The Way They Look Tonight: When Jazz Writers Reach Critical Mess

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Kim Love

There is a terrible misconception out there that all jazz critics are bald and bearded gnomes with a grooming style that screams “disheveled.” It’s simply not true. Actually, all jazz critics are chubby and bald and bearded gnomes with a grooming style that screams “disheveled.” Imagine Wallace Shawn with longer hair (a bald mullet!) and less money.

In both appearance and demeanor, David Wild recently brought the critic’s image into sharp focus as host of the Musicians series on Bravo. In much the same way the ponderous James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio typifies the film and theater critic, Wild’s fawning and smarmy style personifies the popular music critic-a jaded fan who nonetheless still gets gaga when interviewing Cassandra Wilson or Elvis Costello. In fact, David Lee Roth once said, explaining critics’ disdain for Van Halen and their love for artists like Elvis Costello, “Most music critics look like Elvis Costello.” And, much as this pains me to admit, David Lee Roth has a point: they do look remarkably like the bespectacled and geeky Costello, even more so now that he’s lost hair and gained pounds.

Oh, and don’t forget that most critics are height-impaired. The pudgy Wild, to keep my punching bag handy, looks like he’s sitting in oversized chairs straight from the set of Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Sure, I am exaggerating here, but not much. Seeking evidence for my sweeping generalization, I contacted someone whose onerous job it is to schmooze these guys: a publicist. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, “Mary” confessed that she learned her lesson early about the music-critic class. She invited a freelance jazz journalist to lunch in Manhattan, having never met him. Her first mistake: picking a nice place. The writer showed up late, naturally, and dressed like a slob in a crummy T-shirt and jeans probably from his college days in the ’70s. Plopping himself down at their table in the middle of this classy joint, he commenced slobbering. Actually, I just imagined that slobbering part, but Mary summed up her education with this: “Always do coffee first.”

They can’t all be schlubs, right? I asked several other publicists who they thought are the dishiest of the male jazz critics. Here are a few of their picks and explanations. Ben Ratliff: “He is definitely the strong, silent type but sensitive. In addition to his charm, he is very handsome. Very handsome.” Don Heckman: “I love the sound of his voice.” Nate Chinen: “Very good-looking, well-groomed and just quiet enough that he has that air of tantalizing mystery about him that makes you want to know more.” Maybe we should publish a calendar of hunky critics. Too bad the year’s not three months long.

I know first-hand there’s a long-standing tradition of soft bodies in jazz criticism. There’s long been a photo floating around our office, from a jazz cruise in the ’70s, showing Ira Gitler playing basketball against the late Leonard Feather. Playing an aggressive critic-to-critic defense, Feather appears to be doing something similar to jumping, although you couldn’t have slipped an album cover between his feet and the deck. He’s really just raising his hands up in the air, as if hoping a leeward gust of wind would send him sky-high to snuff Gitler’s left-handed “jumper.” Feather’s sneering facial expression, however, seems perfectly appropriate to rejection both on the court and off. And that’s how legends are made.

The now 74-year-old Gitler, whose shooting form looks fine in still frame, is actually a good athlete, and he still plays ice hockey competitively. Don’t let this exception fool you, however. Very few jazz critics are what you would call natural athletes, and in high school they most likely spent more time in audio-visual or chess clubs than on practice fields. Not since the late James Jones IV has there been a jazz critic with a physique even remotely resembling chiseled.

I propose, like for athletes, that henceforth male writers’ vital stats should run parenthetically with their names, e.g. Robert Smith (5’2″, 147 lbs) or Wallace Bigsby (5’6″, 212 lbs). Maybe revealing those numbers will lead critics to look closer in the mirror before going out in public wearing that grubby and increasingly undersized Impulse T-shirt with shrimp-cocktail stains from that record company-sponsored reception at the Blue Note club seven years ago.

While there are women who have somehow managed to break into this boys club, the fact is their grooming is largely beyond reproach (none seem to have managed the bald mullet look). Besides, there just aren’t enough female critics out there to develop an adequate stereotype, so we will leave that for a column in, say, 2010, when they’ve reached a more obvious critical mass, worthy of scathing generalization

And by then, my Rogaine treatments should have proved effective.