Do Critics Need to Be Able to Play Jazz? No, but it Helps.

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A few days ago The Boston Jazz Blog put up a post that asks the oft-debated question: Do Jazz Critics Need to Know How to Play Jazz?  The post has answers from many of today’s most prominent critics such as Ben Ratliff, Ted Panken and Nate Chinen.  For the most part the consensus was “no, but it helps.” I was particularly taken with Ted Panken’s response – he attempts to compensate for not playing an instrument by taking more of a journalist stance than a critic stance.

For the most part, I would agree with most of the answers on this post.  As someone who has played the saxophone for over 20 years, earned a BA and MA in music, has performed with numerous groups, and who has many musician friends, I benefit greatly from this experience and knowledge.  I can’t imagine what my writing would be like if I couldn’t play music, but I’m sure it would be much different.  I feel quite disadvantaged when writing about vocalists, guitarists and B3 players, as I know very little about what it takes from a technical standpoint to play.  I don’t know, for example, what a guitarist is doing to his or her amp, effects, pedals, etc. – thus my terrible descriptions (some of which have been published) as the tone “rock inspired.”  After realizing recently that my writing about guitarists is sub-par, I’m now getting some help from some guitarist friends so they can tell me what is going on with certain players and approaches.  This being said, just because I don’t play guitar doesn’t mean I won’t be able to write about it in an informed way.  Extend this out a bit: just because a critic doesn’t play an instrument, or can’t navigate the changes to “Cherokee” at a lighting tempo (as Ratliff suggests) doesn’t mean he or she is ineligible from writing about and criticizing jazz in an informed, eloquent, and insightful way.  Just like everything in life, writing about jazz is hard, for musicians and non-musicians alike.

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