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Supporting Cast: Is There Still a Role for Jazz Criticism?

I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. In it I toil not, nor do I spin. I am a critic and a commentator. I am essential to the theater-as ants to a picnic, as the boll weevil to a cotton field.”

The words, as uttered by Addison DeWitt, describe a state of criticism verging on the parasitic. And in the case of DeWitt-a baleful theater critic played by George Sanders in the 1950 film classic All About Eve-the statement has the ring of haughty, self-loathing truth.

Jazz critics have also been likened to parasites: Producer Orrin Keepnews once used the phrase “little mosquito bites” to describe damaging record reviews. His metaphor tellingly implies irritation, not catastrophe. A boll weevil infestation can eradicate a field, just as a consensus of critical venom can prematurely shut down a Broadway play. Mosquitoes have a less deadly effect-provided you stay north of the equator and avoid West Nile virus (which, at the time of Keepnews’ remarks, was over a decade away). Which is not to say that a jazz musician, having been pricked, doesn’t feel the sting.

During the course of a recent Jazz at Lincoln Center talk titled “The Role of Jazz Criticism,” the only definitive conclusion seemed to be a pervasive state of malaise. Moderated by longtime producer and erstwhile reviewer Michael Cuscuna, the panel discussion featured such estimable critics as Dan Morgenstern, Gene Seymour and Gary Giddins, along with alto saxophonist Greg Osby. Their occasionally lively discussion ultimately cast jazz criticism as a subjective and increasingly endangered art-qualities often applied to the music itself.

Seymour set the tone, observing that in his 10 years at Newsday, the newspaper’s jazz coverage had constricted at a steady rate. Giddins voiced a somewhat more pointed sentiment when he noted that jazz critics “no longer have the luxury to function as freely, as viciously, as other critics.” Savage a CD in a mainstream publication, said Giddins, and you wind up “telling people to avoid a record they never heard of.” This quandary-and Seymour’s characterization of the jazz critic as an “intermediary” between artist and public-probably never haunted one such as DeWitt.

Here it becomes necessary to differentiate between “criticism” and the arguably lesser practice of journalism. Morgenstern, as someone who’s done plenty of both, was quick to draw the distinction. And he favored the former. “Criticism, as a branch of literature or aesthetics, can make a serious contribution to the art form,” he said.

The problem is that there’s hardly a place for such writing outside of academia, where its practical effects are usually mitigated by its historical (i.e., noncontemporary) scope. As one former editor of Da Capo Press observed while assembling the first annual Best Music Writing anthology, jazz writing in periodicals rarely extends beyond the personality profile or the capsule review. It’s a play-it-safe methodology that ultimately shortchanges musicians like Osby, who, speaking at the panel, inveighed against the “overwhelmingly anecdotal” interviews and features he’s forced to endure. Reviewers, often operating on a pitch basis, overwhelmingly focus on those artists and albums they can safely shower with praise. The resulting hosannas support the music in the short term, but undermine the notion of jazz criticism as a serious literary endeavor.

In this regard, jazz criticism perversely echoes one aspect of its theatrical cousin. Just as Broadway marquees broadcast critics’ unwitting superlatives-“Thrilling!” “Magnificent!” “A Powerhouse!”-jazz magazines often serve as the second wave of a market-driven publicity machine. What’s worse is that the first wave consists of press releases composed anonymously by jazz journalists, for modest but much-needed returns. Although not quite the “conspiracy of consensus” that Stanley Crouch claims to have exposed, it’s an inbred system that can’t help but corrupt the autonomy of the critic. Yet in a profession where the perks dwarf the pay, to turn away from the industry embrace is to engage in an act of self-alienation.

Turning away from the musicians, meanwhile, comes more easily-but not without complications. When, at the panel, Osby voiced the need for a closer “alliance” between writers and musicians, Giddins politely but firmly disagreed. “I understand the perspective,” he allowed, “but it’s not mine.”

Osby and Giddins seemed to be arriving at a similar destination from two different angles. Their common idea is something best explained by Keepnews. In his 1987 essay “A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed…” (now found in Robert Gottlieb’s valuable compendium Reading Jazz), the producer declared it “essential for writers to have an awareness of the context in which music exists and-to the greatest possible degree-a sense of involvement with jazz and its people.” (Emphasis his.) These characteristics underscore the most significant demarcation between critics and the aggregate jazz public. During an age in which online media and efforts like the Zagat Survey Music Guide democratize the very act of critique, the need for informed and responsible critical judgments is especially great. Giddins, like any critic worth his salt, has “context” and “involvement” in abundance. Other, less established writers may not develop these qualities without some version of the alliance Osby has envisioned.

What then, is the role of jazz criticism? It’s as impossible a question as “What is jazz?”-and ultimately far less intriguing. Yet good jazz criticism, when allowed to flourish, can convey all of the discipline, vigor and infectious exuberance of a jazz performance. It’s present in the best of Giddins, in much of Morgenstern and in the work of numerous others, past and present.

It could be naive to hope that such high standards will ever rule the game. But then, it could just as well be naive to hope that jazz itself can continue to thrive, develop and evolve during the course of our lifetime. And if that hope were to be lost-well, there’d be no role for jazz criticism at all.