Sometimes a Writer Is a Fighter Too ; JAZZ

By Byrnes, Sholto | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), December 17, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Sometimes a Writer Is a Fighter Too ; JAZZ


Byrnes, Sholto, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


'The jazz critic," said the former Downbeat editor Dan Morgenstern, "is at best tolerated and at worst despised by the great majority of jazz musicians." This sentiment, quoted early on in John Gennari's Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and its critics (University of Chicago Press, [pound]18) will be familiar to any scribe who's ever wondered why his innocent note-taking at the back of a club provokes such wariness in the musicians whose efforts he is documenting. I can vividly remember shrinking into my seat at the BBC Jazz Awards one year when the otherwise affable Courtney Pine had a go at the critical fraternity (as Gennari notes, they are pretty much all men), and the audience of jazz professionals roared their agreement.

Yet the jazz critic has often played a far more important role vis-a-vis his subjects than the rock reviewer, describing as he is a music that long ago shed any close relationship with popular taste. As an art form, jazz has built up a language of analysis every bit as sophisticated as those used to write about installation art or classical music, and the critic often shares the professional insecurity of jazz's practitioners. "Like the vast majority of musicians," writes Gennari, "they've had to scramble and scuffle to stay afloat in their chosen discipline... No writer has ever made a living writing exclusively about jazz."

Why does all this matter? Because in the first century of jazz's existence, it's the critics who have articulated the arguments about where jazz is from, who it belongs to and where its boundaries lie. They have been its historians and its definers; and if anyone queries the latter purpose, one can ask just how it is possible to love or document something if you cannot say what it actually is.

This is a valuable book, and a fascinating one, ranging from the important role played by the critic John Hammond in promoting Benny Goodman and Bessie Smith in the 1930s, to the epic battles over the "Young Lions" movement in the 1980s. It was then that the American critic Stanley Crouch was fired from The Village Voice after punching a colleague in a disagreement about music. "Just because I write, it doesn't mean I can't also fight," he said, which surely ought to close any discussion about whether critics really care about the music or not.

Not even the sainted Humphrey Lyttelton has been immune to criticism in his time, as he recalls in It Just Occurred to Me.

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