JT Notes: Evan Haga Introduces the Jan./Feb. 2013 Issue

The Jazz Poll-ice

Blame Hurricane Sandy or the NFL or maybe the frighteningly premature holiday shopping season, but it sure felt like I had to drag Critics’ Picks lists out of my team of esteemed jazz writers in 2012. I don’t want to sound ungrateful; I appreciate their attention to this annual ritual, I really do. But some of them had me considering collection strategies employed by IRS hounds and the Mafia.

Procrastination surely had something to do with it, as did the fact that paring down a list is an unpaid chore. But more often than not, I could attribute the holdup to painstaking deliberation. “I could tinker with the order forever,” a top critic wrote me when submitting his ballot, “but at some point I have to pull the trigger.” That’s what I like to hear—writers attacking their poll duties with fervor, only throwing in the towel when faced with the cold, hard stare of a deadline.

I distill the ballots into the Top 50 article with similar conviction. I seek involvement from as many worthy JT associates as I possibly can, because the more ballots I receive, the more definitive the final numbers. I check each ballot to make sure it jibes with our guidelines, and if it doesn’t, I send it back for revision. I do my calculations more than once. I feed all the votes into an elaborate Jazz Electoral College covering neighborhoods throughout New York City and North Jersey. (Kidding.)

We take our poll seriously because the jazz community seems to as well. Actually, the jazz community might take annual polls in general a bit too seriously. Every year they’re met with enthusiasm and an indignant wave of rebuttal—not to the artists so much as the polls themselves. Via the blogosphere and social media, naysayers take aim at the idea of art being quantified like sports or consumer reports, and, of course, they’re right: In a tradition with so much reverence but also iconoclasm, the concept of ranking jazz records makes as much sense as a Super Bowl of Abstract Expressionism.

But if you don’t consider them a be-all and end-all, year-end polls are essentially an intellectual game that celebrates a bunch of great music. (Is there more great music out there beyond the last poll slot? Of course—there’s always more.) And lest I remind you, they help sell jazz records, including those by avant-garde and up-and-coming artists who warrant critical notice but little mainstream attention. That doesn’t sound so bad.

Originally published in January/February 2013

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