March 31st, 2003

A link posted today at led me to this piece by Marshall Bowden on Jazzitude. Bowden writes about a pair of recent incidents in which jazz players have written nasty letters to the editor in response to negative reviews of their music (one in JazzTimes, the other in a college newspaper).

As Bowden paints them, both cases involved degrees of failure on the part of the critic followed by explosions on the part of the musicians involved. Bowden’s take on the whole thing is pretty reasonable. In essence, he argues that critics ought not to write dismissively about music they don’t know anything about (can’t take issue with him there) or artists they’re predisposed to dislike (not sure I agree wholeheartedly on that one). But he also notes that the artists involved here (Al Di Meola and Russell Malone, neither of whom is my favorite jazz artist, but both of whom are unquestionably talented players) come off looking pretty bad in their letters by virtue of sinking to ad hominem attacks against the critics who’d slagged their work. In the end, he says, those attacks only make the artists look thin skinned. He’s right there. With a little time and a little restraint, both letter writers could have made better points about the qualifications of their respective reviewers (plus Di Meola’s letter makes him look like a gigantic snob, which isn’t going to win anyone’s sympathy).

Of course, I’m predisposed to view musicians who complain about criticism as thin skinned to begin with. But Bowden makes it pretty clear that Malone, at least, had good reason to be upset. The student journalist who wrote negatively of his recent collaboration with Benny Green, “Jazz at the Bistro,” admitted knowing little about jazz and made it clear she put no real effort into understanding the album she was maligning. Her (student) editor does himself no favors by standing by her expression of ignorance (apparently confusing, as many do these days, the right to free speech with an imagined right to make an ass of yourself without fear of being called an ass). And while I hope no one out there actually confuses student journalism with the real thing, I’m left feeling like this is the kind of person who gives critics in general a bad name.

Di Meola’s detractor, on the other hand, seems to me less deserving of derision. The guy’s biggest crime, it seems, is that he reviewed a record by an artist he doesn’t much care for in a genre he doesn’t much care for. There are problems with that, to be sure. I believe part of the job of a critic is to question how successfully an artist does what he sets out to do. That’s a pretty meaty task when you don’t care enough about the genre the artist is working in to be able to appreciate the artist’s goals. But the critic’s role doesn’t begin and end with that task. There’s the greater goal of putting a work into a wider context. And if your position as a critic is, say, that fusion isn’t a worthwhile mechanism for artistic expression, you need to be able to say so. Also, if your position is that Al Di Meola’s music in general isn’t worthy of consideration, you need to be able to make your argument for why that’s true. Yeah, that’s likely gonna hurt Di Meola’s feelings, but the critic’s job isn’t to protect the artist’s self image; it’s to serve the reader, either by helping him decide whether an album is worth the asking price or by helping him understand a record he already owns. A dismissive review like the one JazzTimes printed will never accomplish the latter goal, but it may very well get to the former. And that has potential value. Besides, here’s the thing: bad records get made and released sometimes. And the artists who make them certainly aren’t going to agree with the assessment of those records as bad, so there are going to be plenty of occasions when a critic and an artist are at odds. Bowden doesn’t argue against this, mind you. His contention is that the JazzTimes reviewer didn’t give Di Meola’s record serious consideration before slamming it. And it’s fair to make such a charge (though whether it’s accurate in this case, I can’t say).

I came out of Bowden’s piece thinking about the nature, purpose and utility of music criticism, which makes it worth reading from my perspective. You should check it out for yourself.

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