Wynton Marsalis on Jazz Criticism - Why He's Right

     Kevin Berger, who contributes to the LA Times blog Culture Monster, posted what amounts to an old-fashioned sidebar to a Sunday feature on Wynton Marsalis.  In Berger's brief piece, Marsalis has a number of gracious, thoughtful comments on jazz criticism. In the wake of my own somewhat harsh remarks after the lackadaisical 60 Minutes profile on Marsalis last month, further comment on the whole critical process might be in order -- if only to get my own thoughts on the subject more clear.  Also, with the continued prominence of an old PN entry "Why Kenny G Sucks," my later (hedged) retraction of that position, and the appearance of the G-Man on Superbowl Sunday, how can I resist the opportunity to put these two musical icons into a common context?
     What a critic tries to do, as far as I can tell from reviewing books for over a decade and music, on and off, for four years now, is to give the reader an appreciation of the works that the critic appreciates.  As an undergraduate, I was trained in both creative writing and academic criticism, which in many ways was a terrible thing to do to myself; at times, as one of my professors said to me, "It's like trying to look down both ends of a telescope at once."  The further academic training for "reading literature" I received in graduate school turned me off completely to the notion of earning a doctorate. In the same year I earned by MA and made a hasty exit from academia, I started reviewing books for newspapers, a part-time occupation that led to the Passing Notes radio show and all the work I do today as a culture maven (my term), although some people it being a critic-at-large.
     The central issue is the term 'critic.'  In everyday usage, to be a critic -- to be critical -- is understood with a largely negative connotation.  A critic is finding fault, expressing jealousy or resentment, being negative or mean or too intellectual, or, these days, just trolling. From where I sit, the critical orientation is practically reversed. I've worked through most of my jealousy and resentment, and I don't find that readers or listeners respond well to negative and mean content.  As far as being too intellectual, please understand that much of my training was in aesthetics and definitions and canonical thinking; in the end, I found that my academic training had little to do with my I kept turning pages or wanted to tap my feet.
     What I find, in talking to critics (or well-informed fans, if there's a difference), is that most of the time people seek a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of whatever it is that might interest them.  If you like this sort of book, give this a read.  If you like that sort of music, listen to that.  My approach, most of the time, is to be open-minded and appreciative, thoughtful and smart in examining anything.  I don't always succeed in being quite so positive, but I try to stick to a simple guideline when I'm looking around: "Find the good stuff."
     But there is a time to find fault --as one might put it, to go negative.  Let me point out, however, that, most of the time, when I dislike things, I tend not to review them.  One of the most useful aspects of producing and editing my own content is that, for the most part, I can simply say nothing rather than write a negative review. The two highest-profile negative reviews I've written serve to illustrate two of the three instances in which I might write a negative review.  Case-by-case:
   When it smells like product. My colleague Frank Consola, long-time programmer at WDNA, once used this phase to me, and it's stuck in my head as expressing exactly what the problem si when something is brought to market just because there's a market for it.  Examples abound, and I remember a particularly disappointing encounter with the Scott Turow machine in the form of his novel Ordinary Heroes, which, though heartfelt and a result of significant effort, was not even ordinarily interesting.  I am sure that it sold hundreds of thousands of copies on the strength of Turow's other -- much better -- books.  I would post the review I wrote, but, published as it was on 11/6/05, it now lies buried behind the Miami Herald's paywall. Boo, hiss.
   When someone trades on celebrity. In a similar vein, people -- let us use the term celebrities -- from one field often attempt to use their allure to cross over into other fields for fertile new markets to cultivate.  Sometimes this works -- George Foreman, boxer, becomes George Foreman, minister and cooking appliance mogul.  Sometimes, this does not -- Mariah Carey, pop star, becomes Mariah Carey, actor. In my case, I requested the opportunity to review Carl Reiner's 2006 novel, NNNNN, which I thought had a fair shot at being halfway decent.  It was not.  The audio version of that review is here.  I'm sure, however, that Reiner sold tens of thousands of copies of the book.
    When someone self-produces/self-publishes -- sometimes. Once again, the problem of the market looms large around the issue of self-producing or self-publication.  Until recently, without access to agents and publicists and record companies and publishers, even if you had some talent, if you couldn't get someone with access to the marketplace to notice you, you were destined to toil in the underground (perhaps forever) or simply give up.  These days, digital production and distribution has changed some of that, but the increasing ease and decreasing expense of bringing out your own book or album or movie hasn't made the quality any better. Some good stuff appears, of course.  But, for example, in my CD stack last year, I had two double-CDs released simultaneously by an artist on his own label, and the material was just too diluted.  If he had put out one CD (rather than four), he might have made an impression.   But again, most of the time, if I don't care for it, I don't talk about it.
     Another example of needless self-publication would be this blog, of course. What good is the Blogiverse if almost all of it is complete crap?  Trust me, I hear from plenty of people who think I am an idiot, a jerk, and a waste of their time.  But at least, apparently, they took the time to read or listen.  One toils away in Blogistan the best one can, cultivating sound content if possible.
     But to move to the LA Times/Culture Monster piece on Marsalis, we can again take the salient points as they come.
      Kevin Berger writes about those two criticize Marsalis as a trumpet player:
     "Jazz critics Gary Giddins and Whitney Balliett, to name two, have never been big Marsalis fans. Perhaps their views could be summed up in Balliett's comment that for all of Marsalis' dazzling playing, he 'fails to stir the feelings, to jar the heart.'"
     Now that I look over my Wall of Music here in the back room, I see only four CDs from Marsalis -- two early releases, Think of One and Black Codes (from the Underground) as well as the later J MoodCiti Movement, Standard Time, Vol. 1and the soundtrack to Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.  If I had to add other CDs that I might play on the air from time to time, they would be The Magic Hour and Big Train. Now, I'm in any way saying that Marsalis' other material is inferior -- part of the matter is that there's so much of it, some of it is symphonic music, and some of it is through-composed material, which I simply don't have as much of a taste for.  I can't speak for Giddins for Balliett, but as for stirring feelings, I can't say that I ever thought of Marsalis' artistry as working in that way.  Even as a young player with his monster chops, there was always something brilliant but arch in his playing -- as if the feeling were distilled into the abstraction of music.  In this way, Marsalis has more in common with Miles Davis -- who can be very dry -- and the artist Marsalis now is most commonly compared to, Duke Ellington.  Duke, for all of the feeling in his work, nevertheless managed in much of his composition to dilute pure emotions through the distancing effect of dissonance and the fragmenting effect of montage.
     Marsalis on whose feedback he listens to:
    "I have friends who will critique me much harder than any review."
     Any artist has to be careful about both the thickness of the skin and the thickness of the skull.  A thick skin is required because of the personal investment any work of art requires; people's reactions to it are bound to feel personal, and one's feelings might get hurt as a result.  A thick skull is useful in that, for the most part, an artist is best served by his or her own judgement and sense of vision; remaining open to too any suggestions and too much "constructive criticism" is bound to get the artist in trouble. I appreciate what Marsalis says about friends who will critique him, because that friendship is the key element.  Do you understand the point of view of the friend who is offering the critique?  If you know well the friend's point of view, you can best determine how it relates to your own, and if it should enter into your thick skull.  Most importantly, perhaps, if there is love in the friendship, you can trust that your friend is more likely to speak to you in your true best interests.
     Marsalis on the musical expertise of critics:
     "A musician has worked on something, it has a lot of references, and it's full of things the reviewer doesn't know. A person doing a jazz review -- how much jazz do they know? How much symphonic music do they actually know?"
     I've been told flat-out by some editors not to get too technical about books or music, with the supposed reasoning that readers won't understand certain terms.  This is terrible.  Although concerns about readership or audience are valid, I never have liked under-estimating the intelligence of other people.  I can't talk about symbolism in a book review?  I can't mention time-signatures in a music piece? It seems to me that for anyone to get to a point where they can appreciate the way any art form is put together or the way art works, it might help to have an accumulation of basic technical knowledge -- and perhaps even knowledge that continues to accumulate.
     Marsalis on the care taken in the writing of reviews:
     "It's hard to sit down and listen to something one time. . . .I understand the practical aspect of it. Yours is a piece they reviewed on Tuesday. They have a piece to review on Wednesday. "
     I couldn't agree with this more.  Those times when I got into the most trouble as a journalist and as a critic happened when I had too much material to cover and not enough time to think, write, and revise. Deadlines are part of the business, and making deadlines is part of getting paid, but at a certain point, the contracting economics of the day take their toll on quality.  I made a very embarrassing (and careless) mistake on a package of baseball books I reviewed one year for spring training; in hindsight, I understand that cramming reviews of four books into 1,000 words was making the process a little too efficient.  It didn't help that the "big daily" copy editor missed the mistake either.  One element of reviewing for this website which I appreciate very much is the opportunity to read a book at a reasonable pace or listen to an album five or six times -- and then to have a few days to think things over.  The quick turnaround can lead to snap judgments, when what's really needed is another pass at the material and a chance to sleep on it.
     Marsalis on finding your own path:
     "Besides, I'm not afraid of you being yourself. That's America. You know what I'm saying? Elvin Jones told me something once. He was at the Village Vanguard, playing with John Coltrane, and somebody said, 'You know, Elvin, a lot of people don't like what you all are playing.' And he said, 'They better start liking it, because we're going to keep on playing it.'""
     This anecdote from Marsalis shows the attitude of a working artist in the midst of a successful career.  What do Wynton Marsalis or Elvin Jones or John Coltrane have to worry about once they're at the top of the profession?  Part of what got them recognized was being a little bit different than the next guy, and another part of success was sticking to their sense of what they wanted to do, and still another part is growing in the direction that interests them.  People hated Thelonious Monk, then they loved him, then they forgot all about him, and now they respect him.  At a certain point, if an artist has friends with good sense, a thick skin, and a thick skull, he or she just has to stay the course.  What else can be done, if it's truly where the path lies?
     As a critic, I try to keep all these things in mind.  I read.  I listen. I watch. I take my time. I pay close attention, even in passing, and I keep searching for the good stuff.  When I find it, I'll try to let you know.

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1 comment:

John Grabowski said...

Well, it's sad that there are no comments yet on this excellent and thoughtful article. I'm not the biggest Marsalis fan (though some of those albums you cite are the few I have retained in my collection) and I wish he'd lighten up more. You can be fun *and* cerebral--Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie are two prime examples. But I do agree with Marsalis' views of the critics and the role of art music in society. And too many editors and "gate-keepers" today just want easy thinking for their audiences, while at the same time buttering them up that they are stretching themselves. Good for their bottom line maybe (though, probably, not as often as they think). Good for art, definitely not.