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Jazz Magazines Bad For Jazz?

Downbeat coverA blogger at the Princeton Record Exchange Club takes jazz media to task for “vacuous writing, PR cliches, and tame thinking,” singling out Downbeat and JazzTimes as primary suspects. The writing and argument is a little rough around the edges, but it’s a provocative point. Like the author, I subscribe to both magazines, and there’s no doubt that they represent the mainstream jazz “establishment,” such as it is. But are they really damaging jazz, as he suggests? Would the music be better off without such journals? I think that’s a pretty hard case to make. Both magazines continue to provide a great deal of exposure for both established and younger artists, and most issues that I page through yield a number of things that make my reading time well spent. And while the 1950s, 60s and 70s produced a lot of great jazz writing, I can attest from my searches through old issues of Downbeat that there were plenty of lame reviews as well.

Darcy James Argue Secret SocietyIt’s been said before, but jazz is a narrowly-circumscribed economic world, and perhaps such circumstances do lead to more of a tame, somewhat rah-rah approach to reporting and criticism. A more telling point to make is that magazines like Downbeat and JazzTimes, like other print media, are becoming less and less primary in the 21st-century age of all things Internet and blogging. With people like Doug Ramsey, Marc Myers, and Ted Gioia working and writing online, and with musicians like Ethan Iverson and Darcy James Argue blogging about their contemporaries and posting their own music, there are plenty of alternatives to the established favorites…and plenty of opportunities to voice one’s own opinion in ways that were next-to-impossible before. (You don’t even need to have a blog–you can simply leave a comment on somebody else’s.) So whatever hegemonic grip DB and JT might have had on jazz-media discourse is eroding anyway, whether you like the magazines or not. In my estimation, however, they both continue to play an important and positive part in the jazz world.

(On a dour note along these lines, it appears as if the Los Angeles Times is discontinuing its jazz coverage. Old-guard media has been giving the shaft to jazz for decades now–again, at least new media gives artists and critics another avenue to promote and discuss the music. The jazz world, I think, was slower to get hip to this than other realms were, but over the past couple of years things have picked up quite a bit. Both Downbeat and JazzTimes have active websites, though JT seems to be employing theirs in a more dynamic fashion.)

UPDATE: All About Jazz founder Michael Ricci calls me out for not mentioning AAJ as an online alternative to traditional jazz media. I visit his and several other sites daily, so perhaps I’m taking their existence for granted, or too quickly assuming that most jazzers on the Internet are already aware of them. I was also thinking more of individual writers, since much of the PREX critique focused on the quality of current jazz writing. But certainly All About Jazz is an excellent online information-and-music destination in many ways, as is Jazz.com and Jazzcorner. These sites all have discussion forums as well; along those lines, be sure to also check out Organissimo. It’s an ever-expanding Internet jazz universe–if you’re just beginning to explore it, visit these sites or any of the others listed on the Night Lights links page.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • http://myspace.com/ChipTingle Chip Tingle

    I copy below what I’ve written earlier today and posted in various places:

    I’ll enter this fray of attacking frick and frack, saying DB and JT
    are actually bad for jazz….I have a free few minutes, and my
    caffeine is slowly kicking in this morning.

    While the opinion below is eloquently written and indeed
    entertaining, I will have to disagree on most fronts, especially with
    the overarching premise that these two commercial magazines covering
    jazz (and some blues and beyond) are somehow bad for the music. My
    bottom line point will hopefully center on something like, “so what do
    you propose as a solution, what would you cover instead of the artists
    you cite, or how would you write about them differently?”

    I’ll start with Esperanza Spaulding, as she’s someone I’m so enamored
    with, I’ve actually added a link about her to my email signature line
    which reads, “http://esperanzaspalding.com/ I haven’t been this
    excited in a long time about a jazz artist who will touch a broad
    audience on a deep level”. I would ask if the writer has actually
    listened to her music, or her performances with such masters as Herbie
    Hancock or Joe Lovano, among others. Has the writer viewed any of her
    nationally televised performances on Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel or
    elsewhere? Can the writer come up with any other young jazz artists
    whom would garner the attention of such mainstream media bookers as
    those employed by these shows? We can all go to Youtube now, so how
    about a discussion after we’ve all actually done so. I’ll continue to
    tell anyone who will listen how great I think Esperanza is, and how
    great for the music I think she is. She’s got teens and
    twenty-somethings actually checking out the music in a way that few
    others can accomplish. You dig? Maybe not….your loss as I see it.

    On Sanborn, while I understand the writer’s view on his body of work,
    I would again ask if the writer has listened to Dave’s most recent
    release? I actually like Sanborn’s work over the years for what it
    is, very well played instrumental funk/soul/R&B, with a great “singer”
    on top of it all which happens to be a whaling alto saxophone whom has
    defined his own unique voice and style so deeply that it is one of the
    most imitated sax styles of the last 30 or so years. His latest
    release strikes me as straight down the pipe delivery from the
    tradition of Hank Crawford, Fathead Newman, and certainly Ray Charles,
    all of whom have been huge influences and heroes to Sanborn for his
    entire career. The arrangements are soulful and gritty, and
    colleagues step up strongly like Wallace Roney, Christian McBride,
    Steve Gadd, pop figures like Joss Stone, Eric Clapton, and big band
    horns I’ll now have to look up, as they sound so good. After actually
    listening to the release, I would again look forward to intelligent
    discussion of the pros and cons as this writer or others may see. I’m
    giving it room on my ipod (actually sansa mp3 player)!! Is it Phil
    Woods w big band? Nope….just coming from a different place on the
    jazz tree closer to soul and the blues, arguably in a way that even
    jazz masters like Woods, Shank, McPherson and others could not deliver.

    On Freddie, I was really hoping the magazine writer/interviewer would
    ask the hard questions, rather than enable Freddie’s denial of his
    years of drug abuse. But again, what is the alternative when Freddie
    is attempting another comeback with a new release and high profile
    gigs? Not to write about this? It seems like an easy answer, sad as
    the subject is.

    I’ll have to dig around for other past issues, but I’ve pulled up the
    most recent DownBeat to have another looksy…..Hmm…..a drummer
    focused issue…..great piece on the late Tony Williams, one of my
    musical heroes. How much better would jazz be if Tony was still
    around??? Genius and pioneer are two words used too often and too
    lightly, but not in Tony’s case…..a feature on Danilo Perez w Claus
    Ogerman, a work I haven’t heard, but will actually buy because of my
    deep respect for both of these heavyweights…coverage of Rene Marie’s
    controversial interpretation of the national anthem in Denver – all
    power to her….a column asking artists which jazz artist would make
    the best president – ok, a little fluffy, but providing insight into
    the answering artists like Donny McCaslin and Geri Allen….a tribute
    to the late Johnny Griffin….a backstage column w Jack DeJohnette -
    if you don’t dig Jack discussing his recent work with Chick and Bobby
    McFerrin, then we’re just on different trees rather than just branches
    of the same jazz tree…..a full feature on a young artist I’ve yet to
    check out, Anat Cohen. Based on this piece, I’ll put her in my
    Rhapsody library and sansa player…..

    I go on and on and on…..but to hopefully make my point of
    disagreement with the writer below. DownBeat is doing good work these
    days, though they may be covering artists of little interest to some
    part of the jazz audience this writer might represent. I’ll dig out
    recent JazzTimes to look for the same, and applaud louder for any
    commercial organizations such as these whom have the dedication and
    cajones to keep heralding the news of the jazz world as they see it.

    Respectfully,

    Chip Tingle
    Bay area freelance musician and educator

  • Bill Forbes

    For me, the internet now serves the function once fulfilled by magazines. “Downbeat”, “Metronome”, “Jazz Journal”, “Melody Maker” and “New Musical Express”, which I read in my youth, have now been replaced by the Organissimo jazz discussion forum and blogs such as this and those of Marc Myers and Ted Gioia.

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