Jazz Review Sucks

A Montreal Gazette blog review of Maria Schneider focuses on Schneider’s arms and hair color while comparing her orchestra to “your run-of-the-mill high school jazz band.” The review has set off a small brush-fire of web comment on the status of jazz criticism. The Rabbit puts up his ears and wiggles his nose…

Doug Ramsey’s worthy blog Rifftides alerted us to this situation, a write-up for the Montreal Gazette‘s Jazz Fest blog of Maria Schneider’s appearance. The review is at once mean-spirited (apparently to protect an admitted ignorance of Schneider’s music) overtly sexist, and empty of any real sense of what Schneider and her orchestra were doing on stage. It’s worth scrolling the comments attached to the piece, especially to find the answer by the hapless author, Jeff Heinrich, and further down, one from Schneider herself. Ramsey, certainly one of our more capable jazz journalists, and others have given good if familiar arguments about what’s wrong with a particular kind of ill-informed jazz journalism and the problems with unqualified print or blog reviewers (as opposed to qualified bloggers, of which there are many). Just because a writer is given a forum by a major newspaper or magazines doesn’t necessarily grant him/her (yes, why are there so few hers in jazz journalism?) instant credibility. Nor does exceptional jazz background guarantee cogent, insightful reviewing. We knew of one major-venue jazz critic with background as a saxophonist-composer-producer who seemed incapable of conveying what came from the band stand and was reduced to using the same musical clichés over and over. In other words, a jazz writer must first know how to write and report. All the musical knowledge in the world won’t help if he can’t convey what he heard and his thoughts about it.

Still, let’s give the Gazette‘s blog credit for its extensive Festival coverage, such as it is (check out this Anat Cohen review in which the writer seems to have never heard of Don Byron). Newspapers’ coverage of jazz, even when written by capable critics, has long been suspect for its emphasis on commercial appeal and timeliness. How many battles do we recall having witnessed at the Los Angeles Times when editors, scrapping for space, dismissed coverage of jazz and improvisational music because it wasn’t popular enough? Quotas were in place (two jazz reviews a week, no more). New, unusual and innovative artists were passed over in favor or more popularly known artists. Often the only jazz performances that rated coverage were those preceded by a professional press release. This is largely where the problems lie: with editors. If you worked for editors who knew or cared nothing of jazz the going was tough. Those that had knowledge of the music supported their reviewers and jazz coverage in general. During my career, I’ve worked for both kinds (Tony Lioce, where are you?)

The Rabbit was fortunate to come to reviewing with strong background in his favorite kinds of music and lucky enough to have an appetite for all sorts of sound. Interviewing Ornette Coleman was easier than interviewing Shorty Rogers only because I was well familiar with Coleman’s music; Rogers, not so much. To learn about West Coast jazz from Rogers and a host of its other musicians alive at the time, after reading and listening to everything from them I could get my hands on, was a great education. I was fortunate enough to apprentice with Leonard Feather, Zan Stewart and others who were willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm, albeit for different styles of music. This kind of exposure generated a respect, if not love, for all kinds of jazz including music I’d ignorantly dismissed as square. This has always been a central principle of mine: how does the music compare to the music I love? It’s okay not to love a certain genre of music one is asked to critique. But it’s important that the reviewer respect it. Reviews that start from pre-existing negative bias have little value to those readers whose bias is jazz-positive, in other words, most readers who would seek out jazz reviews. Still, if it sucks … (scroll way down).—Cabbage Rabbit

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