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04 August 2009


Nicholas Urie

The NY Times I think last week or the week before profiled Eric Gaskins, who anonymously ranted and raved as well as championed the fashion world’s missteps and surprise successes on his blog, emperorsoldclothes.blogspot.com. It was and is an honest if not all out catty blog written – albeit anonymously until recently - by a working designer. And, from what I can tell from talking to my fashion designer friends (and thumbing through it myself I can say it was indeed a great read despite my pitiful knowledge on the topic of fashion) it seems to be an enjoyable if not important addition to that scene’s discourse. It seems Gaskins managed to talk about the things on everyone’s mind and in a way was one of the only dissenters in the Calvary of cheery press that surrounds the anointed fashion icons of lore and legend.

Media favoritism is a major issue in weather we succeed or fail in our chosen profession. There certainly are the untouchable figures in modern jazz that are revered in the press and free from criticism (even if negativity is fully justified) just as Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs and the like are in the fashion world. I think we could all stand for a little more discord and honesty as well as all out championing of the music we are engaged in as members of the jazz scene; if only because there are very few critics and taste-makers who can write (intelligently and astutely? I’m not always so sure) about the music and have the power of a newspaper behind them to carry their agenda to the people who care. A very small group holds an unbelievable amount of power. Maybe a few sincere voices with blogs can balance things out a little bit in the jazz universe.

If someone’s work gets criticized, that gives the creator of that work a chance to explain the work (which may or may not justify the critical remarks depending on the answer), which I think would do nothing but good for the jazz world. I don’t think we should start bashing one another without reason but I do think it would be productive to assert our opinions about the music we engage in – especially if we have decided that our opinions are valuable enough to write down and publish in a public forum. I prefer to talk with friends at a bar but maybe we just need to take a cue from Mr. Gaskins and plaster the walls anonymously – who knows?

Eric Shanfield

Over on his blog, Nico has some interesting things to say about just this issue...

I've always felt this away about criticism myself: where's our Hanslick, or for that matter, our Schumann, who by the way was also one of the 19th century's greatest music critics? (Did it hurt him as a composer? I should probably know that but I don't.) I mean, I love Alex Ross and what he's done for everybody, but every so often I wish he'd say, "I don't like this" or even, "this piece is no good." Possibly he's afraid of alienating potential listeners, but then it becomes cheerleading, not criticism, which is fine, but a different thing. Say what you want about the methods and prejudices of Kyle Gann, but he knows what he thinks and says it forcefully and intelligently. I agree we need more of that. What's the fun of being an artist if you don't have enemies and feuds? Our future biographies will be so boring.


Hi Eric,

For the record, I think Nico's recent comments fail pretty spectacularly in the "being respectful," "being productive," and "being transparent about where he is coming from" departments. Not to mention being a pretty egregious violation of the "punch up, not down" principle, which seems like something you'd at least want to take under consideration when you are one of new music's biggest stars attacking a relative unknown. If your goal is to open up frank discussion, this seems like a rather poor way of doing it. It's conspicuous that there hasn't actually been any further back-and-forth about the recording Nico criticized so harshly (a recording I actually reviewed on this blog when it first came out, for whatever that's worth).

I wasn't being disingenuous above -- I am honestly not sure if encouraging more no-holds-barred brutal public honesty amongst working artists is really the right way to go. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But regardless, I don't think that's what Nico's post seems to have accomplished, even though I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea that maybe we shouldn't be all sunshine and rainbows all the time.

I didn't mention Nico's posts because I wanted to avoid that inside baseball stuff and focus on the bigger picture. But since you brought it up, that's my view.

Eric Shanfield

Hey Darcy,

I agree with you about Nico's post, just thought it was interesting this is in the air right now.

I like a lot of Jody's music, and found Nico's comments frankly mystifying, not because he doesn't make his feelings or judgments clear, but for the reason you noted, that he doesn't seem particularly "transparent about where he's coming from." In any case, I fail to see what his reservations about her recording have to do with the presence or (or lack) of a "scene" here in the city, the ostensible subject of the post in question, and as much as I enjoy his music and his blog the whole thing just seemed a little gratuitous.

I agree do agree with him though that I have no idea "whatever a Darcy James Argue might even be."

Joseph Perez

Good post. Below is a snippet of a comment I made on Rifftides on July 28th in response to a post on the Maria Schneider/Jeff Heinrich "event". I took the situation as a reflection of what you discuss above. I would have the same response to this post...
...What was interesting was that these seemed to matter little to everyone who posted after that (or to all of the musicians and listeners who remain upset by the incident). While I agree Mr. Heinrich went too far in his comments concerning Ms. Schneider's appearance and things of that nature, and that it is very poor journalism overall, it is everyone's right to their opinion of what any particular music does for THEM (and you can infer by the tone of his article that in terms of Maria's music it is not much). Much of the postings (and conversations) ended up being defenses of her music and, in a way, a defense of Jazz itself.

Now, I understand the value of informed journalism, especially as it pertains to Jazz. The importance of people like Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddins, Nate Chinen, yourself, and others is not lost on those of us for who Jazz is life. However, there has been a trend which seems to have come to a head that I find disconcerting.

Now, I am only 30-years-old so my hindsight won't reach as far as others, but being a student of the music I do know that for the majority of its' life Jazz has been something of a niche music (understatement of the week). But these days there seems to be a "rounding up of the wagons", so to speak, in our community. Any negative critique is considered a stab in the back and newcomers to the music need to be "educated" as opposed to just enjoying. It is rare to even have a musician feel comfortable enough to voice his/her opinion fearing retribution. Mr. Heinrich's column actually was refreshing in that it wasn't the mindless, fan-boy ranting I usually see in reviews in AllAboutJazz and the like. Your point to the lessening of journalistic values works the other way too. There are just as many (or far more) uninformative, unenlightening, and uneducated POSITIVE reviews than negative, but we don't get agitated about those. Perhaps the jazz community and musicians don't mind as long as it helps them.

We allow that and yet we keep insisting that anyone who dare speaks about Jazz "knows what they are talking about", we insist people become "educated" (sounds fun, right???), and the jazz community (MUSICIANS) questions the taste of anyone who doesn't like what they do. While all of this goes on venues disappear and the audience dwindles. Budgets get cut, work gets harder to find and yet we never look in the mirror. We don't ask ourselves if we are adding to the problem. We are making a specialized music for specialized people, yet we want EVERYONE (people like Jeff Heinrich) to love it and when they don't we deride them. We end up losing what Jazz claims to be a symbol for, democracy and conversation. It seems the Jazz world doesn't want to speak with you, only talk at you.

Maybe our cocoon has become a little too comfortable... just a thought.

With respect,

Joseph Perez


You say you can't honestly answer if open and frank discussion (interesting how we assume that "honest" equates negative) among artists would be good for the scene and the arts in general. What we forget is how this "shiny happy people"-vibe we have created trickles to the media. What we now have are bland, fan-boy pieces of fluff that try to pass as reviews, critiques, or other "informative" pieces. If we combine this with the natural phenomenon that people will always talk about (and more importantly, write about) what other people are, then we get exaggerated and hyper-inflated values of people's work, where because no one has dared speak to the contrary, those that do make headway in getting covered in the media (be it blogosphere, print, or otherwise) begin to eclipse all others to the point that it seems others do not exist. Perhaps with honest discussion we would begin to see the value in ALL artists of merit, not those that are lucky enough to be chosen as media darlings.


interesting how we assume that "honest" equates negative

The word I used was "forthright" -- "brutally, ruthlessly forthright" -- and I used it (instead of "honest") deliberately.

I've never been dishonest on this blog. When I praise something, I mean it, and I've never recommended anything that I didn't think was worthwhile. What I've not done is gone out guns blazing after every poorly conceived, badly executed, or just plain boring-ass performance or recording I've ever heard. Because, well, there are only so many hours I that I can afford to devote to blogging, and also, in most cases, I'm not sure what the point of doing that would be. If I'm critical of someone, I try to make it in service of a larger point -- here is an example of a post (not by me) that does this well.

And to the extent excessive cheerleading on our scene is a problem, I also don't think it's realistic to put this all on artists, who can't reasonably be expected to go around routinely shooting themselves in the foot, career-wise, by offering brutally, ruthlessly forthright assessments of work they don't like.

You are right that clearly there are a lot of great artists on our scene that don't receive nearly the attention they deserve. But I'm not sure if a more confrontational blogosphere would really lead to more attention for those who are unjustly overlooked. (I don't mean to discount that possibility either -- it might! People do loves them some controversy, that's for sure.)

cbj smith

Ethan Iverson and the Bad Plus is controversial? I must have missed that - you know, not being in Noo Yawk or a blogosphere habitué. It's hard to imagine any controversy at all when the level of musicianship exhibited by these guys is so high. (Oh, sorry, is that cheerleading again? I WAS just being forthright...)

I feel I have to answer Joseph Perez on his assesment of the Heinrich review of Maria Schneider. While some of the posts were of the "no way, it was a great concert!" variety, and a bunch more were simply insults aimed at Heinrich, a large - very large - number criticized him rightly for not respecting the music, the performers, the audience and the whole situation. We don't ask him to like the music (in fact, some posted replies stated outright that they didn't like her music either, but deplored the language used by Heinrich), we just ask that the sacrifices made by so many to further the art be respected, and that it be approached on its own terms.

Unfortunately, Mr. Perez did not differentiate between the people disagreeing with Heinrich's assessment of the concert and the people disagreeing with his terrible approach. We didn't want him to love the music, just to respect it.

Vikram Devasthali

Though the band nerd in me feels vaguely uncomfortable doing it, I feel I must defend the practice of "cheerleading". I discussed this matter at length on my blog:


My two main points:
1. Only review albums that blow you away.
2. Having found such an album, extol its virtues enthusiastically and unapologetically.

I respect those who are uncomfortable with "cheerleading", but how else do you expect to date the quarterback?

David Adler

If you look at Blindfold Tests in Downbeat and "Before & After"s in Jazz Times, you'll definitely see musicians tearing each other to shreds. Then they're told it's someone they know intimately, and they try to backpedal. Makes for tension-filled reading. Maybe we critics should review everything on a blindfold basis.

I've always felt musicians are far more brutal toward fellow musicians than most critics would ever be. But indeed, not always in public.

Graham Collier

As a veteran jazz composer I am now perhaps in a position that I can criticise my jazz colleagues – and indeed have done so in my blog on jazz continuum.com and in my new book the jazz composer, moving music off the paper. But, having said that, I don’t think that being a veteran is what makes me criticise much of the music I hear. It’s the fact, which I have tried to live by, that jazz is, or ought to be, an honest music and if we accept everything as being great then we’re doing a great disservice to the music, as well as doing a great disservice to what it is that we are doing personally, in terms of jazz writing (in both senses) or jazz performance.
In terms of whether we should criticise our fellows I think when necessary we must. But as Doug Ramsey wrote in Rifftides about the way I had approached this in the jazz composer book ‘Contradicting conventional wisdom about some composers … he backs his positions with evidence and references and makes readers think hard about what they listen to.’
There is the point of course that jazz is suffering and is not getting the audience it deserves, but a recent article by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal starts to address this. He says if we want jazz to be seen as a serious music then we have to find ways of funding it as a serious music, which means grants, government support and so on (subjects recently aired on the jazz blogosphere). However, as Derek Baily said in Improvisation its nature and practice in music ‘To play in a manner which excludes the larger audience or, worse, to prefer to play before a small audience, is taken as an indication that the music is pretentious, elitist, “uncommunicative”, self-absorbed and probably many other disgusting things too . . . . The propaganda of the entertainment industry and the strenuous, if futile, efforts of the art world to compete with it, combine to turn the audience into a body of mystical omnipotence. And what it seems to demand above all else is lip-service.’

Not a recipe for keeping the bank manager happy but one that puts what some of us want, or should I say, need to do in perspective.

cbj smith

Graham, I need to ask about the Derek Baily passage you quoted. Did Baily say WHO takes jazz to be pretentious, etc., if the musicians prefer to play in front of a smaller audience? Is it the press or the patrons who see it that way? For obvious reasons, I would take with a grain of salt that contention by a journalist. And when he says "small audience", does he mean a smaller room, or fewer overall listeners?

I ask this because there is a lot of music (and not just jazz) that benefits from being heard in a small room. The first time I heard guitarist Gene Bertoncini in concert with Michael Moore on bass, it was in a room about the size of my living room and kitchen combined, stuffed with a horde of stock-still listeners trying to suppress the sounds of their breathing, and it was magical. You wouldn't have heard his fingers on the strings and heard him breathe with the phrases in a larger room.

For that matter, the number of people who like the music is not really relevant to my appreciation of it, either. I never understood why newspapers print box-office takes of concerts and movies in the entertainment pages, as if audiences would use those figures to decide if they want to see the film or not.

Perhaps I misunderstood the point you were trying to make. The fact that jazz requires a somewhat more informed audience (the music is less "popular") is actually an attraction to my way of thinking. It IS elitist to a certain extent (though not those other words Baily used) and that is not a bad thing.

Graham Collier

Thanks for the question cbj.
Just before the quote I used Derek says ‘The conventional wisdom now only allows one audience and it knows no limits, it’s omniscient and is to be courted by everyone.’ Which I take to mean that he wasn’t thinking of the press or the public (and in Derek’s case not of jazz, a word he didn’t like!). He was thinking of his own way of making music which, rather than conforming to this ‘one audience’ that everyone ‘must’ court, showed that there were other ways of making music and that they would find their own audience, but almost certainly a small one.

He certainly proved that, as do many others of us as we try to present something that is different from the norm. And if some people get it that’s good, and will act as encouragement to those who may have sponsored the concert or helped to put it on in some way, and of course encourage us to continue down the path we have chosen.

I take your point that there is music that needs to be listened to in small room, and feel that this is also what Derek was saying. I also agree that the music we’re talking about IS elitist. I’d go further and say that it HAS to be elitist. (which doesn't mean it has to be ugly or 'pretentious, …“uncommunicative”, self-absorbed and probably many other disgusting things too . . . .' as Derek had it - and I'm sure he used the words ironically).
There's a middle ground between being elitist and the morass of lowest common denominator entertainment, made for an audience that needs to be told which film has grossed most, or which record is top of the charts before they’ll go see or go buy. But that middle ground is shaky, very shaky as I think jazz is finding, as many musicians flail around trying to find something that's popular ('I know, let's play some Buddy Bolden music') rather than creating art, honest art for themselves and THEN find an audience - which I think is what the owner of this blog has done. We may not all like it (DJA's or any other creative act, but let's recognise that they are trying, look out for such efforts and when we find it support it instead of following jazz fashion.)

cbj smith

Thanks for the clarification, Graham. I see what you mean now. In your last paragraph you mention creating honest art and then finding an audience. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, as I have found that most listeners have very sensitive bullshit detectors (when they care to use them) that ping furiously when the performer or composer is pandering. Strangely, in popular music pandering is encouraged and embraced! Everyone knows it is going on, and they go with it. Weird.

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