What Jazz Musicians Expect from Journalists/Critics

This post originally appeared on OpenSky

Journalist Willard Jenkins recently asked some jazz musicians a simple question: "When you read music journalism/criticism what qualities are you looking for in the writer and the writing?" I contributed the following, response:

The best music journalism, in my opinion, does the following things:

1.    Gives insight into a piece of music by offering observations about it in the context of the current music scene: how does is reflect what’s happening now in a broad sense? Where does it fit in terms of larger musical trends vs. the local trends both in time and geography?

2.    2. Gives insight into a musical work in the context of the artist’s history: how does it fit in the overall story that the artist has fashioned over their personal career? An example would be the career of Miles. How does “On the Corner” fit in with his work with Bird, the band with Trane, the mid-60s quartet?

 This is not just a simple matter of “this is good, this is bad,” or “I like this, I don’t like that.” As a reader and musician I usually don’t put too much stock in whether a reviewer likes a record or concert. I’m mostly curious to know something about the music: who played what tunes with what instrumentation? Also, whenever possible, I like to get some sense of context: what’s different or even unique about a particular band or artist being reviewed? In other words, tell me where you think this music falls in the overall scene. Was it a successful performance? If so, why? Judge it on it’s own terms and in the context of what the musicians were going for. Would you judge a Woody Allen movie based on it’s use of special effects, a porno based on its crafty dialogue? This has to be done with some sense of flair and sophistication, and a deep understanding of the scene. Writers will often try to put someone in context by comparing that person to well-known musicians. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been compared to Charles Mingus or Dave Holland. And while these two musicians are among my favorites of all time, and I feel humbled to be put in the same sentence, I often feel like it’s a bit of a short cut on the part of the writer. I mean, is there a jazz bassist alive who hasn’t been influenced by these guys? I’m a bassist/composer/leader. They’re among the greatest bassist/composer/leaders of all time and therefore, among the most recognizable names. It sometimes feels a little obvious. I’m wondering how many writers know about my love and admiration for Willy Weeks and Chuck Rainey, both of whom figure very largely in my sound and approach.

 I don’t mean to suggest this should be a guessing game for journalists (i.e “spot the influence”). I’m only saying that my favorite writers are the ones who look for connections and search for context. And I really love it when writers compare my current work to my earlier work, judging my music in the context of my personal history.

 On the negative side, my least favorite meme is that jazz and jazz musicians are downtrodden. There’s a romanticism to this idea. But it’s been beaten to death and I, for one, don’t want to continue to celebrate it. Most of the musicians I know are hard-working people who see themselves as small businesses. Their brands are their names and what they sell is their art. They have as much integrity as any hard working craftsman. We’re not to be pitied. I don’t want to dwell on the fact that Billie Holiday supposedly died with $700 strapped to her leg or that Robert Johnson died at 27. Both stories are sad but miss the point. I’m mostly interested in how Robert Johnson’s voice and guitar cracked with emotion, which speaks to generations of people. I know I’d understand Robert Johnson more deeply if I knew how things smelled and sounded and tasted in the Mississippi delta (I’ve never been). A good writer would help me, at least a little, to feel like I’m there.