September 2010 By Nate Chinen
Why JazzTimes Matters
Nate Chinen on the unique contributions of the print media to the jazz community
One day this June, jazz critic Peter Hum published an item on his blog, Jazzblog.ca, titled “Two reasons why YouTube is the new DownBeat.” Embedded in the post was a pair of video clips, each a few minutes long. Beneath one, Hum lobbed a rhetorical question: “Down the road, when Chris Potter’s Underground releases its next disc, perhaps DownBeat will have a preview story. But will it be any more revealing than this?”
Man, I sure hope so. Unless standards have declined more precipitously than I thought, such a story would shed light on Potter’s track record as a saxophonist and bandleader, and on the particulars of his band’s rapport. It would feature first-person testimony from Potter, his sidemen and maybe even an objective outsider or two. Depending on the writer, it might incorporate some acute critical perspective, thereby putting the band’s music in context and gauging its impact on the scene. In short, this hypothetical profile would reflect the deliberative values of proper journalism. So ideally, yes: It would be more revealing than a montage of rehearsal footage spliced together for promotional use.
I’m being a little unfair to Hum, whose main point seemed to be that the open access and fast metabolism of YouTube—and by extension, the Web itself—had overtaken a basic function of jazz periodicals. DownBeat was his target of choice, but he could just as well have picked the magazine you’re presently reading. And like most arguments about the obsolescence of print, this one has its merits. JazzTimes operates under the restrictions of a monthly publication, restrictions that affect its freshness and flexibility. Its content is more static than dynamic, to sling around some old jargon from my years in online media. Then there’s the financial picture: A little over a year ago, as you may recall, JazzTimes suspended operations while courting potential investors. After much hand-wringing by jazz folk, present company included, the story ended happily, with Madavor Media taking the reins and production clanking back into gear. But as some in the blogosphere mused, who still had any use for the thing?
Plenty of people, it turns out. Two days after Hum’s blog post appeared, JazzTimes won Periodical of the Year for the umpteenth time at the 2010 JJA Jazz Awards. (By the way, if for some reason you haven’t yet inoculated yourself against my subjectivity, now’s the time. Check? Check.) Those accolades, bestowed by the Jazz Journalists Association, recognized the general excellence of the magazine—and I’d suggest that “general” merits nearly as much consideration as “excellence” here. JazzTimes, like its archrival DownBeat, takes a knowingly broad approach to its subject. There are obvious reasons for such a practice, including a drive for market share. But it’s also the result of a philosophical stance, a conviction that the jazz populace deserves full-spectrum coverage of its art, which has come to involve so many different dialects and practices.
The jazz Internet doesn’t really work that way. Most blogs involve the musings of a single opinionator, or a handful of fairly likeminded ones. The Gig, my own corner of the blogosphere (thegig.typepad.com), hews to that ineluctable truth, as does Jazzblog.ca. And so for that matter does Rifftides (artsjournal.com/rifftides), the five-year-old online home of Doug Ramsey, which won the JJA Award for Blog of the Year. I’ve cited just three examples, all by writers who have toiled in the salt mine of print journalism, and who strive for a catholic range of coverage. Hum’s day job is with the Ottawa Citizen; Ramsey is a longtime newspaperman himself, and a former JazzTimes contributor.
There are admirable jazz blogs maintained by writers with no such training, but I’d call those an exception to the rule. And the jazz discourse on Twitter mainly strikes me as a vehicle for frothy hyperbole, self-promotion and virtual shouting matches, with the occasional flash of wit (and a lot of linkage to material generated by the brick-and-mortar jazz media). An echo chamber? Not exactly, but it does seem telling that of the four comments under Hum’s YouTube post (at this writing), three are by his fellow jazz bloggers, all Twitter regulars besides.
When I asked Ramsey to weigh in on the continuing value of oldfangled jazz periodicals, he began by homing in on the medium itself. “There are people who depend on print—and in fact prefer print, and the leisurely opportunities it provides to the helter-skelter online,” he said. “I hope that that desire for reflection and depth will never go away.” Hey, wait a minute: Was he implying that reflection and depth were relative scarcities on the jazz Internet? Long pause. “By and large, the reviews I read on Internet-only Web sites I find generally shallow,” he said. (“God, I’m going to pay for this,” he added, with a sigh.) “It’s quick hits, without much reflection, and frankly, in far too many cases, without any evidence that the writer has real understanding of the music, real depth of feeling for the music. There’s an awful lot of surface, publicity-like reviewing going on.”
I know what you’re thinking: Some of that goes on in the pages of JazzTimes too. Fair enough, but I’d go with its track record just about any day. And the art of the scrupulously sourced long-form article remains a print phenomenon, by and large. Consider the smart, deeply reported profiles often penned for this magazine by my colleague David R. Adler. You won’t easily find their like online, even at Lerterland (lerterland.blogspot.com), Adler’s estimable blog.
What’s needed now is merely a shift in perception on all sides. JazzTimes has been beefing up its online presence, a trend I hope will continue, even as I maintain my faith in the glossy that arrives in my mailbox every month. Meanwhile, a note to the skeptics and futurists, to anyone carping about this magazine’s relevance as it enters its 40th year: We’re all in this together. Yeah, you heard me. You too.
Originally published in September 2010