Saturday, July 04, 2009

Oscar and Ron are Smiling

Nothing gets under my skin much more than people who diss music criticism without naming names. Oscar Peterson and Ron Carter are two high-profile musicians who have repeatedly objected to the practice of jazz journalism without citing any examples, but they are only the best known among legions of people who dismiss my field.

I have long suspected that the "jazz criticism" they hate is written by people who don't actually work in the field, such as this example that is burning up the Web today.

Full disclosure: I used to know the author when he lived in Ottawa. Even fuller disclosure: His brother is my financial advisor. All that inside dope informs me that Jeff Heinrich is no music journalist, but his strange, repugnant and ill-informed hatchet job on Maria Schneider and her audience will fuel the fire that jazz journalists attend concerts with an agenda, reflect their own failings as musicians, and don't know anything about the music being reviewed.

So, on behalf of professional jazz journalists everywhere: Thanks, Jeff. You just set back our cause beyond measure.


Alayne McGregor said...

Assuming that Schneider gave a similar show in Montreal that she did in Ottawa -- this "review" seems to have no basis in reality. Complaining that the soloists moved up front for more extended solos: what's the problem? Doesn't it make more sense for the audience to see them easily if they're going to be playing for a while?

Saying that the music was stiff: that's *absolutely* not what I heard.

And the comments about Ms. Schneider's appearance: frankly, I'd call them misogynistic.

It also fails a really basic test of a review: it doesn't actually describe the music.

I am as unimpressed as you were.

(Caveat: I reviewed the concert a couple days ago. It's up here: .

Chris Rich said...

I don't know what to make of it all. I don't write about music that doesn't grab me as I'm trying to do bush musicology and actually describe the sonic architecture.

To have to spend a few weeks listening to every cut on a droll disc is not worth any money and certainly not something I'll do for free.

The problem is that so many jazz writers are reprobate english majors and few seem to have even consulted a basic music text such as user friendly "What to Listen For in Music" by Aaron Copeland.

This general failure to gain competence at basic musicology leaves the idiom forever bereft and in limbo while classical music gets professional competence as does folkloric music.

Pop music gets happy drivel but it fits. What can one really say about Britanny Spear in so far as music is concerned?

The best you can do is come up with some social peg like 'stuff for the Training Bra Circuit' or 'neo bubble gum' and call it good.

James Hale said...

So, Chris, who are these "reprobate English majors..." who have never consulted even a basic music text?

You have names?

Almost everyone I know who pursues this work seriously has studied and played music at some point. Many have held various jobs in the music industry. Quite a number have produced recordings for artists.

You seem to be confirming my model of the critic basher who has certain pre-conceptions but not many facts.

Chris Rich said...

Well where do I start?

I can assure you that there isn't a single jazz journalist from Boston between 1979 and the present who plays, composes or otherwise crafts sounds.

I know the whole posse as they followed the various concerts I produced in the 80's. One, an English Prof, almost libeled Ornette Coleman, accidentally by implying that the piece of music I helped to commission from him wasn't 'new' when it was.

I had to get the wretched Boston Phoenix to print a retraction.

The most famous guy from here was an attorney until he went off to Blue Note and tends to write dry pieces like he's doing legal briefs.

He was our local emulator of Gary Giddins.

To his credit, he has read a bunch of texts on music and can do music term vagueries convincingly.

The best writer from here had a stint at cadence but he is primarily a historian by his own admission and a very good one.

I've been reading terrible liner notes since 1972 so allow me to call your attention to this beauty.

It can be found on JUST 152-2, a Hugh Ragin Trumpet Ensemble release "Fanfare and Fiesta" on the outstanding Canadian Label, Justin Time.

This fellow is very prominent and yet the notes are fairly typical of his oeuvre with lots of anecdotes and such but next to nothing from his own mind about any of the 8 tracks on the CD.

He lets the artists do his heavy lifting and it is a masterpiece of saying little that has a shelf life while getting the word count right.

And I wouldn't make too much of producing. I was lucky enough to have made the acquaintance of Ed Michel years ago and went on a camping trip with his daughter.

Ed supported himself in salad periods as a GB band leader but he never did much as a jazz journalist.

I'm also old friends with Bill Laswell's long time assistant engineer Hahn Rowe who is a producer in his own right having done a Yoko Ono project not long ago.

My point is that much of producing is just handling grubby logistic details of a recording date and the aspects of shepherding it through the Label maze to release fruition.

I have a few producer credits myself on a tiny level. A Sufi music recording and an early Shimmy Disc cut of Ernie Brookings poems.

I won't argue that there are JJ's who play some instrument or have some proficiency with composition but they are unusual in my experience rather than commonplace.

Now one problem could be perceptions about how one is supposed to write for the imagined readership.

Maybe the writers concluded that the readership is too dim to accost with arcane details about timbre innovation, composition structure, melodic basis and what have you.

Now here is an interesting counter challenge. How many colleagues can you cite who have published peer reviewed works in Academic scholarly publications such as the Journal of Musicology?

And then let's take the following items from Nketia's summary of the defining elements of African based music and describe what they mean ad hoc, without looking them up.

Some are admittedly easy. Cite examples from widely known pieces.

1. Polyrhythm.
2. Polymeter.
3. Call and response/Antiphony.
4. Improvisation.
5. Repetition/Variation.
6. Terminal Notes.
7. Mirliton Effect.
8. Hocquet.
9. Ululation.

And if you are ambitious why not add a few things about timbre innovation in jazz in general or maybe describe some particularly striking examples that caught your ear?

christopher.smith said...


If I could respond to that: I don't think anyone is complaining (much!) about you, Peter Hum, Paul Wells and your ilk, because even if we don't always agree with everything you say, we know you are approaching the music from a point of knowledge and love of the music and respect for the artists. Not everyone does. You want a name? Jeff Heinrich. Just like the one racist that puts a blight on all members of the group he associates with, he has managed to denigrate everything he is associated with, in one staggering paragraph. As you have done, the faster jazz journalists distance themselves from him, the less damage he will do. Silence in this case means you agree with him.

Congrats, by the way, for that, and so quickly too, despite your associations with him. You went up a few notches in my esteem and I will give much more weight to what you say from now on.

Christopher Smith

Michael J. West said...

I'm not sure whether to be more appalled by the review or the editor who was willing to print it.

Perhaps with shrinking budgets come shrinking standards?

James Hale said...

Chris Rich: Academic writing and jazz journalism are two very different animals, but I take your point that journalists should read academic writing when it's germane. Of my immediate friends, I can think of one who is a well-published academic who recently wrote a festival review for a general-interest music magazine, and a full-time jazz writer whose last book was published by an academic publisher and was peer reviewed.

While theoretical background is important, jazz journalists should also have first-hand exposure to the business of making music, which would include being on the road with musicians, in the recording studio, in the rehearsal hall, backstage, etc.

Academics can write about music from a distance; journalists can't afford to do that.

Journalists also must tailor their work for a variety of audiences -- from the general readership of a daily newspaper to the somewhat more specialized readers of music publications. The academics I know don't have to do that.

James Hale said...

Michael: I'm not sure an editor was involved. It was published on The Montreal Gazette's music blog, and if it works the same way as it does at the sister paper here in Ottawa -- for which I used to be jazz critic, in the pre-blog days -- no editor would be involved. I should note that it appeared that The Gazette removed the offending post sometime Saturday afternoon.

christopher.smith said...

Nope, offending post still there, and not a word of response from the Gaz nor Heinrich. Check here if you are in doubt.

As for the lack of editor: when I click on the link the first thing I see is the big "The Gazette" masthead in the official logo configuration, and only the smallest letters in a menu suggesting that this is a blog, right above the "Contact the editor" link, so I associate this with the Gazette right away. Without knowing all the internal business of a newspaper, I assume that this is published (yes, appearance on a website is publication!) under the auspices of the Gazette, and I expect them both to edit (in the best sense of the word) the content and bear responsibility for it (well, I guess I was redundant there, as editing means, in part, taking responsibility.) BTW, when I clicked the "editor" link to complain, I got an automatic reply telling me Jordan Zivitz would be away until July 9. No idea who takes over his duties while he is on vacation.

christopher.smith said...

Here's a review (coincidentally?) from the Gazette, where the writer admits to a pre-conceived bias going into the concert. Now, he admits that he was wrong to have it, but what if the concert DIDN'T blow him away? How fair would his writeup have been in that case?

Gaby Warren said...

James, you should fire your financial advisor unless he disowns his brother. I have submitted my comments to the Gazette.

James Hale said...

I think blood might be thicker than my portfolio... especially after this last year.

Jordan Zivitz said...

Regarding Christopher Smith's comment ("BTW, when I clicked the 'editor' link to complain, I got an automatic reply telling me Jordan Zivitz would be away until July 9. No idea who takes over his duties while he is on vacation"):

I'm Jordan Zivitz. I left on vacation the day the offending review was published, and only found out about it indirectly yesterday.

As for who takes over my duties when I'm away: nobody. As James Hale surmised in his comment, no editor is involved in the blog. My own duties are limited to fielding e-mails sent via the "contact editor" link -- which, until this review, have mostly been suggestions on shows to cover, solicitations from readers and the like. For whatever it's worth, I'll be replying to all e-mails sent via that link when I return to the office.

Please note that I'm not defending the editor-free nature of the blog, or Jeff Heinrich's review. Just stating the facts of my own very limited involvement in the operation of the blog.

James Hale said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jordan.