Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion in jazz circles about whether critics need to be able to play the music themselves in order to be credible. Like, I suspect, most people who write about jazz (occasionally for money, and often not, something which will come up again below), I have been following this debate with some interest. It was all sparked by this August 21 Boston Jazz Blog article by Roanna Forman, and continued on Patrick Jarenwattananon’s NPR-hosted A Blog Supreme (twice), on Hank Shteamer’s blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, and probably in darkened corners of actual jazz clubs, too.

I first briefly entered the fray on Facebook, after saxophonist Greg Osby posted an essay of his from a few years back, wherein he argued that reviewers should take into account the arduous travel conditions that impact the life of a touring musician before laying down too harsh a critique of a given night’s set. That’s a reasonable point. Some of his commenters, though, proceeded to argue that not only should non-players refrain from critique, but that non-African Americans could pretty much keep their opinions to themselves, too. (Osby did not endorse this viewpoint.)

My position in that context was this:

“Most jazz musicians hate what critics have to say and would continue to do so even if those critics did play the music themselves. The critic/artist relationship is always tinged with antagonism. It’s too bad, too, because in case some musicians reading this haven’t figured it out yet…you know how you play music because you love playing music, and would do it even if no one was listening? Well, that’s why writers write. So stop whining about who’s ‘qualified’ to write about jazz. Anybody with ears is qualified.”

Osby replied, saying:

“the ultimate purpose of music journalism should be to expose, to enlighten listeners and patrons to the sometimes shrouded and obscure elements in the art and also to stimulate/encourage listeners to investigate further themselves. The relationship between artists and writers should be more of an alliance towards this effect—not an ongoing feud of perspectives. Your use of the term ‘whining’ helps to widen the chasm of mistrust and misunderstanding that our music has suffered from for generations. It suggests embattlement and opposition. I’m certain that it’s obvious that we all want to play on the same team. However, just because someone is assigned to write about a subject, it doesn’t automatically qualify them as an authority by any means. The power of the pen in reckless hands is a sorrowful and at times, dangerous thing.”

To which I responded:

“‘Whining’ is harsh, but so is what Roger Woods had to say above me. [Woods' comment: "To me, most Jazz critics are analogous to the lazy fat guys who sit in front of the TV set every Monday night watching football and criticizing damn near every play. Dudes don't play and have never played but act as if they know more about the game than the players do. That's most Jazz critics. They are armchair quarterbacks. F*cking Bitches (LOL)!!!"] I definitely think there’s an ‘all-in-this-together’ feeling, especially when it comes to jazz, where the audience is so much smaller than it should be. Of course, it’s like they say about academia—’the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low.’ My primary point is that anyone who listens to music is qualified to comment on it. If only other trained musicians are listening to you, you’re gonna have trouble paying your rent. So a critic who hasn’t put in time on the bandstand or in music school, but has heard enough to know what’s good and what’s not (‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ are not automatically the same thing as ‘good’), can provide a valuable service to similarly uneducated-but-enthusiastic listeners/readers.”

Here’s the central problem I have with this discussion, though: It displays a fundamental disrespect for writing as an art and a craft. I have never played music professionally. I played the violin in elementary school, and gave it up after a year or so—the instrument just didn’t speak to me. As an adult, I gave the trumpet a try, but eventually had to give that up, too. I sometimes (okay, often) think wistfully about buying one and having another go, but I realize it’s never gonna happen, at least not to a degree where I’d feel remotely comfortable stepping onto a bandstand. Why? Because I have devoted my creative life to writing, instead.

I once spotted Ornette Coleman on the street in midtown Manhattan, as I was walking to Penn Station one evening after work. I ran across the street to ask him for an autograph—I’ve interviewed him twice since, but back then I was just a fan. As he was signing his name in my notebook in a series of swooping arcs, he asked me if I played an instrument, and I told him what I wrote above—that I’d had to give up the trumpet to focus on writing. “You should have kept going,” he said, “’cause you can make the same mistakes either way.”

So here’s the thing. I know I’ll never be a professional musician, or even an amateur capable of holding my own in a band with serious players. I recognize that there’s a huge amount of work and sacrifice that goes into becoming a true musician, and I have not put in the time and it’s too late to start now. But musicians who deign to decide who is and isn’t qualified to write about them seem to be under the impression that anyone can write. And that’s just not true. There are a few jazz musicians who’ve turned a hand to writing and done well, but not every player has a Beneath the Underdog or a Straight Life in ‘em, believe me. Just read some jazz players’ Facebook posts or their blogs sometime—if the spelling, grammar and punctuation alone don’t floor you, the sheer syntactical loopiness will.

I’ve been writing since I learned to form letters. When I was maybe four years old, I had a short story published in the local paper. The first record review I ever wrote was in 1986, when I was a freshman in high school. It wasn’t until a decade later that anyone would pay me, but I hadn’t stopped in the interim. I still write for free just about every day—this piece you’re reading is one example. Hell, this whole site is one big example. And the result of all that practice (“woodshedding,” if you will) is that I’m a fucking good writer. I know it, the people who hire me to write for them know it, and there’s no point in affecting false humility, because this is how I make my living. I write because I love writing, but my skills have been honed over the course of decades. Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I’ve done both, while musicians were busy doing what it takes to be musicians: listening a lot and playing a lot. And I respect their craft tremendously. What I want in return is respect for mine.

Are there ignorant, uninformed writers out there? Do even the best of us make unforced errors of fact or interpretation at times? Have I published words I wish I could take back? Yes, yes, and yes. But that doesn’t mean I take what I do lightly, and I resent the implication that my viewpoint is less important than that of someone who plays an instrument. Because let’s be honest: if we’re gonna start down that road, then why should a trumpeter want anyone but other trumpeters critiquing his work? Why would a pianist listen to anybody but another pianist? See how quickly this devolves into people basically talking to themselves?

If you’re making art in a public way, the public has the right to respond. Indeed, artists should want the public to respond. But I get the feeling that a lot of artists don’t. Either they want their art received with silent awe, or they get so angry at negative reviews that they try to shut down discussion.

I can only speak for myself. That’s all I’m doing here. But allow me to explain my process, in the hope that it will illuminate some things for any musicians who may be reading this. I rarely accept assignments. What I mostly do is pitch: call or email an editor and say, in effect, I really like this record, can I write about it for your magazine/website? (This is also how Burning Ambulance works: I email writers and ask, what’s exciting you lately?) I’m writing about people whose work I believe deserves both exposure and explication. And most writers are doing the same. We’re in it for the love of music and the love of writing. We’re not in it to settle grudges, or to feel superior to the players we write about. (Those of us who are over 30 and have been doing this for more than a year or two aren’t, anyway. There are certainly kids out there acting…well, the way stupid kids always act. But older writers mostly ignore them, and musicians should too.) And whether we say it publicly or not, we want the artists to read what we have to say. I email links to my pieces to the people I write about. If an article’s not available online, I might send a scanned PDF. If the artist has questions about why I said what I did, I explain myself. Maybe we come to an agreement. Maybe we don’t. But mutual respect is maintained.

Mutual respect. I know what it takes to be a musician, precisely because I have tried it and failed. I wish more musicians understood what it takes to be a writer.

Phil Freeman

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5 Comment on “Writers Who Can’t Play, Players Who Can’t Write

  1. Pingback: Writing Jazz, Playing Jazz: Origins of “The Critic” « Lubricity

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