Jazz Is Like The Color Yellow – A Word From The Author

Jazz, seen above interfering with traffic and screaming incoherently. The diagnosis was "brief reactive psychosis, an acute state brought on by extreme exhaustion, stress, and dehydration".

My editor at Nextbop, Anthony Dean-Harris, published a piece called ”Telegram To Jazz.” It’s gotten around the jazz internet (a term to which Anthony, I’m sure, would append a ”STOP”) a bit, but here’s my two cents.

Read this piece. Much of this piece is why I stopped writing under my own name and started writing as John Weatherman here at The Head In. Much of this piece is why I started throwing away my promotional CDs instead of submitting to the grind of jazz today. Some might see THI as ”safe” – a writer’s way of avoiding controversy and not having to worry about offending anyone – but, for me, it was simply a way of staying sane. I’d already been blocked by Nicholas Payton on Twitter, had obscenities thrown my way by Jonathan Kresiberg, been scolded by Ambrose Akinmusire for speaking my own opinion (which happened to differ from that of a friend of his), had to delete reader comments on my old blog that called Wynton Marsalis a ”house nigger,” that trashed Robert Glasper, that spewed all manner of vitriol about every side of every issue. These were not spam comments. These were real comments by real people.

I watched Patrick Jarenwattananon compile his weekly links (which I showed up on several times – I’m not complaining) but leave out important conversations from the jazz community and devote prime ABS real estate to Treme – I know PJ doesn’t want to be a tastemaker for the jazz community, but the banner of NPR bestows that task irregardless – and, ultimately, get rid of the links altogetherI read emails from colleagues in the blogosphere that admonished me for saying that a record was sub-par. Gilad Hekselman smirked and called me a child after I wrote that his style on one record was derivative of Kurt Rosenwinkel. So what if I review a record and say it’s bad? If you know it’s good, then pity me and walk away. But you’ll never change my mind, just as I’ll never change yours, so why be nasty?

Is the freedom to speak one’s mind in jazz so limited? Is jazz is so desperate to succeed that it brooks no criticism? Is a jazz writer not allowed to say that a rising star isn’t all that great, because the fate of jazz hangs in the balance? Here’s the deal, guys: the fate of jazz isn’t in the hands of Gilad Hekselman, of Wayne Shorter, of any of the guys who are seen as today’s great hope. Jazz isn’t on the brink of death – instead, it’s in a kind of comment-section fueled doldrums, chasing its tail about what jazz is, whether it will be here next year, what makes it different from last year, and whether that’s okay.

So, as Anthony says – STOP. Holy shit, jazz is really so self-obsessed that it devotes most of its time to hand-wringing? Jerking off in public over a greatness that doesn’t exist like Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis in King Of Comedy, or in a kind of necrophiliac lust over its presumed demise?

These days, the only people listening to the music are the people making it – when they’re lucky.

Burst the fucking bubble, people. Here’s some news. The internet has changed jazz. There are less clubs today than there were in 1959, and there have been for years. People die, even jazz musicians, and it’s sad, but it’s an inevitable part of life. Musicians recede into the background or come to the foreground in an ever-evolving cycle. People have opinions – and guess what? They’re just opinions. Bret Primack, the ultimate in the feel-good, masturbatory nature of the jazz internet, has made his name (and garnered many a JJA award) for what are essentially iMovie HD videos about Rollins, Joe Lovano and others that are completely uninteresting in their monochromatic adoration – whatever it is, it certainly isn’t criticism.

That word deserves a moment. How has the word ”critic” come to mean ”criticize” rather than ”critique”? As much as we all love to be nice, especially to the genre we love, no art form can thrive on positive input alone. Constructive criticism does just as much as a five-star review to improve a musician’s work. Why have we forgotten this? Or is it just the polarization of discourse in the jazz world – led by the race-baiting Payton – that has suppressed it? That jazz community is becoming a place where criticism – true, constructive criticism – is viewed as either an attempt at a takedown or just as someone with a grudge (hence Payton blocking me on Twitter in response to measured piece on Nextbop, or Gilad Hekselman patronizing me on Facebook over constructive criticism in a review).

Here’s something many of you may have forgotten: There are no facts in music. Sonny Rollins was born in 1930, he recorded this and that album, he retired in this year, and he’ll most likely die in the next ten years. Robert Glasper is a piano and keyboard player, he’s signed to Blue Note, he once gigged with Kanye West. That’s as close to cold, hard facts as we’ll ever get with jazz. The rest is all subjective.

Every human being sees colors differently. My idea of yellow may look completely different to you, or the guy in the back of the room. Colors are processed by our brains and our eyes, and interpreted according to our individual makeups. Jazz is like the color yellow. There’s no getting away from it, no changing it. These bullshit ”best of” lists that roll around every December – lists I’ve participated in – they don’t have to be bullshit, but everyone takes them so goddamn seriously.

Another jazz writer once told me that

to be useful, criticism demands the right audience — one with the inclination to want to care about something in the first place. And for jazz, that audience is relatively tiny. To some extent, you gotta live with it if you’re in this field and want to stay sane, but at the same time, why preach to only the choir? I’m lucky enough that I have a tiny perch on a huge media cliff from which I can help tell stories. I’ve found that critique is not always the best way to tell them.

Fair enough. But I think that the core audience that criticism will serve – the audience that this writer calls ”relatively tiny” is being neglected. As he said:

I think that a very important part of being a journalist, and especially a critic, is constantly re-investigating your assumptions and preferences when you hear other viewpoints. When you see that there are humans making this stuff and other humans straight-up loving things, you want to be sympathetic at least to the intent, if not more — another reason I don’t want to be a critic!

Does jazz proclaim, as this one jazz writer does, that being a sympathetic human being and separating the wheat from the chaff are mutually exclusive?

To me, it’s absurd that Nicholas Payton would actually block me on Twitter because of an article I wrote disagreeing with his opinions. That Jonathan Kreisberg would tell me – not ask, but tell –  me to delete a review of a record that was unflattering. That Ethan Iverson would give me advice not to disagree with living critics. He practices what he preaches – Do The Math is always studiously vanilla in its criticism of anyone but the dead or the out-of-earshot – but I just can’t.

I got into writing about jazz because I loved the music. I’ve never been paid for a single piece of writing that I’ve produced, and I’ve never asked for money (I usually don’t ask for promo copies of CDs, either, but when I do I make sure to review them). I loved the music. Don’t we all, in our own way? Don’t we all love the music? So why can’t we all be civil? Why can’t we all be fair to each other’s subjective opinions? Why do we need to tell others to ”smoke a carton of cocks” (Nic Payton’s words)? Why can’t we focus not on ourselves, or on the ”state of jazz,” and focus more on jazz itself?

All I want to do is sit at home and listen to records and write about them. I don’t care if people read what I write – today I got just five visitors to this blog (and thank you), and that’s all I need. Right now I’m listening to Keith Jarrett’s Sun Bear concerts, and they’re beautiful. But something in this music has been ruined for me, deep down inside, by the dynamics of the jazz internet. It ruined m last blog, Rehearsing The Blues. I started this one just for myself, to write about the records that I started out with, and even my master list got smirks and anger. And now I’m writing about all this bullcrap, which, somehow, I still care enough about to devote more than 1,500 words to it, but with those words a bit of the fondness with which I wrote on this blog is dying, because it’s been polluted by all the shit that distracts us from the reason we all got started in this: because we love to listen to music, and we hope others do, too. Why is it important that jazz be popular? Why is it important that jazz sell out its gigs and make bank off its records? Is that why we do this? Is that why anyone does this? If this is your living, then you need to live. I don’t begrudge you that. But you chose it. If you don’t want to struggle for it, then go learn another trade. But don’t complain. Don’t whine (Eric Lewis, I’m looking at you). And don’t sell out. Just do what you love, and accept the good and the bad that comes with that love.

I have no well-composed ending for this piece, no clever closing line. So I’ll just say this: wake up and smell the roses, jazz community. They’re the records being released every week, they’re the records you bought as a kid, they’re the gugs you’ve gone to and are going to go to and are at right now. Smell the roses. Because the tail-chasing and jerking off going on every day on the jazz internet – from fans, critics and musicians alike – all this necrophilia and dithering and getting in each other’s faces about opinions and cherrypicking – it all smells like shit to me.

– Jon Wertheim, jazz writer since 2009