Do Jazz Critics Need to Know How to Play Jazz?

Obviously it is nice and a bit more honest when someone who is commenting on one’s work knows what you are doing to some extent. A critic should be conversant with at least a minimum of knowledge concerning the technical aspects that the people he is critiquing are dealing with. This means speaking the same or close to language to some degree. This goes without saying. On the other hand, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing and when someone is an “arm-chair quarterback” (sports expression), there is an inherent danger of thinking FOR the subject: ” I would’ve, could’ve, might’ve played this at that point in the piece, etc., etc….. ” This is not right.

To be fair, shedding light on how an interested, experienced, non-musician listener reacts to one’s art can be of definite value. I tell students to put themselves in the audience (what theater people call the fourth wall) when they present something….meaning how is what you played perceived “out there?”

I believe in review, not criticism, meaning information, comment, elucidation, historical precedent, stylistic considerations, etc. but please no value judgments. We (the performer) know better than anyone what is going on. No one but us knows the real deal, so let’s keep things nice and clean concerning the role of a critic. Dan Morgenstern, Whitney Balliett, Leonard Feather were models in the jazz world…..Alex Ross at present for classical, etc., etc. The problem is money. If a magazine or whomever pays low, they get low. Translation….non-experienced, not ready for prime time writers who aren’t qualified or experienced enough yet and who in a lot of cases need to learn how to write decent prose. Being a “critic” is a serious job with a big learning curve. Done well, what we call criticism has an important role in the history of an art form. It places everything in the scheme of things, historically and contemporaneously when done well.

Dave Liebman

Oct 15 2011

Stroudsburg, PA USA