Eight Years in the Pit

Maybe I’m still hungover from my last posting binge, or maybe it’s just gotten to the point that my posts are so ungodly long I have to break them in two. Whatever the case, the two books I “reviewed” in my last post (“Vasudeva on the Hudson,” 11.11.18), and particularly Travis Jackson’s Blowin’ the Blues Away, raised for me some questions about who music writers write for—that is, questions of audience—which is just the sort of meta-critical stuff I like to ponder in these year-end roundups. So, with your permission.

According to Jackson, jazz musicians don’t think much of jazz criticism, with one exception: Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues (131). If and when musicians do read about jazz, they tend toward biographies of major figures—and even here, the text’s credibility may be questioned. These observations form part of a broader discussion about the channels through which musicians gain knowledge about their craft; by and large, jazz criticism, and writing about jazz more generally, ain’t one of them. Instead, Jackson writes, “other musicians and performers” are regarded as “the most trustworthy repository of knowledge” (131).

Given the above, two questions: Do music writers write for musicians? And: Is music writing somehow vindicated when it carries the imprimatur of a musician? My answers: No; and God, I hope not.

There is much musicians can add to the discussion of music, just as there is much writers can add to the discussion of literature. Writers and critics approach texts from different ends, so to speak. It makes sense that writers would most want to know what other writers have to say, and musicians other musicians. Artists’ comments tend to address craft first and foremost. But discussions of texts, literary or musical, are hardly limited to the how; beyond this, there is no reason to assume a musician’s words are any more valid or illuminating than those of a critic with a sharp ear and sharper pen. In fact, the opposite is often true. And so it should be: a musician’s job is to play music, not write about it, although he or she may occasionally be paid to do the latter, and may occasionally do it very well. I should add that this is true whether the music in question is their own or another’s. In literary studies, we have long since acknowledged that the author is not the final arbiter of meaning.* Rather, he or she is one of a number of frames that can be put around the text; others include the culture from which the text emerged (as per Jackson’s “blues aesthetic,” and which may be partly approached through the artist) and the interpretative community (as per Greenland’s arguments about the criteria of jazz audiences; see Chapter 1 of Jazzing). With this in mind, and particularly given the different medium in which musicians work, it’s not entirely clear to me why musicians’ words would be valued above those of other careful, knowledgeable, and passionate listeners, above all those who have worked to hone their craft within their own profession.

All this is not to say there aren’t errors in music criticism or bad music writing—read around my blog, I’m sure you’ll find examples of both. Where the profession is concerned, Jackson notes that this is sometimes due to things like space constraints, looming deadlines, the absence of clear criteria (a problem Ted Gioia takes head-on in his latest book, How to Listen to Jazz), and the question of what credentials, if any, are required (cf. the long-standing question of how much theory a critic should know). Greenland adds competition from amateurs on the web (!), and problems of oversaturation, burnout, and critics’ positions with respect to the scene (i.e., the thin line between review and promotion, and the potential disinclination to lose “access” because one writes bad reviews). Jackson actually mentions a few scuffles: between Joshua Redman and New York Times jazz writer Ben Watrous (for whom Jackson worked for a time) over a Vanguard performance where Watrous felt Redman was pandering, and between Wynton Marsalis and Village Voice writer Kevin Whitehead over a bad review the former received. (Marsalis’s reply is telling: “Who has this writer studied or played with, and what is the source of his authority other than poor editorial decisions?” (100)). We also learn, via an interview with Redman, that Sonny Rollins disliked Gunther Schuller’s seminal essay about him (Jackson 131)—that is, a laudatory essay written by a fellow musician.

Rollins, Marsalis, Redman … Were I a professional critic, rather than a homely blogger, such a junta would be enough to scare the bejeezus out of me. I would bury my pen in the same place as the bullets once meant for the workers’ uprising, and the ashes of old pets.

Scuffles and disagreements like these also put on the table the question of how much power critics actually have. Gary Giddins, who I would agree to call the dean of American jazz criticism if I had a higher opinion of deans, believes his words have the power to help but not hinder, since those musicians jazz critics tend to dislike generally have careers and audiences that care not a whit about their opinions (Greenland 127). But does this really mean a poor review can’t harm an up-and-coming musician, particularly from someone of Giddins’s stature? Or is it the case that, as I noted in a recent post, Giddins has to feel inspired by a musician—and inspired as a writer—to write about him or her, so that he tends not to write broadsides? The latter is probably true, and certainly resonates with me. Regardless, in a competitive environment like New York, where a prominent critic’s pick in a widely-read news source can make the difference between a sold-out engagement and an audience of crickets (Jackson 101), any musician who receives good press has to be stealing from another. Silence can kill as effectively as words.

Anyway, if it were true that critics had no capacity to hurt, why did Marsalis bother to respond to Whitehead in the first place? The power dynamic would seem to run the other direction, since Marsalis could surely do much more to hurt Whitehead’s career than vice-versa. (Did he do the same to Giddins, another Voice writer and Wynton skeptic? If not, why not?) But I guess hurt feelings isn’t quite the same thing as a hurt career.

The question of who we write for might be partly illuminated by trying to answer the related question of why we write. For me, in its highest incarnation, music writing is an attempt to translate something important, even something essential, about one’s experience of listening to music for a reader. (I love how Carl Wilson puts it about an imagined better music criticism: “What it is like for me to like it.”) This is obviously not the only thing we do. But even when we are synthesizing factual information about the culture and musicians and history (and I want to emphasize synthesis here, that is, orchestrating these facts and ideas in a novel way, which depends much on the analytical and creative powers of the writer—most non-writers tend not to realize both the labor and creativity involved), it should be with that goal in mind.

Among other things, this means valuing the language for what it is. And here I need to return to Blowin’ the Blues Away. In his discussion of the critical reception of jazz criticism, Jackson writes the following: “Critics […] display a great deal of passion and erudition, though their engagement with or understanding of the music is not always apparent. As many of the commentators on jazz criticism have acknowledged, many of these individuals are first and foremost writers, capable of devising elaborate metaphors and choosing piquant adjectives, but few are adept at sustained argument” (100). “First and foremost writers,” indeed. And again, so it should be. Because in the end, “elaborate metaphors” and “piquant adjectives” are our instrument; to fault music criticism for this is like blaming a musician, not for their particular phrasing or sense of harmony, but for picking up the horn in the first place. If the emphasis here is on the word “elaborate,” then point taken: any critic can let the language run away from them. But the force of the quote seems to be on metaphors and adjectives per se. These things—along with all the other parts of speech, down to the lowliest preposition, and every other tool in the rhetorician’s well-stocked arsenal—are what we’ve got to work with, what do all the work. They’re the only things than can possibly make anyone understand what Jackson’s “taking it to the next level” means (see “Vasudeva”).**

Given Jackson’s focus on a “blues aesthetic,” this is somewhat ironic. For if the African American elements according to which jazz “needs” to be understood are precisely those which harmony and theory can’t parse, they are also, not surprisingly, the things most difficult to express in language. Greenland notes as much, though with other issues in mind: “Musical elements that resist analysis and classification include timbre (the “color” of sound), nonstandard pitches and tunings, and rhythmic flexibility […] [timbre] is usually defined in metaphorical terms that are, by definition, imprecise and highly subjective” (22). Imprecise and subjective, yes … and so, so rich. It is, of course, the reason “color” is in quotes. All music writing belongs in quotes; it’s the force of that first “like” in the Wilson quote above. That is at once its greatest strength and the signature of its eternal failure. As for the other two elements Greenland lists, the ability to “objectively measure” them tells us little to nothing about them. And so, particularly with musics that don’t fit squarely into the Western canon, we are forced more than ever into elaborate and not-so-elaborate metaphors, piquant and not-so-piquant adjectives, and the whole kit and caboodle of nouns, verbs, synechdoches, parataxes, &c., &c.

A useful analogy might be made to the art of literary translation. When I teach Latin American Literature, I spend a week or two looking at excerpts from seminal writings on the philosophy of translation, and the different approaches to translating they imply. On one end of the spectrum is Vladimir Nabokov, who much preferred word-by-word accuracy to any attempt to remake the original as literature in the new language; he calls for mountains of footnotes, not (specious) beauty. Such a Nabokovian translator is a little like a traditional musicologist: he or she can parse all the technical parameters of a piece, explain what is happening harmonically very clearly, but will not able to move past this, at least in this discourse; his or her writing will be read by other experts, but very few laypersons will gain much from it. Little to none of the pleasure or beauty of the musical experience will be communicated, except perhaps to that narrow community of scholars (although the analysis may take on a logical beauty of its own). It’s a bit like having a joke explained: clever, but not funny. If jazz is the sound of surprise, then in such writing jazz disappears.

The other side of the coin might be best exemplified by John Dryden, for whom the goal of the translator is not to capture the original word for word in a literal or “servile” (Spanish servil; Octavio Paz makes much of this) translation, but its “spirit” or “essence.” Nabokov complains that too many such “literary” translators are inadequate in the original language, and so make botches. He was also pretty displeased with the “literary” quality of the results.*** For Nabokov, literary translation is an oxymoron. It should be noted that even the most liberal of writers about translation are not far behind him in terms of throwing up their hands at the challenges faced by translators. But when they consider the rewards of even a moderate failure—that translation enriches the literature of the world by bringing vast new audiences to works in other languages—even such a quixotic task seems worthwhile.

As for writers translating, Paz argues that, while this is seductive in theory, “poets are rarely good translators.” Why? Because “they almost invariably use the foreign poem as a point of departure toward their own. A good translator moves in the opposite direction. […] Poetic translation […] is a procedure analogous to poetic creation, but it unfolds in the opposite direction.”

And so with music writing. An impossible task, to be sure. A worthwhile one? I’m not sure. We certainly can’t make the grand claims made for translation, since the gift of music is precisely that translation isn’t necessary, that it crosses borders without needing a passport, and so on. Or so we are told. But in those instances music writing really works, I think it does enrich the musical experience, opening doors to what we hear and the way we understand. For whom, I don’t know. For me, certainly, both by reading great writing about music and by attempting it myself. I’m content to fall flat on my face if I’ve gotten a few steps closer. Why would I bother to write about music if I wasn’t seeking to understand and appreciate it better? But then that’s a given. The author is his or her own best audience … and as such, worst enemy.

I know the analogy to literary translation is far from perfect, but the echoes are highly suggestive. If it is supposed to be a cliché that the best music criticism reproduces what it writes about, why is it so often forgotten? If Dyer, a jazz writer who disparages jazz writing in his closing essay to But Beautiful (which also serves as his case in point, since the rest of the book, his fictionalized portraits of jazz artists, is so much better), believes, as Bernstein did before him, that only art can answer art, and that indeed the music of jazz is a history of critical commentary, and hence that jazz criticism is superfluous (which I guess is the point of his conclusion: an essay to end all essays), then clearly criticism must aspire to art, and music criticism above all. Which means, again, “piquant adjectives” etc. are indeed the stuff and the only stuff of music writing—the very stuff that makes reading music writing worth our while.

But then that Paz quotation calls me back, admonishes me, builds the walls of the little room where I can dance. Clearly, if the goal is literary translation, we need to have translators at once sensitive to the original language (music) and the translated one (words). It isn’t only Paz who speaks to the dangers of a translator getting too far from the original, projecting their own ideas onto the text—precisely what a fan Jackson interviewed felt about music reviewers. Obviously, we want writers who “understand” the music and can use words in such a way as to enrich our understanding of it. But where music is concerned, “understand” is a fraught term. Does it mean being able to hear a chord substitution? To be able to hear the music in the fullness of its historical, generic, and/or cultural context? To be able to feel the music on a deep level (other fraught terms: feeldeep)? All or some combination of the above? Is any one more important than the others? Can a strength in one make up for deficiencies in the others? To what extent can cross-generic and even cross-disciplinary observations result in meaningful writing? Feeling certainly opens us up to projection and nonsense … but it’s also difficult to imagine really good music criticism without it. It does tilt the balance decidedly toward the reflection of the musical experience in language. If we all experience music differently, and music resonates with each of us differently, in a way a literary text does as well, but in a much more limited sense (because language still signifies), then what matters is not whether Rollins liked it, or who so-and-so studied with, or whether, God forbid, they have a bunch of little letters after their names, but whether that writer can explore the musical experience sensitively in language.

I’ll conclude this discussion with a paean to nonfiction. I’ve been really blown away by the quality of some of the nonfiction I’ve read in the last couple of years, some of which I’ve mentioned on this blog (The New Jim Crow, for example, and Between the World and Me), and some of which I haven’t (The Sixth Extinction and Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon spring to mind). It shouldn’t surprise me, being such a James Baldwin fan, and always believing his nonfiction was a yet-greater achievement than his fiction. But we do, as a culture, tend to value fiction and poetry over nonfiction, imagining the latter to be a servil translation of facts, except when we attach the prefix “creative” to it, as if the imagination played no role in the former. I think this is a mistake. I’m not arguing for the collapse of distinctions, but rather for equal recognition of achievement in both categories, and perhaps as well that all genres of writing should aspire to transcend their categories and be called literature, music criticism among them. We—music writers; all writers—should be so bold as to make these claims, and to have these aspirations. (You can call them pretensions if you like; I am happy to acknowledge them as such.) As readers, too, we should have these expectations. And we should all lament the constraints of space, time, and attention span on music critics who would be best left alone to develop their skills, and their tastes, at their leisure.

So. Giddins or Rollins? Gary might demure, even scold me, but I wouldn’t want to do without either.


As always, a look back at the year in words.

Besides simply wanting to have more content to make it feel like a year, I think the reason I waited until November (now December) to write a reflection is because I needed to convince myself this blog hadn’t entered The Ironic Zone, decadence and exhaustion: the Fall of the Pit of Helldriver. (A cartoon I used to have up over my desk showed a guy at a hot dog cart telling his customer, “Sorry, we’re out of everything but irony.” I think it was by Gahan Wilson.) I seemed to be writing nothing but satirical pieces (“The Unwearable Leatherness of Loverboy,” “Classic Rock Radio,” “Crash Course in Auto-Drumming”), and that after a half-year without blogging at all. Now that I’ve managed to produce a couple of posts as long and torturous as anything on this blog, with “Refined” serving as a sort of transition, I feel like I can close the “year” on a higher note. But as long as I’m on the subject of eschatologies, I will take this opportunity to mention that I have a year left in this blog—year again in quotation marks—at which point I will take a more extended break … perhaps a permanent one. I have much work to do to make it to that imaginary finish line.

Before painting over this mirror, I want to go back to a somewhat earlier post, “Un/coiffed” (12.8.16), which reading Blowin’ the Blues Away did much to thrust back into the forefront of my conscousness. In his history of the debate over jazz’s racial identity (see, again, “Vasudeva”), Jackson recounts a particularly ugly moment in the neoconservative ‘80s. Young African American players were coming to the music newly enthused about its tradition, and one of the ways this manifested itself was in their very formal attire. Apparently, there was a backlash against these new young sophisticates for being too traditional, and too fashion-conscious (and hence superficial): a “sneering, hostile” jazz press baptized them “young black men in suits” (Tom Piazza, qtd. in Jackson 31).

Reading this, I wondered if the “odd racial overtones” of these “sneering, hostile” critics were also present in my post; I did, after all, make much of the sartorial decorousness of the young mixed-race band that played at the Jazz Gallery that evening, and compared them, somewhat unfavorably, to the frumpy old white guys at The Stone later the same night. It was all a bit glib. I hope that my closing discussion in that post is more nuanced than that, and my criticisms of the younger band more generous, more about age than anything else. I was, after all, innocent of this episode in the annals of jazz criticism. But “innocent” is a relative term when one was born and raised in a country where racism is so deeply enmeshed in its history and culture. Anyway, the reader can judge for him- or herself. I am grateful to Jackson for calling the whole thing to my attention; knowing the history of one’s craft makes one, I hope, more conscious of one’s words and opinions, and a more reflective writer overall.

It’s funny, I’ve seen creative writers talk about the blogging they do as a time suck, the way Facebook posting is: a way to avoid doing other, more important work. I’ve never felt that way about this blog. Frankly, I think that if you’re seeing blogging as a time-suck, that means it’s a time-suck for your readers as well. I have no interest in writing time-sucks, just as I have no interest in reading them, though I do occasionally succumb in the minutes before bedtime to that sort of attentionless browsing. I do regard making time to write stories and creative nonfiction as more important, which is one of the reasons keeping up with the blog has been challenging, and the hiatuses have occasionally been extended. Music criticism is a genre I enjoy writing (and reading), but it obviously falls somewhere on the outskirts of my professional background and abilities, whatever they might be. I occasionally write poetry, too; blogging is a little like that: working in a genre that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but that I sometimes find necessary and pleasurable to write in, and where I feel like I can sometimes do valuable work—posit a good idea, or capture something in sound with the right word or phrase. So I like to think these things fall along a continuum, rather than the either-or “serious work” and “time suck.” Some days I feel just that way about writing fiction, anyway: there I am, up in my office, building my ridiculous model airplanes as though they’d already crashed. How can I really call it anything different from what I do here on my blog?

And what the fuck else is there to do? My partner is out digging holes in frozen ground. My dogs are tearing an old sock apart between them. The days pass. I sleep better for it.


* I wonder to what extent this is still true. Grad school in English is a bit like one’s musical adolescence, in the sense that the theory one learns there tends to become the lens one reads through for the rest of one’s professional life, because, I think, one’s first contact with the power of theory, of raw ideas, their ability to describe the world and problematize things we had taken for granted, creates a powerful impression that serves as an intellectual analogue to our early encounters with music, and the deep furrows our first musical loves make on our lives. I don’t think the analogy is farfetched; graduate school is a sort of intellectual adolescence, a first enamoring with ideas, so that they almost become hormone-charged. Anyway, it is true that, like the record shelves of many people which remain stranded in the music of their adolescence, so the bookshelves of those with higher education and their books. I understand that today in English grad programs people are studying brains, and animals, and perhaps the brains of animals; and were I teaching in a school with a graduate program, or even a serious senior-level seminar or theory class, rather than at a community college, I suppose it would be my professional responsibility to keep up with such things (hence the shudder-making difference between my profs in grad school who did and those who didn’t; whether or not they accepted the current paradigms, they were at least conversant with them). Since I don’t, I’m much more comfortable going back to reading all the Barthes et al. I haven’t read. Anyway, we may or may not have resurrected the author, but I hope we still know better than to trust him or her; and I don’t see why that should be any different when the author is a musician, speaking a language that comes to us as through the bubble of another dimension.

** A few other thoughts here. First, I’m bewildered here by the implied antithesis between “writer” and “sustained argument.” I thought one of the things writers did was write arguments. Is the issue here creative writers? That poets can’t write arguments? I have no clue. Second: To what extent does the teaching of music unfold a capability with language about music that didn’t necessarily exist when school was primarily or entirely the bandstand? I know, there was always high school—but those teachers were teachers first, musicians second (Cannonball notwithstanding), unlike those employed by music conservatories and departments today.

Finally, an anecdote. I was reminded by all this of a wonderful poet I went to graduate school with. I think he might have dropped out—I wasn’t close with him—but I did take a class in Medieval Literature with him. I remember, when he had to present on a poem about a rose, he claimed that he liked the poem’s “delicacy” … but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go further than that. Here’s the punch line: I was never in his apartment, but a friend of mine who was says he had almost no books. Instead, his apartment was filled, wall to wall, with jazz records.

*** It’s a pity Nabokov was such a pedant and cynic when it came to translation. I can only imagine what his cross-linguistic genius could have done had he applied himself to writing literary translations. I remember seeing an exhibit of his papers once at the New York Public Library; the edits he had made on the manuscripts of his own son’s translations of his early novels into English were revelatory. By the way, my sources for the philosophy of translation come from the excellent anthology Theories of Translation (Chicago UP, 1992). There is also a companion volume, The Craft of Translation, which I have not read.

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