The Washington Post Says Jazz is Dead — Again? Really? Seriously?

If jazz is dead, then why are the would-be hipsters trying so hard to kill it?

Last week, the New Yorker ran an unfunny and rather mean-spirited “satire” of Sonny Rollins, titled “In His Own Words.” Rather than offering a genuine interview with the 84-year-old jazz legend, the publication wasted space on a humor piece that didn’t even touch on several of the key episodes in the saxophonist’s career.

dunce cap

And now, another major publication, the Washington Post, hammers on jazz with a piece that reads like satire but, sadly, is not.

“Jazz has run out of ideas, and yet it’s still getting applause,” someone named Justin Moyer writes, in a column titled “All that jazz isn’t all that great.”

Right up front, Moyer admits that, while he studied with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Pheeroan akLaff and Jay Hoggard at Wesleyan, he found jazz “hard to grasp.” In his humble opinion, he has decided that jazz is “insubstantia.” and “hard to grasp.”

So, really, Washington Post, you assign someone who admittedly is clueless about jazz … to write about jazz? Smart thinking.

And why doesn’t poor Justin like jazz? Well, gosh, jazz is instrumental music, so it doesn’t have lyrics. Imagine the guy trying to come to terms with classical music. If only those loser composers had written lyrics …

And also, Johnny Hates Jazz, I mean, Moyer doesn’t like jazz because improvisation is involved — undoubtedly an art that’s far inferior to, you know, playing a tune exactly the way it was played on hit radio. Moyer has decided — all by himself — that the great and influential jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery was “serviceable, forgettable.” How astonishingly ignorant can one writer be? Also: Eric Dolphy played “an atonal bass-clarinet solo” on the Charles Mingus Sextet’s version of “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

Moyer has also concluded that “jazz stopped evolving,” “jazz is mushy” (commercial) and “jazz let itself be co-opted.” In other words, Moyer hasn’t bothered to listen to any jazz since his college days, when he made a noble but failed attempt to understand the music. File under: a perfectly good jazz education wasted on youth.

“Jazz is plastic,” Moyer writes. “It’s a genre loosely defined by little more than improvisation, sunglasses and berets.”

Berets? does Moyer imagine that he’s still living in the Beat era? Somebody give the guy some bongos, and call it a day.

Here in 2014, during a time when more forward-thinking jazz is being played, recorded and distributed (online) than ever before, a click-baiting column like Moyer’s is loosely defined by little more than smoke and mirrors.

Next time, maybe the Post will assign a jazz column to a writer with jazz knowledge and experience, rather than a know-nothing simply looking to provoke a reaction. Unless, of course, the paper doesn’t care if and when its credibility is damaged.

 

NY Times Critic Ben Ratliff Talks To Readers

Want to ask a question of a New York Times music critic, actually get a response, and perhaps see the exchange published?

Now's the time.
 
Ben Ratliff, who writes about jazz, rock and pop for the Times, and penned
last year's acclaimed The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, a collection
of interviews with jazz greats, this week is making a point of responding
to readers' questions.
 
Below is the announcement of the feature, and an initial q&a.
 
Ratliff offers a quite sound response to a question regarding the relatively small
audience for jazz. To that, I would add:
 
1)The if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods truth: If the average music listener/consumer
doesn't read or hear about jazz (or, for that matter, blues or world music or
altcountry), then how does he or she know that that music exists? There is often
 -- but not always -- a direct correlation between the music that gets the most
hype, and the Billboard charts. This is related to the below:
 
2)FAR too many music "critics" spend the bulk of their time/energy
chasing celebrity culture, rather than writing actual music. Case in point:
The acres of forests giving their lives this week for oodles of stories on
the allegedly new and improved "American Idol." What's that abomination
of a "reality" show have to do with music that matters?
Nothing.
 
Related to the above is an irony: The folks who continue to be loyal to
newspapers, in print, are generally older readers. Within that group are
those who cite arts and entertainment coverage as a primary reason for
continuing to purchase newspapers. Many of those older readers have
little use for coverage of '"American Idol" and the likes of Miley Cyrus
and the Jonas Brothers, etc. 
 
Here's the irony: The younger audiences (Teens? Tweens?) who are interested
in that kind of stuff have already abandoned print papers for online sources, so
they're not being served when that coverage appears in print. And the readers
still loyal to print newspapers are simply annoyed when papers emphasize
teen/pop celebrity coverage at the expense of arts/music of substance. So -- to 
clarify -- they're catering to an audience that's already gone and in the process
pissing off regular readers. 
 
Smart thinking, huh? 
 
Here's the link to the ask-the-readers feature. And below is the announcement
published in the Times:
 
January 12, 2009 
Talk to the Newsroom: 
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic 
 
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 
2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com. 
 
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996. 
 
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, 
N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of 
"Jazz: A Critic¹s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings" (2002), 
"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" (2007) and "The Jazz Ear: Conversations 
Over Music" (2008). 
 
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, 
he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival 
Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, 
Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo 
Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community 
singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High 
Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else. 
 
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and 
reporters. 
 
Why Isn't Jazz Audience Bigger? 
 
Q. Why isn't there more of an audience for "straight-ahead" jazz? Or put in 
a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active 
since the '50s or early '60s are given only niche status (or no visibility 
at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy 
regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry 
Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public 
have no awareness or appreciation of this genre? 
-- Paul Loubriel 
 
A. Paul: This is a big question. I'll try to hit some parts of it but I 
probably won't answer it to your satisfaction. 
 
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and 
far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to 
do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When 
you dance to music (in all ways -- partner dancing, stepping, headbanging -- 
just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. 
A lot of people born since 1960 don't feel that they own jazz. 
 
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn't know 
who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media -- obviously we're not 
talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the 
cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you're talking about) 
-- doesn't, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream 
jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements. 
 
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what's 
new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger 
issue about the shallowness of the general perception of "news.") With 
classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new 
compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new 
compositions. One has to sniff out what's interesting, however it presents 
itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run. 
 
As for the general public, they're not buying albums as much anymore, and as 
much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it's still an album art. 
 
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), 
because it's still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 
2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard. 
 
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in 
reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad. 

Jazz Legends: New Dual Biography of Miles and Coltrane

What defines a musical legend?

Tricky question to answer.

When it comes to jazz, my list of legendary artists, those whose playing, compositions and band leadership had a significant and unique impact on the music would have to include — d’oh! — Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The musical careers, and lives, of both, are examined in a recently published dual biography, Clawing at the Limits of Cool.

My review of the book was published in today’s St. Petersburg Times. Click here to go directly to the story, or read it below:

—–

There’s no shortage of books addressing the work of jazz giants Miles Davis and John Coltrane, either individually or as separate chapters in larger histories. Two top-shelf recent examples are Howard Mandel’s Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz and Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, both penned by music journalists and published last year.

Unlike its predecessors, Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever goes for something new: a dual biography. It’s an entirely sensible approach, given the titular musicians’ collaboration on trumpeter Davis’ blockbuster album Kind of Blue, released in 1959, and the impact these players had on each other, as instrumentalists, composers and bandleaders.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University literature professor, and saxophonist and Brooklyn College music professor Salim Washington mostly fulfill expectations, capably weaving together the story lines of these artists’ remarkable lives, offering valuable insight into how and why they connected, and sizing up the seismic results.

The co-authors also turn in generally well-informed musical analysis, some of which is sure to go over the heads of nonmusicians; readers would have been well served if the publisher had opted to include a CD or offer free downloads of a few key tunes — Milestones, Straight, No Chaser, Flamenco Sketches discussed here.

In a recording age marked by digital downloads of instantly disposable hip-hop, tween pop and country hat acts, it’s easy to forget the centrality once held by jazz art and commerce, particularly in the black community. Davis, born the son of a dentist in a Chicago suburb in May 1926 and raised middle class in East St. Louis, Ill., and saxophonist Coltrane, born four months later, son of a tailor in small-town North Carolina, were creative artists who made jazz their professional and spiritual home.

They spent their lives pursuing their art. In doing so, Davis and Coltrane changed the music’s architecture, as Griffin and Washington point out, although critics and other listeners might argue with their first-page suggestion that the two “were the last major innovators in jazz.”

Few serious jazz trumpeters or saxophonists alive can honestly say that they haven’t been influenced by Davis’ use of space in his solos or his muted playing on ballads, or by Coltrane’s note-spraying sheets of sound. Their contrasting personality types — the trumpeter brash, flashy and sometimes arrogant, the saxophonist quiet, unassuming and usually gentle — have also been emulated by subsequent generations of musicians.

The authors touch on a related irony: “However, these qualities are reversed in their playing. When the two men came together in the mid ’50s, Coltrane’s style already displayed a ferocity not evident in his personality, whereas Miles possessed an extraordinarily tender, lyrical approach to his instrument.”

Still, trumping their work as instrumentalists were their achievements as bandleaders, redefining the limits to which groups could take jazz-rooted ensemble work — variously, bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion.

Griffin and Washington, of course, focus on the musicians’ work together, in the Miles Davis Quintet and later, from 1958 to 1961, the Miles Davis Sextet. The latter group, which Coltrane joined after quitting heroin cold turkey and playing and studying with pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, was responsible for the groundbreaking Milestones album and, with a different lineup, the vastly influential Kind of Blue.

Davis, and Coltrane on tenor saxophone, proved ideal foils for one another on such now-standard pieces as Freddie Freeloader and All Blues. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb added indelibly to an understated but subtly intense album cited as the bestselling jazz recording of all time. It’s an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible if the paths of these two “cultural icons,” as the co-authors call them, had not crossed.

Times correspondent Philip Booth writes about music for Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and other publications, and plays bass with Tampa jazz group Trio Vibe. He played with ”Kind of Blue” drummer Jimmy Cobb in a Nat Adderley tribute concert in 2000.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever

By Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

Thomas Dunne Books, 294 pages, $24.95

Roger Ebert: The Perils of the CelebCult Virus

Roger Ebert, in a Nov. 26 column, wrote, “The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it.”

He’s referring to the loss of film critics, and the death of film criticism, but the same lamentation applies to music critics and music criticism, particularly at daily newspapers (yes, there are exceptions to the rule, starting with the New York Times).

Classical critics, of course, are disappearing as fast as the unemployed ranks of former Clinton Administration staffers. That’s a sad enough story.

But at the moment, I’m talking about music whose beats typically include — or should include, in the name of diversity of coverage — rock, pop, rap and country, as well as jazz, blues, Americana, world music and other genres.

Pop music critics, thus far, aren’t being eliminated en masse, although the space given to music coverage has shrunk substantially.

But too many of them over-emphasize celeb-centric coverage and teenypop, writing endlessly about “American Idol” claptrap and the Jonas Brothers and Cyrus Miley; the latest “comebacks” of Madonna and Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey; the fates of various boy-band reunions; and whether Amy Winehouse, Scott Weiland, Axl Rose, etc., are still losing the war with their personal demons.

Who cares about that stuff? Yes, go ahead, label me a music snob. I’ve been called worse.

The guilty parties at some newspapers around the country tend to treat everything in a snarky, showbizzy fashion — think the “Hit List” in Entertainment Weekly — and give actual musical analysis, even the most basic analysis, the status of second-class citizen. For these writers, musical criticism is an afterthought, at best; irrelevant, at worst.

Call it another sign of the literate-culture Apocalypse.

Even worse for the financial health of music critics, they take the gossip-driven approach at the risk to their own livelihoods: the more that they and their newspapers emphasize celebrity news and de-emphasize information and analysis of substance, the less they appeal to the people who still care about reading newspapers in print.

So they’re trying to appeal to the folks who have already abandoned print newspapers for online sources of information, and simultaneously pissing off the newspaper loyalists.

News operations can, and probably do, attract millions of readers to newspaper-affiliated web sites. But so far, newspapers have yet to figure out how to fund a news operation solely on revenues made online.

So turning the whole thing into celeb/gossip central isn’t quite the smartest strategy, huh?

Winter Concert Picks: David Byrne, Derek Trucks/Susan Tedeschi, Galactic

Some folks around the Tampa Bay area are practically swooning in anticipation over several just-announced early 2009 shows by big pop and big hat acts.

Who’s coming?

  • Britney Spears, still cute, still annoying, still irrelevant (3/8, St. Pete Times forum);
  • Jessica Simpson, same as Britney (Florida Strawberry Festival);
  • Elton John/Billy Joel, once formidable pop/rock artists long off to other interests but back on the cash-grab trail (3/5, SPT Forum);
  • Fast-rising teen country star Taylor Swift (also Strawberry Fest).

Yawn. It’s all enough to make me elated that I’m no longer forced to consume standard-issue pop and rock for a living.

It’s a good bet that musical intrigue and non-rote performances will be in much greater supply at three under-publicized shows this month and next.

David Byrne, the former Talking Heads head, brings his “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno” tour to Tampa Theatre on Dec. 12. He’s touring in support of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his first collaboration in nearly three decades with Brian Eno. Byrne’s work has remained vital and creative over the years, and his shows at Tampa Theatre have been among the area’s best concerts.

Reviews of the tour, which has Byrne and his four-piece band (keys, drums, bass, percussion) joined by three backup singers and three dancers, have been positive.

Jonathan Valaria, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, had this to say about a November show:

“David Byrne got his first of countless standing ovations Saturday night just five songs into his set at the Tower Theater, where he closed out the North American run of his ambitious tour in support of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his splendid second collaboration with Brian Eno.

Not surprisingly, the ovation was occasioned by the first Talking Heads song of the night – “Houses In Motion” from Remain in Light – but it was more than just a beloved old song that elicited such a response from the crowd, which, much like the 56-year-old Byrne, straddled the fulcrum of middle age.

No doubt drawing on lessons learned from his collaboration with choreographer extraordinaire Twyla Tharp, Byrne created a show that uses bodies in motion to advance the ambiguous narratives of his arty, multicultural rock music.

Byrne – looking fit, trim and sporting a magnificent shock of silver hair – sounded in fine voice and handled all guitar duties with surprising aplomb, expertly replicating the pneumatic wheeze of chords on “Home,” the angular funk-strum of “Crosseyed And Painless” and the molten leads of ‘I Feel My Stuff.’ “

Also certain to be among the highlights of the winter concert season:

  • Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi’s Soul Stew Revival (Dec. 29, Tampa Theatre), a bluesy, jammy, funky collaboration between the Allman Brothers’ slide-guitar wizard and his wife, an impressive blues guitarist and singer-songwriter in her own right.
  • New Orleans funk/jam stars Galactic, with the Lee Boys (Jan. 2, Jannus Landing). Galactic’s grooves are deep and funky, and they often inject experimental sounds and hip-hop rhythms into the mix. I’ve seen the band upteen times, in the Tampa Bay area and in New Orleans, and I’ve only been disappointed when they’ve let guest rappers or singers hog the show. Not sure yet what’s up for this tour.