relyles

Minimum Qualifications for Jazz Writer?

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The past year I have been writing CD reviews for a print publication and I recently came to the conclusion that I will likely never be anywhere near as good at it as I would like to be. Primarily because I do a lot of writing in my profession (attorney), I have always thought I was a decent writer, but when it comes to jazz writing my self realization is that I am not much more than a fan or possibly even as I once read someone describe some writers - a hobbyist.

So, I was just wondering what anyone thinks are the minimum qualifications, or knowledge that is necessary for credible writing about the music. Although I do not think it is necessary to be a musician or at least have some musical understanding, I think my lack of an understanding of the basic technical aspects of the music worked as a disadvantage in my efforts to write thoughtful and helpful reviews. I am missing big chunks of the vocabulary which would enable me to put into words what I hear so that the reader could get an accurate idea of what to expect from the music.

Any thoughts?

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If you really want/need to be conversent with the musical fundamentals, I'm sure there's some sort of "adult education" classes somewhere that could cover that over the course of a few months. Or, if you know some local musicians on a friendly basis, invite them over for a hang and talk about it, maybe tell them what you're hearing but can't quite get a handle on, and ask them if they know what you're talking about.

Besides that, though, the main thing I look for in any music writer is a combination of personal relations to the music ("objectivity" is good the first time through, but after that, hell, read the label, like on a soup can...) and an awareness of what the music "is" as well as how it fits in to all the other musics (although it's often enough fascinating to get an "uninformed" perspective, just to see how things strike toally "foreign" ears", that's not a recipe for acquiring "ongoing insight", if you know what I mean...). The first is something you gotta confront yourself, I'd think, focus on "deeper" reactions than "this is GREAT stuff!", without getting so navel-gazing about it that it turns into a one-way conversation with an analyst or something (although that worked really well for David Himmelstein one time...). The other, hey, that's a function of "aware experience", of being there and paying attention. Not as wasy as it sounds, but from what I've come to know of you over the years, I think it's your natural disposition.

Awareness, sincerity, individuality of perspective, a balance of confidence and humility (which is not the same as meekness or blandness), effectiveness of expression, that's what all the writers I dig have in common over the long haul.

Look at it this way (borrowed, paraphrased, whatever, from Miles) - it takes years to be able to play this stuff the way some people play it. It' gonna take some time and seasoning to be able to write about it in the manner it deserves. Craft is craft, no matter what the discipline, and craft ain't never easy (unless you're a freak like that), and along with craft comes the call for the individual shaping of it. No way that's a simple 1-2-3 process dig?

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Study other reviews and compare them to your own.

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Ronald,

Jim just gave a very good answer to your question.

I don't think you have to know very much about the mechanics of music to be coherent, but you have a deep understanding and knowledge of the cannon, and that's a lot more than most.

I myself, don't have the skills to be a writer of any kind, and to be a critic is a tough job when you have to be honest about the music presented and sensitive the musicians who made it. Repeated listening is the mark of a good music critic, by the way. I've seen reviews that I know the reviewer either didn't listen all the way through, or worse, didin't listen at all with any concentration.

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Study other reviews and compare them to your own.

I do study other reviews, but quite honestly I think there is somewhat of a decline in jazz writing overall. It seems that with the growing of internet based publications there are a lot more reviewers and many reviews I read don't seem to have much substance to them beyond the "this is great stuff" that Jim mentioned. There are exceptions of course, but there are few models of what I find to be honest reviews that are helpful to the reviewer and also fair to the musicians. That is why I asked the question - more generally than actually what I should do to enhance my own writing.

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Try checking out old DownBeats at the library. :)

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Dude - I like/appreciate it when I get the feel that a "review" is actually somebody talking to me at home, or at a bar, or what ever, the conversation's free, easy, and open, and it's "oh yeah, have you heard ABC yet? Hey, check this out..." and off it goes.

So maybe (and I'm totally unqualified to be giving "writer's tips", so take this accordingly) make your first draft a totally stream-of-consciouness spiel akin to what you'd be handing out in similar-to-the-above context. That's the content. Then work on making it readable & concise, and all that stuff. That's the craft. Getting in touch with your feelings in order to be able to spill like that is just a matter of doing it often enough until it comes naturally, and the craft, hey, does anybody ever totally master craft?

But you man, you're a hip cat, erudite, and well in touch with the music at a deeper-than-superficial level. And you hipped me to Jill Scott, so I know that you got a "context" to speak in/to that's not all jazz-centric and shit (the time for that to be really "effective" might well have passed for those who weren't already there...). So just go there, ok, it's a good place to be, and the more you do it (both "doing it" & "working on it") the better it'll get cumulatively.

BTW - for what print publication have you been writing?

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In 2006, someone who writes about jazz for local publications in Kansas City reviewed a show where "Blue Monk" was played. He mistook the tune for "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and enthused in print about the performance of that chestnut. Well, the first four notes are the same, but nothing else is. The guy can't even recognize blues changes, the DNA of American music?

If you know what you don't know, unlike that guy, you're already well on the way. Go 'head.

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There is, of course, no set of rules and I agree with you that the profession has attracted too many unprepared writers in recent years. Some of them have the writing skills but lack the ear and listening experience. I think the main requirements include having open ears, a yardstick by which to make valid judgements, and an ability to convey one's feeling in writing. Jim makes good points when it comes to what he looks for in a review. I have spent many decades listening to this music, both on and off records, so my yardstick and perspective are in order--I also think I have reasonably good taste in music. That said, a limited education (pre-high school dropout) and language barrier have definitely impeded my ability to express myself as eloquently as I would like to. I can thus look back on piles of liner notes and reviews that I wish nobody had ever seen, but I would be disingenuous if I didn't acknowledge a much smaller pile of writing that does not embarrass me.

What I am trying to say is that one should aim high but not expect to hit the mark with every assignment. Above all, don't be discouraged--if what you express is honest, it will appeal to some and not to others. It has been my experience that people who read reviews find themselves drawn to the work of writers whose taste in music they generally share, and that they eventually find themselves relying on that source for direction. Times have changed, but in the pre-internet days, when I spent 28 years writing monthly for one magazine, it became clear to me that quite a few readers who lived in places where there was a dearth of jazz on the air or in the record bins, used my reviews as a purchasing guide. That does not necessarily mean that they bought what I praised--some took my dislikes as a must-buy signal.

I love to read anything Whitney Balliett wrote, but I did not always agree with what his ears heard--other writers impressed me more with their opinions than their prose. You should not even give a thought to how your reviews will be received, just maintain integrity and never feel obligated to maintain a good or bad opinion of an artist. If a reader or artist finds you taking a u-turn from previously expressed opinions, they know that you are being honest, and they will respect you for that.

To be critical of your own work gives you an incentive to improve it. When others are critical of your work, it can be a good thing--propel them to a u-turn with your next piece.

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Minimum qualification (though many practice without): ability to spell 'Thelonious'.

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I listened to an interview David Binney did of Mark Turner not long ago and one of the things they discussed is that they purportedly do not pay much attention to critics, because they are of the opinion that most opinions do not know much about music - kind of saying that critics do not know what is going on in the music. If that is true, doesn't a writer lose some credibility? At least with musicians whose art one is trying to write about?

Again, despite how some of you obviously interpreted my original post, I am not really soliciting tips or looking for people to make me feel more secure about my own writing (although I appreciate the encouragement :) ). I am really just trying to see how people think about jazz writing in general. One of the things that prompted me starting this thread is this passage that I read earlier today in Stanley Crouch's Considering Genius.

... hardly any of the men who write about jazz can be considered intellectuals or very knowledgable about aesthetics. They tend to know little about the arts at large and do not really understand much about what really makes jazz unique. Almost always very square and painfully insecure in the presence of musicians, they tend to defend themselves with their recordings and their memories of obscure trivia.

Don't get me wrong, Crouch is not one of those writers that I personally use as a model of provocative jazz writing, but I did think the above invites the question of what basic knowledge about jazz, or anything else should a critic have to be credible.

Edited by relyles

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Dude - I like/appreciate it when I get the feel that a "review" is actually somebody talking to me at home, or at a bar, or what ever, the conversation's free, easy, and open, and it's "oh yeah, have you heard ABC yet? Hey, check this out..." and off it goes.

So maybe (and I'm totally unqualified to be giving "writer's tips", so take this accordingly) make your first draft a totally stream-of-consciouness spiel akin to what you'd be handing out in similar-to-the-above context. That's the content. Then work on making it readable & concise, and all that stuff. That's the craft. Getting in touch with your feelings in order to be able to spill like that is just a matter of doing it often enough until it comes naturally, and the craft, hey, does anybody ever totally master craft?

But you man, you're a hip cat, erudite, and well in touch with the music at a deeper-than-superficial level. And you hipped me to Jill Scott, so I know that you got a "context" to speak in/to that's not all jazz-centric and shit (the time for that to be really "effective" might well have passed for those who weren't already there...). So just go there, ok, it's a good place to be, and the more you do it (both "doing it" & "working on it") the better it'll get cumulatively.

BTW - for what print publication have you been writing?

Thanks again for the encouragement (although I sincerely was not looking for any ego boost).

Jazz Improv Magazine and its free New York Jazz Guide.

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Jim, Tom and Chris have made some very good points, Ronald, and I think that you may be selling yourself short when it comes to your "qualifications." There's no question in my mind that you have the "ears" and the background to write intelligent, informative and perceptive pieces about music. Having a thick skin definitely helps. The points about being self-critical and paying attention to others' criticism of your work are good ones. It's obvious that there aren't any folks writing about jazz or other "fringe" music who are in it for the bucks. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with being a "hobbyist" or a "fan" in this context. When push comes to shove, who else is going to do the job? Like broadcasters, writers are essentially gatekeepers, and one of the most gratifying parts of the experience for me is perhaps turning someone on to a musician or group they would otherwise have not been exposed to. I've been writing about jazz and other music since 1980 but would not consider myself on the same level as someone like Chris, Larry Kart, Allen Lowe, Francis Davis or the late Mr. Balliett. You may have a point, Ronald, about the general level of writing about jazz to be in decline, but there are a number of people who take part in the discussions on this board whom I consider to be valuable and perceptive commentators, including Nate and Clifford. There is quality writing out there. I'd cite Bagatellen, Paris Transatlantic and some of the commentaries on Destination Out as online examples. An interesting question arises here. From my perspective it seems that more valuable criticism is being produced in the "edgier" realms of jazz - the avant-garde for lack of a better term - than in the more "mainstream" parts of the music.

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I listened to an interview David Binney did of Mark Turner not long ago and one of the things they discussed is that they purportedly do not pay much attention to critics, because they are of the opinion that most opinions do not know much about music - kind of saying that critics do not know what is going on in the music. If that is true, doesn't a writer lose some credibility? At least with musicians whose art one is trying to write about?

Hmmmm...that's a loaded one there, becuase what do they mean by "not knowing what is going on in the music"? If they mean understanding all the technical specifics, then hell, they might as well be saying that noine but a minescule % of their audience gets it either, which then raises the issue of why anybody should care about their music, since most people don't/won't/can't "understand" it.

But I bet they don't want to go there, even if tha might be their truest feelings (and that raises another ongoing question, namely, can musicians be too "hip" for their own damn good, and ain't nobody's fault but their own if they are?)

But otoh, there's other ways to "get" music, and those are the ways that for most people, count. Things like "relevancy", "feeling", "urgency", "intensity", "passion". "beauty", "peacefullness", all those "subjective" matters beyond the technicalities. As much as many musicians don't wnat to confron it, these are the things, the intangibles of personal expression, that reach most people. These are the ends. The other stuff is just the means.

Now, sure, the better you understand the means, the greater the possibility that you can grasp the specifics of how (and maybe why) those means are being put to use. But I know some folks who understand the means perfectly and don't have half a clue as to the ends, and damn do they get on my nerves in a quick minute. Then there's the people who only get the ends, are totally oblivious about the means, and although they don't get on my nerves per se, it is kinda difficult to get beyond, "hey, that's some hip shit, eh?" with them. Which is ok, but we're talking in-print expressions here, not casual HeyMan-isms. You probably want the bar set a little higher, tight?

I'd encourage anybody who wants to write about music to learn some fundamanetals, just because if you're going to write about something, you need to know what it "is", and music is not just "emotion" and stuff like that. There are specific skills and practices involved. But again, these are (or should be) means to an end, and what most people, including myself, want to read about is to what end the means are put to, how it was received by ( "hit") the writer, and how the writer feels that any given item/performance fits into the overall musical spectrum, is it "good for what it is", "a great example of XYZ", "something you shouldn't ignore", "something for the ages", etc etc etc. People who know how the ends work can figure that stuff out themselves, and people who don't won't have any use for too detailed a description (although I am strongly in favor of accurate musical examples being placed in biographies and stuff as an adjunct). But what everybody (I think) wants to get from a review is "Is this something I'm probably going to want/need to hear, and if so, how soon?" And something like "so and so utilizes complex, odd-metered polyrhythms to create an oddly hypnotic groove that stands in place by lurching forward as it moves back on itself, like a man wanting to leave an orgy but changing his mind when he has the chance" is something that will get my attention, it's the subjective (ends) expansion of the initial technical desrciption (means) that does it for me. Without that little bit of personal perceptual business, I'm probably gonna be like "Oh good, still more wankers at work. Big fucking deal."

Does that make any sense?

Edited by JSngry

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I largely agree with the comments by Jim and Chris. (I must say -- I would never have guessed that Chris's writing was by someone with the "limitations" that he ascribes to himself.)

In my opinion, the most important thing to remember about writing for others (whether jazz reviews or anything else) is that it isn't about YOU. I think this is a particularly bad problem with rock critics, who often seem to forget that what they are writing ABOUT is a hell of a lot more important than what they are writing.

Second, it's writing for OTHERS. It's more important that the readers "get something" out of the writing in question than that it be a "piece of art" or whatever.

That said, yeah, I do appreciate high quality writing in a jazz reviewer, IF they bring quality insights to the table.

Other things I like -- the balance of "objectivity" (a willingness to step back and realize that one's personal opinion is not necessarily the "truth") with genuine enthusiasm.

Guy

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Re: the initial posting--I'm actually pretty dubious about the way some reviewers throw half-digested musical terminology around in reviews. There's one I know in Toronto who has never played an instrument in his life & yet everything he writes comes out like someone playing Mad Libs with the Grove Encyclopedia. Unless the terminology is actually needed to make a larger point in a review (rather than just trying to sound like you are "an expert") it shouldn't be there. -- On the other hand, the experience of actually trying to play an instrument at whatever level & get some music theory under your belt is always a good thing.

Other than that: honesty, lots of practice, reading other writers' work for inspiration/stylistic models/ideas; & a willingness to edit one's own prose.

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if you can tie your own shoelaces, and don't drool, you already have a leg up on most of the Downbeat guys -

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if you can tie your own shoelaces, and don't drool, you already have a leg up on most of the Downbeat guys -

:rofl:

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In the internet age, critics simply do not carry the weight they once did. I have read amazon reviews from people who (presumably) are not critics that are far more insightful than things I've read by blowhards like Dave Marsh.

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if you can tie your own shoelaces, and don't drool, you already have a leg up on most of the Downbeat guys -

I concur.

Chris

XDB Guy

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EDC,

Remind me to tell you a strange and somewhat chilling story about George V. Higgins. Not tonight, not enough time -- maybe tomorrow. In any case, I would say that a much better example, in a related area, would be Donald Westlake when he's writing as Richard Stark.

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EDC,

Remind me to tell you a strange and somewhat chilling story about George V. Higgins. Not tonight, not enough time -- maybe tomorrow. In any case, I would say that a much better example, in a related area, would be Donald Westlake when he's writing as Richard Stark.

Larry, I think you told that story on some other thread (forget where, but it's buried inside an ulta-long thread). IIRC, it concerned Higgins submitting a book review when he had clearly not read the book in question. A nasty exchange ensued.

I was once a huge fan of Higgins, based on his earlier Boston/crime based novels, but my enthusiasm diminished over the years, because many of his later novels became incredibly stylized and tedious. (Michiko Kakutani of the Times, for whom I have no strong feelings one way or the other, once wrote a hilarious review of The Manderville Talent, which ended with a lengthy lampoon of Higgins's prose, praising the beautiful craft but concluding (IIRC) "But why does it have to be so boring?". I read the book anyway, and she was right.)

Certainly Higgins, who was once a lawyer, wrote remarkably good dialogue. I once had occasion to go over courtroom transcripts, which also featured interesting/verismo dialogue, and theorized that his legal pursuits helped develop that part of his writing.

Edited by T.D.

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LATIN.

Latin?

Hey, three years of Latin in boarding school. . . I'm qualified!

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Excuse me Mr. Clementine. I am new to this board and it may not be appropriate to ask a question such as this one. What is the writing style that you are using? It is unusual. Is there a name for this specific style?

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