HarlemDespite the emergence of many distinctive voices in Australian jazz music over the past ten to fifteen years, New York City still looms in the imagination of many young jazz musicians as a serious testing ground for their developing talents. Australians are not alone in their ambition to study and play in New York: the weekly gig listings for Manhattan and Brooklyn are littered with the names of improvising musicians from countries as far away as Israel, Kenya, and Canada, as well as Australia. These days, the musicians who play jazz are as diverse as the city they call home.

I am not a professional musician, but a piano-playing writer who loves listening to jazz from many parts of the world. I am a former Vice-President of the Sydney Improvised Music Association and these days I contribute the occasional review to SIMA’s website. Having spent much of the past three years in New York, it was with some interest that I attended a discussion panel on the relationship between jazz music and jazz criticism at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem in late July.

The panel was scheduled partly in response to the recent demise of Jazz Times magazine and the cancellation of New York’s primary jazz festival. In its flyer for the event, the Museum stated that by bringing together jazz writers and jazz musicians, it hoped to address questions such as the role of race and cultural background in the relations between musicians and jazz critics, the present state of jazz journalism, and whether or not musicians and critics share a similar vision for the future of jazz. The day-long agenda looked ambitious and promising. I looked forward to a provocative and wide-ranging discussion of the politics of jazz music, the relationship of jazz to media, and the position of jazz with respect to the broader musical culture. Such discussions are rare enough in Australia.

The panellists comprised Gary Giddins, who for 30 years wrote a column on jazz for the Village Voice in addition to several books on the music; Howard Mandel, a prolific jazz writer and current jazz blogger for the online Arts Journal; and scholar John Gennaro, who has made a study of critical responses to jazz music. The participating musicians were saxophonists Steve Coleman and Jon Gordon, pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Lewis Nash.

The participants were all so enthusiastic about the music they loved, unfortunately, that no one said anything provocative at all. The discussion was mostly limited to what the musicians thought of jazz critics, and what the critics thought was valuable about their own efforts. Vijay Iyer said it was an ‘illusion that we have to “understand” music’ at all, and that a review ‘should not presume to understand what’s happening’ in any performance. Steve Coleman queried the need for critics to act as a ‘bridge’ between musicians and the public; he felt that listeners ‘get what they get’ when they listen, and that’s enough. Lewis Nash said that he felt validated by other musicians, not by a good review. The critics all agreed that liner notes had been very important to the development of their respective ‘ears’ for jazz, although the musicians uniformly queried their value. The critics’ other main point was that there remained a need to develop an audience for the music, so that the jazz critic’s role is partly educational, partly interpretive, and partly that of a publicist. The discussion illustrated the polite tension between the private world of the musician’s personal expression, and the public stage on which that musicianship is performed and interpreted by the critic.

In both Australian and US music cultures, jazz occupies a small but significant place; it is routinely ignored by publications that claim to cover the arts; and when it is written about, it is often done so in a shamefully generic or even ignorant manner that would not be acceptable in other art forms or music genres. (Giddins related the story of one infamous print review that condemned a horn player for repeatedly stopping during parts of his performance. It turned out that the musician had been trading fours with his drummer and the reviewer simply didn’t understand what was happening musically.)

Perhaps the most interesting theme of the day was the need to accept and leverage the iTunes-led transformation of music consumption for jazz audience development, rather than to resist it. It may well be that those who will be interested in listening to jazz are more easily found through iTunes and social networking media rather than traditional media. Perhaps it’s time to stop complaining about declining column inches devoted to jazz, and to start thinking creatively and collaboratively about finding online those elusive young jazz fans of tomorrow.

Back in Harlem, there was no discussion of race, either, despite the obvious fact that the three critics were middle-aged white men and of the four musician panelists, two were African-American and one Indian-American. Audience members were full of questions, but the format of the day provided limited opportunity to extend the conversation into more challenging territory.

Similarly, the discussion managed to ignore completely the jazz music that is produced outside the US. The globalization of jazz in the last forty years is perhaps one of the strongest features of its recent history, and clearly a significant part of its future evolution. Yet the myopia of the American panelists ignores the opportunity of global responses and developments of what was originally a uniquely American music. The panellists’ shared impatience with Wynton Marsalis’s approach to promoting and playing jazz, openly vented during the discussion, should make them more open to, and aware of, other approaches to the music. The critics and musicians alike spoke of their disappointment with Marsalis’s protectionist mindset, yet the opportunities of global influences on jazz seemed not to have occurred to any one of them. One would hope that new types of improvised music, each reflecting other musical styles and traditions from around the world, would help broaden the remit of jazz music and also, importantly, its potential audience. That is certainly my hope, and one I would imagine to be shared by any musician developing his or her improvising skills in any corner of the globe.

Photo: Steve Coleman


Virginia Lloyd is the author of The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement (out in paperback in September). She is a former Vice-President of SIMA and is currently working on a book about women musicians.

Hash Varsani is the owner of The Jazz Directory, a network of sites related to jazz, travel and everything else he loves. He also runs a selection of jazz related sites including Jazz Club Jury, a jazz club and festival review site. Check out his Google+ Profile, to see what else he's up to...probably setting up another website from one of his many passions.