Grade Inflation And The Jazz Critics

Around thrice a year for the last several years, Tom Hull has written his Jazz Consumer Guide for the Village Voice, spotlighting recent new releases of note (plus the occasional dud). Read his blog, and you'll see that he workshops these columns constantly, taking public notes on each of the many, many jazz records he listens to. Today, the Voice prints his latest edition: Jazz Consumer Guide: Chasing Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, or Something Else Entirely

I'm not quite sure how the man has time to listen to so many jazz records on top of reviewing myriad books on global politics. But he does, and with open ears at that: his picks reflect a remarkably eclectic sensibility, where the mainstream players (Houston Person, Randy Sandke) swim freely among with the modern progressive cats (Kenny Garrett, Donny McCaslin) and the post-modern rearrangers (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Nik Bartsch, Mostly Other People Do The Killing). Seeing as how jazz criticism has historically been dominated by people pushing agendas — e.g. the Down Beat writer who called John Coltrane "anti-jazz" in 1961 — it's nice to see a professional listener with tastes across the spectrum.

But one thing has always intrigued me about Hull's columns: his grading scale.

The albums Hull lists as duds bottom out at at "B-." One such dud — the Bill Dixon record — gets a "B." Looking at Hull's Jazz Prospecting blog entries sheds a little more light on the issue. His scale runs from around "B-" (occasionally "C+") to "A," but records he finds notable in some way earn at least a "B+," with one to three stars afterward.

Compared to the world of pop criticism, where panning an album is something of an art, giving a mediocre or even poor jazz record a grade that would in most contexts signify "above-average" seems a little soft. If one feels strongly that an album fails at its intent, or raises questions about the competence of the artist, why the "courtesy B-minus"?

Of course, Tom Hull isn't the only hesitant writer — he's just the latest example of what I see as a widespread phenomenon among jazz critics and publishers. Very few, if any, are willing to go on record saying that a record outright fails. (For the record, I have never written a bad review either, and certainly have no plans to.) So why the hesitancy to call a spade a spade? I have at least two thoughts:

—1) Jazz musicians are usually highly-trained, extraordinarily competent practicioners of their instruments, at least from a technical point of view. Nearly all of today's younger jazz musicians spend some time in university settings, which at very least drills them in the rudiments of the craft. Whether these musicians become creative artists or copycat artisans is a separate issue; it's harder to speak poorly about a record when ability is at least evident.

—2) The jazz community is relatively small, with much collaboration and little anonymity. That makes it a lot harder to, say, go see a show and not run into that guy whose album you hated on openly. Of course, Tom Hull's mailbox is listed in Wichita, Kan. (what's with respected jazz critics and Kansas?), so I don't imagine he frequents Smalls or whatever. But even halfway across the country, public disdain will win you few friends among artists and labels you are interested in covering, especially within a tetchy jazz industry where the status quo is startlingly free of bad reviews.

Does anyone else notice this phenomenon across the industry? And if so, is grade inflation a bad thing for jazz?

——-
UPDATE: Peter Hum, once again, responds thoughtfully here. And I do want to stress that I don't want to take critics to task for not disliking enough jazz! I just wonder why it's seen as somewhat taboo to do so — or whether there are even enough outright poor jazz records being made to take notice?

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