Perhaps no single issue of JazzTimes got more attention from the jazz community than the September 1997 edition, which featured a 14-page section called “Who’s Overrated? Who’s Underrated?” Back then the magazine got letters and, boy, we got letters for this one. Most took exception to specific takedowns by the 13 JT contributors who were asked to pick five artists that they felt were underrated and five that they thought were overrated by the jazz press. The results and the subsequent reaction were fascinating, for three main reasons: 1) Readers really got a sense of the writers’ true loves and hates. 2) There was no consensus whatsoever. 3) No one paid much attention to the underrated choices. It was all about the temerity of a publication that supposedly supported jazz allowing geeky non-musician know-it-all snobs to trash the work of creative and perhaps struggling artists. Overlooked was that many of the writers were musicians, albeit not professional ones. Further, professional musicians are often much harsher critics of their peers, but prefer to make that known only in private company, with some notable exceptions.
In fact, talk in private company was the inspiration for the section, which was created by the learned Mike Joyce, longtime Washington Post music critic and JT’s editor at the time. What he noticed from being around music writers was that they often wrote one thing for their paper or magazine but then later at the bar would say something entirely different, when they were unafraid to show their real biases. He wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall when critics talked among themselves and about themselves—“You like [insert name here]? Really? Come on.” That was the point that was missed. The section was about the media, not the music, and how criticism was (and still is) subjective. The writers were taking exception to each other and how their peers evaluated musicians’ work. We had hoped that, to firmly illustrate the point, one artist would be deemed both overrated and underrated. Our money was on Miles Davis, Sun Ra, or Ornette Coleman, but it didn’t happen. Keith Jarrett and Diana Krall, who were garnering a great deal of media attention then, were cited by more than one critic as overrated. But success is its own revenge, and both have proven their bona fides critically and commercially during the course of their long productive careers, which continue to this day.
For our part, we were enormously entertained by the diversity of opinion, as well as by the wit and candor of the pieces. Looking back now, some choices seem spot-on, and some seem so boneheaded that you just have to laugh—like picking John Coltrane or Betty Carter as overrated. Read this provocative collection of quip-filled short takes for yourself and take it up with the jazz critics sitting at the bar (translation for the COVID-19 era: in your next Zoom meeting), who are probably still arguing about this stuff.