Do Jazz Critics Need to Know How to Play Jazz?

Boston-based blogger Roanna Forman asked the question to a number of critics whether critics need to know how to play jazz. Here in brief are the first five answers:

1) “The reactions of those who don’t know how to play have value.”
2) “I don’t play an instrument.”
3) “Musical ability should not be a prerequisite for jazz critics.”
4) “I’m more interested in how well they can hear what is happening in a performance.”
5) “It’s not absolutely essential for them to be able to play.”
Here’s the full piece.
Ronan Guilfoyle, one of the people asked, has taken the discussion further, and concludes: “it’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in how the music is written about.”

I’m wondering what’s new to aspire to – apart from gender issues with the pronouns …- since Bernard Shaw wrote (in 1894): “There are three main qualifications for a musical critic, besides the general qualification of good sense and knowledge of the world. He must have a cultivated taste for music; he must be a skilled writer; and he must be a practised critic. Any of these three may be found without the others; but the complete combination is indispensable to good work.”

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5 replies »

  1. This thorny issue seems to be taking over the web – thank God there's nothing more important going on at the moment…
    I can play a bit [I was the bassist with what was once, with a tad too much hyperbole, referred to as 'possibly one of the top 10 covers bands in East Anglia']. But I have no formal musical training and know little of the theory. When I review music I try to convey to the reader something of what that music sounds like and how it might affect them – is it closer to Jamie Cullum or Charlie Parker, to Ella or Billie? can you dance to it? will it make you cry / laugh / leap in the air and shout 'Oh YES'? For the vast majority of people that seems to be more important than a discussion of whether the harmolodics invoke a minor pentagramic mode or not. Does it matter if I can/can't play a bit? It does affect the way I write, but whether that's good or bad???
    If I was reviewing for an academic text, or as a teaching aid to music undergrads, then maybe I would be doing it differently.
    Next question for discussion – should you be a midwife if you've never given birth? Can you really be a geriatrician if you're still under 70?
    Oh – I don't call myself a 'critic' – that seems like rather too grandiose a claim to make.

  2. Critics have a useful function to inform. But it is quite obvious that in order to talk about anything – and inform and elucidate – it's necessary to know what you're talking about. Jazz is a sophisticated artform involving advanced use of harmony, rhythm, melody and improvisation. The jazz lover (as opposed to the jazz musician) must have a rudimentary understanding of not only the tradition (history) & the repertoire, but the PROCESS. That's why there are (comparatively) so few jazz lovers. To be a critic, that understanding has to be deeper. This does not mean a critic must be a PLAYER but he must understand music in more than a casual manner, his understanding must be deeper than the music lover for whom he writes. A judge must understand the law. A judge of music must understand the entire history of jazz (so he can put what he's writing about in context) and the basic principles of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic improvisation. A critic shouldn't be able to get away with “Danny was playing some crazy rhythm!” He should say, “Danny's solo included an exciting display of polymetrics playing 7 over 5!” He should be able to compare Nigel Hitchcock's tone to that of Dave Sanborn and Paul Desmond. He should understand the difference between Benson and Metheny and Stern and also know about Eddie Lang. He doesn't have to be a guitarist but he needs to have a deeper knowledge about the guitar than someone who has been to one Clapton gig for their 50th. I want to hear an INFORMED analysis of the news by a guy like Paxman because he knows the history of politics although he's not an MP. And the hysterical video above is funny because it's so real (except for the robot part).

  3. Oh dear me.
    Oh no
    “Danny's solo included an exciting display of polymetrics playing 7 over 5!”

    So who was this written for? For the average fringe jazz fan who wonders whether to go and see an artist? I don't think so!
    Obviously this was written for other jazz musicians. Not really the purpose of criticism.

    TV and Theatre critics do NOT describe the mechanics so why should jazz critics!

    I don't think its true that “there are so few jazz lovers” but I do think that a lot of people are frightened off listening to jazz because of the sort of writing outlined above!

  4. There is no reason why someone reviewing a gig should completely understand the mechanics of the music; but there does have to be some presence of active listening and some love of the music.

    I think some reviewers use more technical descriptions, or use phrases like “Monkian” to hide the fact they're not listening to [or cannot hear] what's actually being communicated in the music itself.

    What I'd really like to read in longer reviews is more context: for example

    + what does the reviewer think is the intention of the musician(s) in presenting the music? It might sound high-falluting, but in both totally improvised and more structured music there's a conversation happening; the audience is listening to it and part of it. Did the reviewer/audience [want to] understand the conversation?

    + How did the audience react to the music over the course of the gig? Music has the inherent ability to alter mood across a group of people, and moods can be described; and yet review upon review will fumble instead on what the writer thinks the influences of the group are, barely-accurate technical descriptions, clothing[!]; or how they felt about the gig, with no view on their fellow listeners. I've seen reviews of gigs I've been to where the audience has been on its feet but the writer didn't enjoy it and transposed his feelings onto a hundred people.

    I suppose I'm looking for a balance between description, observation and opinion.

    I'd also be really happy if reviewers stated whether their review was based on the whole gig, or just part of it; and why. Jon Turney is good at that, and provides some excellent reviews; some of the JazzUK Scene and Heard as well – direct and listener-focussed.

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