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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.

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