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Minimum Qualifications for Jazz Writer?

121 posts in this topic

Schuller is brilliant but sometimes misses the forest for the trees - let us say that he sometimes misses the emotional element, or even the entertainment side of jazz.

Well, what do you expect from somebody with such an immense classical background? Small wonder he does not always give the entertainment side of jazz enough credit. But considering what other musically knowledgeable but entirely classically trained writers have uttered about jazz he towers sky-high above them all.

I haven't yet read Early Jazz but have digested the entire Swing Era book (to the extent that I can reasonably manage as a non-musician with very limited transcription reading abilities ;)). But that was some 17 years ago though I have referred to it fairly regularly since then on specific topics/artists, and while he may not be perfect in his assessments (as much of it is a question of taste I don't expect anybody to be) I do find his analyses very much to the point and they give me a good impression of what to expect from any given recording that I am not yet familiar with. At any rate, he does give credit where credit's due (more than many fellow writers). No undue "Crow Jim" in my opinion and no excessive focus on the same handful of "big names" that seem to make up the entire era in the opinions of others.

What a pity we won't see a sequel to The Swing Era covering the post-1945 era!

P.S. - Re- your last post:

The same impression over here (Europe). Too many reviewers (including outside jazz) seem to operate on the basis of "If I like it I review it, if I don't like it I won't review it". Ad department interests at work? :D :D

Whereas, in fact, even a negative but well-founded review could be an immense service to the readers.

Edited by Big Beat Steve

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let me add, by the way, John Szwed and Lewis Porter to this list as two real academics who not only know the music but also know how to write about it -

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A brief, but somewhat related, aside:

When I was putting together my Bessie Smith song book, I asked Gunther for permission to use his analysis of Bessie's Jailhouse Blues, which had appeared in Down Beat. I have always been amused by such analyses and how they often are cryptic to the performers themselves. I read Gunther's piece to Ruby, Bessie's niece and companion, who herself was a singer.

"Here, in Jailhouse Blues, because Bessie is heading for the tonic, the approximate sliding....", I read.

"Hold it right there," Ruby exclaimed, interrupting my reading. "Bessie never liked tonic, or anything like that! She drank her liquor right out of the bottle."

I promised to inform Gunther of that.

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I don't think we should shy away from negative reviews, if they are written without spleen and with clear attention to the material at hand; otherwise the whole idea of critcisim is negated. On the other hand I can see that sometimes it is better to just leave a small independent musician alone -

the problem for me is that even in the better jazz journals everybody likes everything; I won't mention any names but I was removed, about 10-12 years ago, from the reviewing staff of a good and independent magazine because there was too much stuff I did not like (I wrote one review, in which I lamented the need for all musicians to write all of their own material even when they were compositionally limited, and I called it "Why Does Bad Music Happen to Good Musicians?")

I'm not advocating that critics just be cheerleaders, and I agree with your post. It's just the idea that was expressed which goes, "I won't be taken seriously if I don't write something negative here." I don't know how often that plays out in the "real world".

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One of Gunther's problems, which cropped up in both books at times but especially in the second one, is that he brought to bear his own experience as a somewhat professionally iconoclastic figure in the classical world and in his own personal experience/tastes as a young man listening to and playing the music in an arguably rather reckless, unobjective manner. First, his transcriptions in both books are notoriously inaccurate, and when those errors have been pointed out, GS's response, I believe, has been very high-handed, along "I know better than anyone because I'm me" lines. Second, his treatment of Tatum is not only wrong-headed and uncomprehending IMO but seems to spring directly from GS's own deep and understandable distaste for "jazzing the classics." I'm not saying that Tatum is a god whose music can't be questioned but that GS's dislike of Tatum is not IMO primarily based on musical considerations but on socio-musical ones, and are skewed even from that point of view. "Jazzing the classics" is not, except in a few instances or maybe even ever, what Tatum was about. Finally, there's GS's treatment of such figures as vocalist-accordianist Joe Mooney and his group, whose music GS fell in love with at the time. JM is certainly a charming figure, but in the totality of all that needs to be dealt with in that era, what GS says about JM and the length at which he says it almost absurd. I'm not saying that GS on anyone like him should discount his youthful musical loves; what I am saying is that you can't fall in love with them all over again essentially because, or so it seems to me in GS's case, they were the loves of your youth. And even that would be bearable if GS didn't deliver such judgments in his typical ex cathedra tone.

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Chris - a little bit llike Condon's remarks about bebop - "we don't flat our fifths, we drink 'em," if I remember correctly - also, Sonny Rollins apparently resolved never to read his notices again after reading Schuller's (very interesting) analysis of his solo on Blue 7 -

Edited by AllenLowe

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A brief, but somewhat related, aside:

When I was putting together my Bessie Smith song book, I asked Gunther for permission to use his analysis of Bessie's Jailhouse Blues, which had appeared in Down Beat. I have always been amused by such analyses and how they often are cryptic to the performers themselves. I read Gunther's piece to Ruby, Bessie's niece and companion, who herself was a singer.

"Here, in Jailhouse Blues, because Bessie is heading for the tonic, the approximate sliding....", I read.

"Hold it right there," Ruby exclaimed, interrupting my reading. "Bessie never liked tonic, or anything like that! She drank her liquor right out of the bottle."

I promised to inform Gunther of that.

That is hilarious!

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Finally, there's GS's treatment of such figures as vocalist-accordianist Joe Mooney and his group, whose music GS fell in love with at the time. JM is certainly a charming figure, but in the totality of all that needs to be dealt with in that era, what GS says about JM and the length at which he says it almost absurd. I'm not saying that GS on anyone like him should discount his youthful musical loves; what I am saying is that you can't fall in love with them all over again essentially because, or so it seems to me in GS's case, they were the loves of your youth. And even that would be bearable if GS didn't deliver such judgments in his typical ex cathedra tone.

Interesting ...

However - isn't it so that a book like "The Swing Era", despite its generalistic title, is one that no beginner in this musical matter would pick up, and that seasoned readers of this book (like probably all of those from this forum who have read this book) automatically make allowances for anybody's personal preferences as well as for "ex cathedra" tones and take all this with the required grain of salt, being able to use books like this as SOURCE material to make their own judgments but not as a BIBLE?

As for Joe Mooney, your point is interesting. I will have to reread this passage but I remember my general impression when he dwelt on figures like this (usually overlooked by most others) was that finally here was one who "gave credit where credit is due" - not in the sense that the length of any entry on any musician or orchestra was necessarily always correct and appropriate, but in the sense that he dug deeper than most others who covered the musical history of those years ever did. Speaking of the "totality of all that needs to be dealt with in that era", IMHO this is one example of where he did go beyond the usual coverage of the usual names, inciting the reader to explore names not usually found in the catalogs of major reissue companies (at least not when he wrote the book). Of course the question of what "needs" to be covered is subjective again but to me at least limiting this coverage of all the major well-known names only would again give a skewed picture of the diversity and richness of the era.

Similar examples are found elsewhere in the book, e.g. in his refreshingly open-minded remarks on borderline acts such as Western swing bands, and even if his comments on recordings sometimes are clearly dictated by the limitations of what was available to him (I can literally see how he wrote his Jan Savitt entry on listening to one particular Decca reissue LP ;)) this is at least a step in the right direction, one that has not been made in many more books on the subject except some of those by Albert McCarthy.

Not perfect but overall not a bad thing IMHO if you are able to make your own judgments and if you want the picture to be as complete as it could possibly be (100% completeness unfortunately is unachievable).

Edited by Big Beat Steve

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actually, I don't want to be immodest but I think I do a better job than Schuller does on Western Swing -

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"if he doesn't write negative reviews I will not take him seriously."

I don't know, Joe, how we could take that out of context? but you're entitled to your opinion. Personally I'm a :) kind pf guy - I think McDonough's brain is half-full.

Edited by AllenLowe

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It was half full of John Hammond when I first encountered McDonough. I couldn't determine what the other half contained. :)

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Just want to say that Schuller's Swing book is wonderful and I have some problems with it. Any interested fan should read it. I wish he'd published more. I was looking forward to fighting with him on later stuff.

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there is some problem, ironically or not, with Schuller's level of technical knowledge, I think, and his ability to write histories - I talk about this, I think, somewhere in my own book but basically I think certain levels of technical knowledge sometimes overwhelm less empirical values like taste and critical instinct - for all my respect for Schuller, if I want a second opinion on a musician or a performance I will more likely turn to non-musician/critics like Larry kart or Giddins or Francis Davis or Bob Blumenthal, whom I believe have a combination of writing skill, personal taste, historical perpective, and just plain smarts. The problem is that some non-technical writers get themselves into trouble, and Giddins is the best example of this; whenever he tries to show off with some personal citation about harmony or other chord-change issue, he invariabley comes off as half-assed if not mistaken. Martin Williams had a problem in this area, and Dick Katz told me Williams would never acknowledge a technical mistake. So one has to come to all of this having read a lot of the backgtound material and having listened to too much music (trust me, it's a burnout process) -

though I've never asked him about it, I think Larry kart clearly has some musical background - Loren Schoenberg is one who has vast technical knowledge and good aesthetic judgement - Chris Albertson not only knows the music but he knows the musicians and has learned the music in the best possible way, by being in the middle of it all - unlike most academics -

on the social end, as I have said before, I believe one needs to know the social context but not let it overwhelm aesthetic judgement; I often cite my unofficial mentor, the late Richard Gilman, to the effect that good art creates an alternative history, a narrative that is outside the socially verifiable - and though I have tried to read a lot of academic writing on music it ultimately tends to suffer from a convoluted kind sociological rationale, which neccesitates a writing style that is at once both impermeable (read: intellectual rationalization) and opaque (read: WE NEED TENURE!) -

There are some excellent points here, Allen, and I definitely agree with you regarding Larry, Chris, Francis Davis, Bob Blumenthal and - sometimes - Gary Giddins.

let me add, by the way, John Szwed and Lewis Porter to this list as two real academics who not only know the music but also know how to write about it -

Szwed's Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra is one of my personal favorite biographies.

A brief, but somewhat related, aside:

When I was putting together my Bessie Smith song book, I asked Gunther for permission to use his analysis of Bessie's Jailhouse Blues, which had appeared in Down Beat. I have always been amused by such analyses and how they often are cryptic to the performers themselves. I read Gunther's piece to Ruby, Bessie's niece and companion, who herself was a singer.

"Here, in Jailhouse Blues, because Bessie is heading for the tonic, the approximate sliding....", I read.

"Hold it right there," Ruby exclaimed, interrupting my reading. "Bessie never liked tonic, or anything like that! She drank her liquor right out of the bottle."

I promised to inform Gunther of that.

:rofl:

Just want to say that Schuller's Swing book is wonderful and I have some problems with it. Any interested fan should read it. I wish he'd published more. I was looking forward to fighting with him on later stuff.

Yes, both volumes are essential reading, warts and all.

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actually, I don't want to be immodest but I think I do a better job than Schuller does on Western Swing -

Not that I would with disagree with you at all - all I wanted to hint at is that Schuller's mentioning of Western Swing bands in his book is one of the very few (all too few) occasions where the more swinging ones of those bands were given any sort of credit as being part of the Southern/Southwestern "territory band" scene in jazz at all.

As you certainly know even better than me all too many music historians draw an all too strict line between 30s/40s swing being Jazz and 30s/40s Western Swing (or "hot string bands") being all Hillbilly (and no crossover EVER!).

So Schuller was ahead of the crowd.

All in all, like Bill Barton and Chuck Nessa said, I agree it's still essential reading - warts'n all.

So, Allen, when do we get YOUR comprehensive history of Western Swing as part of swing/jazz of those times? (with the possible cooperation of Messrs. Kienzle et al.) ;) I'd queue up for a book like that.

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would be great to have a Western Swing history, though I don't think I'm fully equipped to do it- Cary Ginnell is ok but has problems; Kevin Coffey is a bright guy -

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Read some of BlueNote's reviews on Amazon. Many of them are so bad that they achieve epic comical proportions. On the other hand, I think it is important to have "amateur writers" such as BN write reviews. It's not fun to read stuffy professional reviewers all the time; and it's refreshing to have the amateur voice, who might be way off base but is not afraid to state an opinion. His syntax and grammar aren't polished, but that adds to the readability sometimes. And I'm sure sometimes his reviews might be spot-on.

BN has taken a lot of crap for his reviews, and I've done my share of laughing, for sure; but I hope he continues to write them. Amazon reviews are open to everyone. I wrote a few reviews on a music website that I would dearly love to delete. It's okay to make a fool out of oneself; and you never grow old enough to avoid doing so.

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It's okay to make a fool out of oneself; and you never grow old enough to avoid doing so.

Indeed!

MG

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...I often cite my unofficial mentor, the late Richard Gilman, to the effect that good art creates an alternative history, a narrative that is outside the socially verifiable...

Interesting. And I have always thought that all kinds of alternative histories emerge when writers examine progressions and relationships of the artists that tend to receive less coverage. So many music histories focus on the "the greats" or "the hits." There is a certain logic to this, as these categories produce the biggest splashes. But when you get into artists who work outside of the usual conventions, fall between genres, and/or have made less of an overt impact, all sorts of interesting threads emerge.

Edited by Teasing the Korean

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...I often cite my unofficial mentor, the late Richard Gilman, to the effect that good art creates an alternative history, a narrative that is outside the socially verifiable...

Interesting. And I have always thought that all kinds of alternative histories emerge when writers examine progressions and relationships of the artists that tend to receive less coverage. So many music histories focus on the "the greats" or "the hits." There is a certain logic to this, as these categories produce the biggest splashes. But when you get into artists who work outside of the usual conventions, fall between genres, and/or have made less of an overt impact, all sorts of interesting threads emerge.

I don't think that's alternative history; I think it's the same history looked at from a different angle. Like you can study European history or American or African etc, but it's all the same history; it deals with things that really happen in the outside world. I think Allen means that looking at the great artists can produce a history of things that really happen in the inside world, but which aren't really noticeable in the outside context; or are noticeable in a different, and not quite matching, and possibly later, framework in the outside context. So, maybe, John Coltrane and New Age stuff are related but not quite matching...

MG

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I disagree with BlueNote82's contention that one has to write some negative reviews or risk not being taken seriously. Some writers go overboard, seemingly rating everything 4 stars or more. I've never liked the star system, even though I've been required to use it by some publications.

Allen, I'm curious as to which publication thought you wrote too many negative reviews. If you were being sent stuff blindly to review, I can understand that happening.

I fully agree with you that there are a number of artists who devote way too much time and space to their own originals, which are too often mediocre. I can remember reviewing one decent pianist who also decided to write lyrics, there were so poor that they should have not been used.

I don't want to discourage anyone from writing original material, but if you are new to the writer, you give him/her no basis for comparison if you don't play anything but originals.

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