Opinion: The Problem With Jazz Criticism

Today's jazz criticism always encourages one kind of diversity or another, that is, except when it comes to differences of opinion. It supports the idea of individual direction unless that direction provides another point of view on what is valuable in the art, what its definition is, and which of today's musicians should be celebrated.

There is such consistency in the jazz press, and its predilections, that it represents a virtual conspiracy--not one that includes clandestine meetings or muttering in code--but a conspiracy of consensus based in modernist European ideas of avant gardism. It's stapled to concepts that Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg pushed into the art world during the 1940s and 1950s, championing the narrows of Abstract Expressionism as "advanced" because they ignored the body of basic classical skills in the interest of autobiographical methods devised by the painters themselves. But right now, while mouthing those theories, jazz criticism is actually dominated by an adolescent vision of rebellion that arrives from the world of pop music, rock in particular.

That is why I was fired last month from JazzTimes, the most-widely read jazz magazine in the country, despite the editors saying otherwise. (They said it had "become tedious," that they could no longer ignore my "conflicts of interest," my "missed deadlines, or my "belligerence and vitriol.") I opposed the code of the jazz establishment, itself a union of white people who, while not at all card-carrying racists, express what amounts to a backlash against all ongoing discussions of supposed black superiority and aesthetic ownership in the world of jazz. The result is the elevation of white jazz musicians above their black betters, or even above their white betters if those white betters do not fit into a conception of "pushing the envelope." Where things become complicated, however, is that black musicians are embraced if they have voluntarily enlisted in the army that takes to heart what Rimbaud called "the love of sacrilege." This perfectly aligns with the pop world, where almost all acts are presented as rebellious. The marketing tool of the corporations--the elevation of novelty--dominates jazz criticism, which is why a trio like the Bad Plus, as well as anyone who works with hip-hop materials is praised. Let us rebel against convention by submitting to convention.

Before I was fired from JazzTimes--by e-mail--I was pursued by Glenn Sabin, the CEO of the magazine, for a number of years. I turned him down, feeling that my position as a founder and an adviser to Jazz at Lincoln Center (and a friend and occasional colleague of Wynton Marsalis) would lead to dismissals of anything that I wrote, even though the column was supposed to be given to my opinions, which is something quite different from writing record reviews or some such.

When I finally began writing a column for the magazine about a year ago, the editors were well aware of the fact that I did not buy into the vision of the jazz critical establishment. They claimed to have been interested in me for those reasons, assuring me that it would be good to have me "mix it up," as the saying goes. I had by then grown tired of an establishment that pretended to be at war with an establishment. I did not buy the idea that there was no definition whatsoever of jazz and that any attempt to define jazz was an attempt to "put it in a box," an idea that had come into jazz from two directions.

One direction comes from musicians of the 1960s, who considered themselves avant garde and had rejected the word jazz in favor of "black music" or "creative music." When they found no takers for their wares, they angrily returned to the world of jazz--which most of them couldn't play!--and were eventually embraced by jazz critics who are, for various reasons, obsessed with exclusion and have grafted ideas about cultural relativism into the world of criticism. They love to assert, over and over, that everything is relative and jazz is whatever you choose to call it. Otherwise, they argue, you speak for an establishment trying to keep a variety of jazz musicians from receiving respect. The other direction for this thinking comes from the period in which Miles Davis and a number of first-class jazz musicians sold out to rock and produced what was eventually called "fusion," jazz-tinged improvisation over stiff, rock beats that did not swing. The result today is the instrumental pop music known as "smooth jazz."

I bought none of that. Jazz has a very solid base of Afro-American fundamentals that exclude no one of talent, regardless of color, anymore than the Italian and German fundamentals of opera do. These fundamentals remained in place from the music's beginnings in New Orleans to, literally, yesterday. Those fundamentals are 4/4 swing (or swing in any meter), blues, the romantic or meditative ballad, and what Jelly Roll Morton called "the Spanish tinge," meaning Latin rhythms. All major directions in jazz have resulted from reimagining those fundamentals, not avoiding them.

Taking such positions occasioned much heated mail to JazzTimes in which I was accused of everything from provincialism and nostalgia to being a racist, which should not have surprised me since my criticism of various established Negroes over the years has been interpreted as the boot-licking of an Uncle Tom neoconservative. In keeping with the latter identity, my JazzTimes writing also attacked the ganster-rap wing of hip-hop for reiterating a kind of minstrelsy in which black youth was defined as truly "authentic" in the most illiterate, vulgar, anarchic and ignorant manifestations. I concluded that such material was popular among whites because such "authentic" Negroes, however hip-hopped up, were aggressively reinstituting the folklore of white supremacy since such black people were surely inferior to those outside of their world.

Since all of my opinions went against the consensus and called out the racial politics, I was fired, more for the first problem, which was questioning an establishment that pretends it does not exist. An e-mail for in-house perusal but mistakenly sent to me by the president of JazzTimes talks of "industry" pressure to remove me, which was later denied publicly. The public explanation, however, claims that my material was too predictably full of diatribes and promotion of my friends. Covering the controversy that arose following my firing, Adam Shatz wrote in The Nation that if JazzTimes applied such standards across the board the magazine would immediately have to cease publication. Shatz also claimed that a heated argument over definition is going on in the world of jazz criticism. An interesting observation. As the single voice of diversity in a world opposed to serious debate, I would like him to show me where it exists.