“Writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture.” That bon mot has jostled about in jazz circles for a while, ever since being uttered by Thelonious Monk. Or Charles Mingus. Or, um, Frank Zappa. Try to track down the origins of the phrase and you’ll lose yourself in a loop of endless attributions. Some maintain, credibly, that the original quote had “music” in place of “jazz” and came from Elvis Costello. Or was it Laurie Anderson?
This murky provenance is only fitting for a phrase that analogizes imprecision. What we all recognize in the saying is the often-deadly mix of pretension and futility that haunts any attempt to write about jazz, both critically and creatively. But let’s take the facetious comment at face value for a moment and consider postmodern choreography, which has actually made “dancing about architecture” something we can almost envision. In similar fashion, a substantial literature of jazz has developed over the years, and it’s well worth considering even if it has yet to catch up with the music.