I don’t normally watch this kind of thing but the other day I stumbled across The Great British Bake Off. The task for those taking part was to cook three desserts. Mary Berry and the bearded bloke were not shy in saying what they found wrong with the results. This one had been a mistake from the start – “you just can’t do that with strawberries without them turing to mush” – some of them had come a cropper in the cooking process – “to leave out a whole ingredient is unforgiveable”. Those having judgment passed upon them weren’t professionals, they were just ordinary people who happened to like baking. And the critics were practitioners of the highest order. Baking gurus, to be sure.
Now, this got me to thinking about the practice of jazz and the commenting thereon. Imagine a jazz great commenting upon the efforts of someone just starting out. There would be a lot of supporting words, a lot of encouragement, any criticisms couched in qualifications, and probably very little straight talking. Of course, there are exceptions. I was privileged to attend a workshop during the Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few years back when veteran saxophonist Lee Konitz failed to mince his words when assessing the guinea pig students who had been submitted for his workshop. He wasn’t being mean; he was just being Lee.
But that really is an exception, and there was some discomfort I seem to remember from the organisers that perhaps Konitz had been a little harsh.
But now let’s turn to jazz journalism and reviewing. “Reviewer” is the word I have always preferred, avoiding “critic” as too harsh (so there is the first wimp-out on my part), and it’s one I have applied to myself since I first started reviewing rock music and cinema in the late 1970s. I also very early on realised that, having done something of a hatchet job on a film or two (maybe something of a pointless exercise when the makers are big shots in Hollywood and you are writing for a small city paper at the bottom of Africa, but, hey, I was writing for my readers and helping them to spend their money wisely), that that kind of clever critical panning is far too easy. What is much harder is trying eloquently to express what is good about something and why it might be worthwhile.
But there is a balance to be achieved in all things, and it’s one that I am not sure has been maintained in jazz reviewing or criticism or whatever you want to call it.
The reasons to be kind are clear. Jazz, no matter how many stats we may trot out about it having as many devotees as opera in this country and all that, and despite the occasional success of a jazz musician (like Jamie Cullum for example) is, let us face the truth, a minority art form. And so the jazz journalists see themselves as protectors of an endangered species. The result is that to say anything critical of any jazz practitioner is to betray the jazz cause, is to side with those outside jazz who neither care about nor understand music we, the “enlightened”, love so much.
In some cases there might be another factor here. Take that Great British Bake Off – those were expert bakers critiquing amateur bakers. In the arts world it is often the case that critics are themselves not practitioners, or certainly not expert ones, and there are very few practitioners who are prepared to be critics. I don’t want to go into the old Artist v Critic debate as it is far too well worn and irresolvable.
What I am intrigued by is, specifically, jazz reviewing in this country right now. I looked through the September issue of Jazzwise. No CDs reviewed get five stars (“landmark recording”), and neither do any get one star (“disappointing”). I think you will find it’s much the same in the Guardian week after week. The worst that anything can be is “average”. Now maybe it’s true that the worst our players can be is average, but maybe it’s also true that the reviewers don’t really want to rock the boat too much.
I am not by any means pleading not guilty myself – I may have jettisoned the star system on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I am any less mealy-mouthed in what I write. Like all those other writers I choose not to review the music I think is weak rather than slate it; like them I care too much about jazz in this country to say anything terribly nasty about any of it. But is that a good thing? Is there an argument for “tough love” in jazz criticism, rather than this slavish devotion to the nice and the encouraging and the positive? Is all this back-slapping by the jazz journos helping to make British jazz better? Or just more self-satisfied? No, that’s not quite right, because I can’t remember ever having met a self-satisfied jazz musician. Though I have met a few self-satisfied jazz writers… oh dear, this seems like a tributary not worth taking.
To get back to the point, I really don’t know the right answer to all this, which is why I am writing this. I once was urged by a young singer to review her debut CD. I wrote, on this blog, what I thought was a reasonable and balanced assessment of the disc’s plusses and its minuses. Shortly afterwards I received a stricken email from the singer explaining that the only review that appeared when her name was googled was mine and that as it wasn’t wholly complimentary it was rather upsetting for her and might hinder her career. I offered to take it off my site and she seemed relieved. Did I do the right thing? Or was I a wus?
So, having confessed to being a pretty wimpy jazz advocate rather than a fully fledged critic, I would be really interested in your views out there.
- Are you a musician? Would you rather get an honest and objective assessment of your gig? Or are you happy to avoid the hurt and have your ego massaged instead? Have you ever played a blinder and then received an unenthusiastic review; alternatively, have you ever had an off night and then read a glowing review of it?
- Are you a journalist/reviewer/critic and do you feel you pull your punches too often? Or not often enough? Is jazz reviewing getting blander? What would Philip Larkin have thought of modern jazz criticism?
- Are you a jazz fan that has been tempted to see someone on the strength of a five-star review only to be disappointed? Or have you had your favourite band panned by some cloth ear with a pen and a pad?
I hope for a (critical!) response or two.