Hank Shteamer from the Blog Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches had a very interesting commentary piece on his blog recently, entitled “I Am Not a Jazz Journalist.” After attending a meeting of the Jazz Journalists Association, the main crux of his concern was that jazz writers (and by proxy fans) are not listening to music from outside their favorite genre in order to expand their musical horizons.
(excerpt) “But the plain fact of the matter is, a fact that ought to be acknowledged by anyone who's being paid to think about music, there's a lot of REALLY GREAT STUFF going on in mainstream pop these days. I don't need to bore anyone with some paean to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but I think it needs to be stated that we writers-about-music who love jazz shouldn't make it our beeswax to learn about pop because it might make us more marketable, we should do so because if we don't, we're cutting ourselves off from some really wonderful and fascinating music.” (Emphasis in original)
He goes on to talk about his own experience as a music snob, and how he was able to escape from that rut, by taking different writing assignments that brough him out of his comfort zones and allowed him to appreciate new musical experiences. He ended this excellent essay with: (excerpt) “All I'm really saying here is: Let's not pigeonhole ourselves right out of the gate. Let's bond over our shared love of this music without building a fence to keep non-jazz-obsessives out, and to blind us to the possibilities of the pop world and beyond. The best jazz I heard in 2010—records by the Bad Plus, Chris Lightcap, Dan Weiss and others—didn't need some sort of rubber-stamp Seal of Jazz Approval to convey its message. It just sounded beautiful, in a way that didn't need to be explained.”
Howard Mandel had an interesting retort which defended the orthodoxy of the jazz criticism complex. Mandel states that members of the organization are far from a star chamber declaring what is and is not jazz, but a group where professional music journalists can commiserate about common experiences. (excerpt) “The JJA tries to identify itself first and foremost as journalists. The organization strives to uphold and instill professional journalistic standards and we are trying to develop new approaches to using new media for music journalism. Those approaches have value across music genres. We have never turned down anyone for membership due to what they cover. We assume every member is interested in good music, as they hear it.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this dialogue of ideas is that it was conducted in a civilized and thoughtful way. With much opinion being bantered about with malice aforethought, it was nice to see opposing commentaries that did not devolve into name calling and mudslinging. That said, I think that Shteamer had some particularly interesting points about breaking out of the musical blinders we place around ourselves. This is something that I would really like to do to. I like to think that I have fairly eclectic tastes in jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll but I do get into ruts that lessen the enjoyment of music, so broadening my listening to other genres and areas. I joined the MOG music streaming music service which will allow me to listen to more albums the pop and rock genres that I’m not willing to buy at $16.00. I'm also a big fan of Last.fm, Pandora and Slacker which help curious fans discover new music.
Problems (and opportunities) for Mandel’s JJA run along a different track. With print magazines and journals disappearing at an alarming rate, the role of a professional journalist, let alone for an arts correspondent is in jeopardy. To their credit, JJA has launched a number of new initiatives in order to attract readers and contributions from a diminishing pool of advertising dollars. I suspect that as traditional journalism declines, amateur or semi-pro writing will take it’s place. The preponderance of blog and twitter feeds dedicated to music is a valuable resource, especially in their coverage of smaller and fringe scenes, but does the question remains, can this replace a professional journalist and a talented editor? Time will tell. But in the meantime, this is kind of debate that jazz needs: courteous, passionate and thoughtful. Well done on both counts.
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