I've been stewing for awhile about a blog posting that attracted no little attention for its strident stance on the state of jazz journalism. Time to respond.
Need I even take the bandwidth to state my bias in this dispute? Obviously, as a leading contributor to DownBeat – one of the two main targets of the original blog post – and vice-president of the Jazz Journalists Association, which represents +400 writers, broadcasters and photographers around the world, I have a point of view about the current state of jazz writing.
My intention is not to debate the anonymous (funny, that) poster – though I'd love to if any festival producer or radio station wants to set it up – on a point-by-point basis, though I will state that the fact that he/she "(has) no idea who (Jason Koransky) is, or how he came to be editor of DownBeat" says more about the poster than it does about Jason. Rather, I want to point out something interesting about the "Golden Age" theory that the poster subscribes to.
Like so many things from the past that are based largely on our memories, it's a myth.
Last year, when Rolling Stone released its collected back issues on CD-ROM, I was excited because it meant having ready access to the works of some of my favourite music writers: the magazine's co-founder Ralph J. Gleason, Robert Palmer, Greil Marcus, et.al. I was anxious to re-read some of the work that had influenced me as a wannabe writer in my teens. Imagine my surprise when I found that – with the notable exception of the mighty triumvirate just listed – much of the writing was fatuous and sloppy. The use of adjectives was a major issue (why didn't I remember how often "heavy" was used to describe guitar playing?) and so was the obvious lack of knowledge about how music is created and recorded.
I don't have to wait for DownBeat to issue a set of CD-ROMs – though, hey, Frank Alkyer, it's a great idea – to go through the same exercise. I have a stack of old back issues, as I'm sure many of you do, and I've gone back to check things, and been just as surprised at how the memory plays tricks. Guess what? Some of our jazz journalism heroes had feet of clay, too. And I don't even have to go to the old DownBeats; I can turn to my own clipping files and find things I'm embarrassed to see my name attached to from decades past. As humans – as professionals – we strive to improve, or hopefully, we don't progress far in our chosen fields of endeavour.
Obviously, just like the music we criticize, the quality of jazz journalism is highly subjective, but I simply do not buy the idea that today's jazz writers are somehow genetically inferior to our poster's heroes (Morgenstern, Gitler, Hentoff, et.al.). Based on dozens and dozens of articles read, I would put Gary Giddins, Francis Davis, Mark Miller, Stuart Broomer or Bob Blumenthal up against any mid-career journalist of a previous generation you care to name. And just so I'm not accused of naming only those writers who I tend to agree with critically, let me add Stanley Crouch to that list (if you think Crouch can't write because you disagree with his generally neo-con stance, go read his profile of Sonny Rollins in The New Yorker or dig up some of his pro-avant gut bucket pieces from The Village Voice). I'm also encouraged by the commitment, passion, style and breadth of knowledge that a number of my younger peers – Nate Chinen, David Adler, Larry Blumenfeld spring to mind – are bringing to our trade. The future looks bright.
All of this is not to say that our business is without fault. Far from it. To be sure, there are lazy, style-deprived and narrow-minded jazz journalists, and they deserve to be called out whenever possible. But they've been called out with far more force and effectiveness than this anonymous blog post has done. If you want to read some insightful criticism of jazz criticism – words that have helped me shape how I've approached the craft over the years – I heartily recommend Orrin Keepnews' blunt 1987 essay, 'A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed...', available in his collected works, The View From Within: Jazz Writings 1948-1987 (Oxford University Press). The fact that Orrin was writing critically of jazz journalism more than 20 years ago – and shooting with deadly aim at some of the same icons that the current blogger lauds as leading lights of the Golden Age – speaks volumes.