished by the colors — the rapidly-changing show put on (apparently) for my benefit, and trying to photograph it with as few interfering wires as I could:

As I was trying to find the best vantage point, I noticed an older man, neatly dressed, crossing the street, looking to see what I was doing.

I made eye contact, gestured with my camera, and said happily, “One of the pleasures of living here is the beautiful sunsets, isn’t it?”

“Well, that’s pollution!” he said, drawing the syllables of the final word out.

“Dust particles, I thought,” I said.

“No, it’s pollution!” he said, emphatically.  “Once I took a philosophy course in the evening, many years ago, and the professor went to the window and said, ‘Isn’t that a beautiful sunset?’ and I said, ‘No, all that is is pollution!” and it deflated him!”  He laughed at the memory of his triumph.

He was making me unhappy, but I continued.  “Look, sir, we have done terrible things to this planet, and perhaps it is pollution, but isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful, but so is freezing to death,” he said.

Ex-cuse me?” I must have stammered.

“Yeah, they say when you freeze to death, it’s really peaceful and serene.”

I had had enough.  “Sir, I can’t talk to you any more.  You are too dark for me.”

“Dark?” he said, incredulously.  “I’m just talking reality!”

By then it was dark.  I went back to my apartment, thinking that I had let this man’s corrosive words devour beauty.  I am glad I got the photographs I have here, and a disheartening story to tell JAZZ LIVES readers — who are free to make of it what they may (although telling me not to talk to strangers is not the reaction I seek) . . . but that sunset is gone forever, even though there might be another one, just as lovely tomorrow.

This story is true.  I wish it weren’t.

COME OUT FROM BEHIND THOSE WORDS!

I’m troubled by the code words that jazz listeners use to describe the varieties of music they prefer. 

Some who believe that jazz only reached fruition when Charlie Parker (or John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman) burst forth, say in print that they prefer jazz that is “forward-looking,” “adventurous,” “innovative.”  Others who think jazz reached the perfection of form sometime before 1945 or 1960 or 2000 and has been in decline ever since, then your music of choice is “authentic,” “the real thing,” “pure,” “uncorrupted.”  Of course, “modern,” “contemporary,” “timeless” get a workout as well.   “Adventurous,” too. 

Veiled in code words, these ideological positions seek to validate a false premise: that Art progresses or declines.  Did Louis “improve” on King Oliver?  Did Clifford Brown “improve” on Roy Eldridge?  Was “Swing” more innovative than “New Orleans” or “Chicago”; did “Bebop” sweep all that come before it away, only to be rumped by “Hard Bop” and “Free Jazz”? 

Seriously, it makes jazz seem like a parade of the years: if you thought 1944 was great, wait till you hear 1945 — or one box of detergent replacing the last one because the NEW box is IMPROVED (and orange with blue stripes, too).

We all have very particular — sometimes idiosyncratic — preferences in our music as well as in everything else. 

But when those preferences are expressed as statements of critical truth, they may do the music a disservice.  I prefer Ellington’s analogy of the diner in a restaurant who likes his fish cooked the way Pierre does it.  So if your definition of the ideal way to play the alto saxophone is Hilton Jefferson or Benny Carter or Phil Woods, say so.  Those who see jazz as a progress year by year, with each new stylistic change an inevitable improvement on the old-fashioned music of the dusty past are missing out on many hot choruses, now and on record.  And the listeners who are so committed to banjo-and-tuba rhythm sections and find anything else oppressively “modern” may deprive themselves of the joy of Andy Brown, Neil Miner, and Jeff Hamilton. 

So let us abandon the ideological structures for an hour or a day.  Say, rather, “I like the way _________ sings, the way ________ plays trumpet,” rather than suggesting that either of these players has somehow made all others superfluous.  “Better” and “greater” might well be dispensable.  Let us be open about our admittedly subjective likes and dislikes (I have boxes of them to share) — to be cherished as personal expressions, but not made into statements of value. 

And perhaps it’s time for listeners and critics, too, to go back to the Blindfold Test — or what CADENCE calls “Flying Blind.”  Let us not be swayed by the famous name (or the absolutely unknown name) on the CD: what does the music sound like? 

A few unsolicited ruminations to begin 2010 . . . .