Does A Jazz Critic Have To Be A Jazz Musician, Too? : A Blog Supreme It's a question that draws powerful responses from musicians and critics alike, and it's been all over the blogosphere lately. But here are two questions which are more interesting than that.
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Does A Jazz Critic Have To Be A Jazz Musician, Too?

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Does a drama critic need to write plays?

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Here is a question that draws powerful responses: Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz? It was asked recently by Roanna Forman of bostonjazzblog.com, and answered by a lot of respected critics. (Even more discussion here, from jazzblog.ca.) It's worth checking out what's been said so far.

I have some thoughts too, which I'll get to eventually. But I think there's a more interesting question closely related to it. It's the one I almost always field whenever I introduce myself as a journalist who specializes in jazz: "So, are you a jazz musician too?" I got to thinking about my frustrations with that:

  1. The question is partly built on the assumption that the only people who care about jazz play it, too. In other words, it suggests you need a specialized understanding to even enjoy it. Really, the things that make great works of jazz great are the same for any piece of music: groove, creativity, emotional power, group interaction, individual brilliance. And you don't need a performance background to pick up on those things from the audience. We journalists could stand to message this better.
  2. On the flip side, some of my discomfort with the "do you play?" inquiry is that the answer so often is "yes." In my personal experience, most fellow jazz journalists or industry types I know have at least a dilettante's playing experience, if not more. (I am of the "least" variety on piano.) Meanwhile, outside this bubble, our collective musical literacy is at a low ebb, jazz sees little exposure and the music itself remains mostly instrumental, partially improvised and relatively complex. If we journalists forget to reach out to the non-musician audience, then we exclude the lion's share of potential listeners.
  3. Even as an assessment of one's credentials, I find the question irritatingly inexact. Your job as a journalist isn't to speak the language of jazz music well. You don't have to ask any questions in the form of cascading sixteenth-note runs at 160 bpm. You do need to be able to translate such displays into something meaningful for people who can't understand that previous sentence. Your musical talent itself is incidental; it's the musical knowledge you derive from that which comes into play. Perhaps a better, more specific inquiry would be: How musically literate are you?
  4. I don't mind it as much when musicians ask this question, though. From the misunderstood musician's viewpoint (and jazz musicians have a long history of being misunderstood) it makes sense to feel me out: How much can I trust this person I'm talking with to represent me accurately? I like to think the journalist can sympathetically approximate a musician's perspective with some informed imagination, but firsthand knowledge is certainly valuable too.

That brings up the actual question at hand: Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz? That seems simple, on its face. A good critic needs to understand what he or she is covering in order to cover it. Playing music isn't a prerequisite for that understanding, but it can only help. Duh, right?

But considering all the foregoing, it seems as if what is most needed from jazz journalism today is not strictly criticism of sounds themselves, but also explication: gathering context, making connections, lending new perspectives or otherwise giving a "way into" this stuff for the common non-musician. We need to remove the intimidation factor. We need to redefine jazz's connections to the world around it. And we need to render all this artfully.

So I'm really more concerned with another, broader question: What else goes into meaningful jazz journalism other than knowledge of music?

It seems to me that skill set is all about storytelling, and it's not taught in music theory classes at conservatory. It has to do with sharp observation and close listening and critical thinking and asking questions and doing your research and assembling it all into a coherent narrative. And at this point, I'd like to hear from anybody who cares enough to do that for jazz, musician or not.

UPDATE: Some of your comments and reactions, here.