My Life As a Critic

Jazz was a sea when I heard it, made from an age of waves of the voices of slaves, tumbling to the shores of freedom… The waves rolled into my bedroom at night, waking me up, and surfed me over to the living room, where I wrote, turning the surf into saxophones, which tumbled over me, like the sea, and I swam with musicians, on the other corner of my green velvet couch, where I would talk to them, getting their best philosophy.


I covered the New York scene for two years straight, from my kitchen, at my desk, at the computer.


I scoured clean the lean and mean Boston scene, austere and blindingly bright, stark silence for minutes, then a low hum, like my heater going on in winter.


I was good. I sided with the musicians. I saw, against popular prejudice, it was about their minds and their souls and beliefs. It wasn’t a consumer protection report, which makes you an accessory to the industry.


The industry dominates, however, and it becomes political. The Penguin Guide is an aid, yet it is also a bane. They are careless in their listening despite appearances and despite quality of writing, and knowledge and expertise. They slight unsung artists, and they pussyfoot around sacred cows, like the Marsalis brothers, decent but not “glitteringly gifted like the Kennedys,” Cook’s and Morton’s claim.


I poison-penned one author, a poetry translator and jazz historian, who had written a book on hard-bop trumpet player Kenny Dorham, which I thought was a fraud. Rather, I knew it was a fraud, and I said so.


Otherwise, praise, qualified when necessary. To write, I chose what I liked, or what interested me, or what I was curious about. This was all work by mature, hardworking artists, who deserved credit and respect and, I felt, recognition and support.


Andrey was my finest editor, by far. “I like to work with a scalpel instead of a chainsaw,” he said to me. And the New York City Jazz Record is a fine publication.


There were always power plays among editors and between them and writers, and even musicians. Some critics thrive on this, but it sickened me. I had to get out.


Howard is a fine listener, sometimes rough around the edges as a stylist, but usually accurate. He said my poetry is better than my criticism, and in the long run he is right. There is poetry in my music writing as fine as what I write in verse, and good philosophy too, and the noble effort to get good thought out of musicians. Yet this is what it is about. And Howard is good, not so much with regard to his consumer focus, as with his balance and general large-picture focus, looking at everything in context of the larger jazz idiom, and the essence of its structures.


I told him, Eliot called Pound “the better craftsman”. I called Howard “the better critic”. He was happy and knew I was right.


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