This Year’s Downbeat Critics Poll Kerfuffle

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Every year when the Downbeat critics poll comes out there’s some kind of minor blowup. Usually it has to do with something along the lines of “how did x get votes for an instrument s/he doesn’t play?” Or sometimes it’s something like “how in the hell does Julian Priester place in the rising star category, dude’s been on the scene for decades?” All valid complaints, which I pretty much always agree with. Silly results like that tend to undermine, even if only a tiny bit, the whole enterprise and give musicians further ammunition to advance the “critics don’t know shit” argument.

But this year’s edition of the critics poll (just out in the August issue) featured a somewhat more controversial result that led to a lot of discussion on a few social media sites. This year’s rising guitar star is none other than Michael Blum. He didn’t only win, but he won by a significant margin, with 96 votes, beating out Lage Lund (69), Jakob Bro (62), Joel Harrison (60), Liberty Ellman (59), and a whole host of other well-known guitarists, including one of my favorites Gilad Hekselman (47). Another one of my favorites, Jon Lundbom, didn’t receive any votes.

[A quick aside – critics can give players up to five votes each, so these results do not mean that 96 critics voted for Blum, it’s that he got enough votes from enough critics to put him over the top.]

As soon as the results were released a jazz publicist asked a question on facebook that many of you by now might be asking yourself, “who in the hell is Michael Blum?” Turns out hardly anybody has heard of him. Now, there are tons of masterful players out there who nobody has heard of – there are great players everywhere. Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho, for example. That’s not the point.

There seem to be two main issues with Blum’s win: first, his playing. I will preface my views by saying there’s nothing bad about it – it’s competent straight ahead playing. But aside from his clean technique, there’s nothing particularly striking, original, or unique about it. Certainly nothing worthy of his outpacing the rest of a stacked field.

There is no way had I been aware of Blum I would have even considered voting for him. This is not a personal attack on his playing or dedication to his craft; it’s my critical evaluation of his playing in comparison to the work of his more established peers. Jakob Bro’s new album, Gefion, is stunning; Liberty Ellman’s playing on Myra Melford’s and Henry Threadgill’s fantastic new albums is unassailable; and Gilad Hekselman continues to play and write some of the most melodic, unshakeable, and stirring music out there. Any of those guys, and really so many of others on the list, deserve the recognition Blum received.

The second issue: Blum contacted as many critics as he could get contact info for asking for their vote in the poll. This wasn’t as big of an issue for me – who am I to criticize someone out there for getting his hustle on, even if it was a bit shameless. But, it worked. Enough of the critics he contacted obviously listened to his record, decided he was the best of the “rising star” guitarists, and gave him their vote.

Therein lies the problem. I always hesitate to dump on another critic – because so much of this game is subjective (sorry, but there’s no such thing as objective criticism) – but I have to believe that had a bulk of the critics who voted for Blum done their homework their vote may have gone to another player. While it is certainly possible, I have a hard time believing so many critics surveyed the field and felt their votes went to the most deserving guitarist. I just want to know, who are these critics listening to, what do they listen for, what are their biases and tastes, what criteria do they use to evaluate musicians?

But, above all, who are these critics? In the early days of the Downbeat critics poll the individual ballots were published alongside the results. (Actually seeing Leonard Feather voting for artists whose albums he produced and who he wrote glowing and “objective” reviews of is a trip – there was never any doubt where his biases resided.) Of course six decades ago there were much fewer voters, and there were much fewer categories, so printing the ballots was not the problem it would be today; it would probably take a separate special issue just to contain the 120+ ballots. So why not publish the ballots online like Francis Davis’ annual NPR poll does?

And therein lies the real problem: there is absolutely no transparency in the process. Who was the critic who voted for x on y instrument that x hasn’t played in 20 years? Who was the critic from a few years ago who felt Julian Priester is the next big trombone star? Who voted for Michael Blum? I keep feeling like I’m trying to take down Blum, and I hope you don’t get that impression. I’m not, my real beef is with the nature, structure, and practice of these polls and of jazz criticism as a whole. And this isn’t limited to Downbeat either.

Results like these, that seem to crop up every year, just devalue the practice and value of jazz criticism. They give credence to those who rip – at times rightfully so – the entire enterprise.  They detract from whatever value the polls have. And they take away from the critics who know what they are doing, who listen to as many albums and players as they can find, and who work their asses off. Perhaps with a little more transparency, and a little more work, the funky results that pop up every year will wither away. And that would be a good thing for everybody.

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