Here’s a neatly-put putdown of critics from American trumpeter Jason Palmer:
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“I frequently read album reviews of artists that are in my generation (25-35). Many of the writers proclaim that the artist doesn’t quite have their own “voice” or that the artist is still in the process of finding his/her own “voice”. Whenever I read a statement like this I can’t help but wonder if the writer were to put the record on repeat and listen to it all day, day in and day out (no one I know has time for this, but you know what I mean), would that artist then have their own “voice” in the view of the writer’s mind’s ear?”
Palmer’s comment is sparking quite a discussion way over there in Portland, Oregon..
Enough already. Have a joke instead:
How many music critics does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. They work in the dark.
How can any of these guys have their own voice when they all study from the same books, learn the same chord-scales and approach music in this bland, systematized and uncreative way? You find your own voice by being yourself, not by bowing to the dictates of academic and commercial pressure. You learn music by osmosis when playing and listening to it, not by spending 8 hours a day alone in a room practicing the application of theoretical concepts: Coltrane has a lot to answer for! Music has travelled a long way in the last sixty years, unfortunately, most of it has been in reverse!
Hi Anonymous —
Which “guys” do you mean?
I actually share your concern about the institutionalization of jazz — I think it has created as many problems as it has solved — but I think it's unfair to paint everyone who comes up through that system with the same broad brush. There is no one way to become an artist…
I do mean pretty much anyone who has come to prominence on the jazz scene within the last 30 years. If I listen to four bars of Coleman Hawkins, I know it's him; without “putting the record on repeat and listening to it all day….” I can very rapidly hear the difference between Louis Armstrong and Bix, or Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, or Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, or even Coltrane and Brecker. I honestly couldn't tell the difference between Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis, or Branford and Kenny Garret. I'm not saying that there aren't differences, but they are more matters of approach than of identity. In my opinion, this is because of the system of music education which has spawned them.
In the early days of this music that we call Jazz, you learned by listening, emulating and playing. This allowed a player to develop in such a way that their identity came out through the music. Now you learn scales, theory and technique and then try and do something with all that to prove to the CD buying public that you have an identity that is distinctive. It's all backwards! Jazz education (a philosophical oxymoron if ever there was one) has reduced jazz to another kind of formularised classicism, with the same results that we have seen in the classical world; bland, uninteresting, cookie-cutter performers, with bags of talent that has been poorly guided and superficially developed by a system that is much more interested in money than music!
There are a lot of great players out there, some of whom I like (for whatever that's worth as a value judgement), most of whom I don't, but very few of them have any real depth of understanding of what music is. Most of them can't play a tune straight to save their lives! You use the word artist, a word that is bandied around a lot with reference to musicians. I would like to know how you define it? For me, part of being an artist is about putting yourself at the service of the music; how can you do that in a business that is run by accountants, and where ego-aggrandisement is the order of the day?
Hey again Anonymous —
Again, I agree (in general) that the institutionalization of jazz is problematic…
But you lose me a bit in that last paragraph. First, you argue that very few current players “have any real depth of understanding of what music is.”
Woah! How exactly does one measure the extent to which someone else understands music? Is playing a certain way the only possible evidence of such a thing? I have met some pretty so-so players who were nevertheless very knowledgeable and passionate about music. Do I get to write off their “understanding” of “what music is” just because they didn't have, say, the technical capacity for it? Further: is someone else's “understanding of music” directly related to whether or not I like the music they make? That seems absurd to me.
Then you argue that “[m]ost of [the current university-trained folks] can't play a tune straight to save their lives.”
This too struck me as odd. Some would argue that the problem is just the opposite, that all the university folks play everything *too damned straight*! (Either that, or that they have abandoned “tunes” — and melody — altogether. Not sure if that was your point, though.)
I agree with your idea that being an artist entails (in part) putting yourself “at the service of the music.” But for me it's also bigger than that — it's really about finding a healthy balance between that sort of respect for music as something that exists outside yourself, with a tradition and a history, etc.; and a desire to cut against the grain by trying something new (because, as Robert Jourdain put it, the human nervous system ceases to perceive phenomena that do not change).
I have always felt that good art involves at least a modestly rebellious impulse — so in a way, having a music business to “fight against” is a good thing. (I think Ellington once said something to that effect.)