Critics Have Problems, Too

Jazz writers are a bunch of kids who don’t know anything about the music; also, they are a bunch of old men who haven’t liked anything new since Bird died. They live to put musicians down; this explains why they let record companies bribe them (sometimes outright, sometimes through paying them to do liner notes) never to write anything negative about anybody. By this means, among others, jazz writers get rich off the work of musicians. Nobody publishes in jazz magazines worth reading, though, because there isn’t any audience that will pay to read one.

Quite a few people who like jazz don’t like jazz writers. Some resent it when any of us dislikes anything about jazz. A surlier and somewhat larger group is more demanding: they want us to extol all the music they like and detest all the music they detest, and they send a stream of letters to jazz reviewers. Others seem to fell that we could improve world conditions by taking professional vows of poverty. A more sympathetic lot merely wishes that we were better at what we do: more careful, more thoughtful, less devoted to profiles and capsule reviews and more inclined to serious analysis. This group may or may not be outnumbered by those who find the very nature of our work useless at best, harmful at worst. The caricature at the head of this column is a thoroughly unfair composite of opinions from members of all these groups. I will now demonstrate that every word of it is true.

First, my credentials. I have written about jazz for the last 10 years. I am probably best known for my liner notes and my work in the Voice. Since leaving New York in 1974 to take a job at the Smithsonian, I have become an outside insider: never much of a careerist, disinclined to approach the slicker publications, and usually writing for local and/or obscure outlets. Most of these—Jazz Digest, Zoo World, University Review, Boston’s Real Paper, Tom Stites’s noble effort Jazz Magazine—had already died when I semiretired three years ago. The Washington Star was my last real effort. For three months I was the jazz stringer there, replacing a doubler from the sports desk who had replaced another stringer. Less than a year after it cut me loose—it could no longer afford stringers for any purpose—the Star went to newspaper heaven.

Jazz writing is marginal. At The Washington Post, I was briefly one of half a dozen stringers who together wrote three or four performance reviews per week and a column of record reviews every three weeks or so. Features were rare. Hollie West was still on staff at the time, but largely due to his reluctance to become stereotyped as a jazz writer, he wasn’t doing much on the subject. I’d guess that the Post spends a little over $10,000 a year on jazz writing—not exactly riches, even for a single writer, and hardly enough for knowledge of jazz to rate as a criterion for admission to the Post’s very well paid staff. Most Post classical and rock writing is also done by stringers, but staff involvement is higher, and in both fields there is a lot more work.

Compare and contrast—allegedly, the departure of Post TV critic Tom Shales was recently averted through a six-figure salary deal. Given this and the many Post TV features written by others, the Post probably spends over $200,000 per year on TV writing. Movie writing may not be far behind; critic Gary Arnold has been given his notice, and there is no telling how much the Post will spend for a prestigious replacement. So what else is new? TV copy, movie copy, copy on Pia Zadora’s doctor’s dog—all promote circulation far more effectively than any amount of jazz writing. At least the Post maintains some level of commitment to jazz and pays reasonably well. How well is reasonable? A personal judgment, of course. To me, a rate of pay approximating 20 cents per word seems reasonable for a profitable publication; five or 10 cents a word doesn’t. the same cannot be said of many other dailies, or imitations of the Voice and early Rolling Stone that don’t pay well (because they can’t) and don’t maintain a commitment (usually because they fold). Still, the likes of Zoo World and The Real Paper tend to pay better than jazz oriented magazines, most of which simply don’t pay at all. Down Beat and Jazz Times are the exceptions, and I suppose an industrious contributor might approach an income of $2000 a year from either one.

How, you are beginning to wonder, do jazz writers make a living? Well, most don’t. A lot of us have other jobs: Bob Blumenthal (an attorney), Richard Sudhalter (a working musician), me, many more. Others—including Robert Palmer (really more of a rock writer), Stanley Crouch, Peter Keepnews, James Lincoln Collier—have pursued jazz as part of diversified journalistic careers. Professional free-lance writers do best by patrolling the better-paying, general interest terrain, looking for stable ground. Robert Palmer has regularly worked The New York Times, Penthouse, Rolling Stone. Gary Giddins keeps one foot at the Voice, moving the other from New York to Esquire to Vanity Fair. The landscape keeps changing, you see. Esquire renews its interest in jazz; Saturday Review, once home to Martin Williams and Stanley Dance, gets bored. The New Republic perks up and brings in Michael Ullman; Rolling Stone nods.

Jazz writers can also write liner notes, but most jazz records are issued by small companies with low overheads; these pay poorly. A minority of releases come from larger firms which pay in the low hundreds for a set of notes. No one writer makes a lot from doing notes. The recent trend from twofer reissues to replicas—following on the sensible realization by most companies that most new releases don’t need notes at all—will insure that almost everybody makes even less.

Jazz writers can also write books. A well-known name can draw an advance of as much as $10,000 for an attractive original manuscript. A collection of previously published pieces, an effort by a relative unknown, an uncommercial subject—these will usually bring $5000 at most. If a major publisher takes on a celebrity musician’s biography, all bets are off and prices can go high indeed. But how many jazz books get published, anyway? And how long does it take to write one? Then there are miscellaneous duties: teaching college courses, lecturing, hosting radio programs, producing records, producing concerts. My own experience, during a period of several years when I was usually under several deadlines at once, was that I never averaged enough to pay the rent.

In a sense all this is as it should be. Let’s descend for a moment to the level of the ethnic joke: did you hear about the Polish jazz musician? He’s in it for the money. Many musicians have prospered in jazz, but the rule lies much closer to this: working for the door, or a slice thereof; working under scale and filing phony contracts; endlessly trekking around the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit to help fill the refrigerator. Given such conditions for so many musicians, justice does not seem to demand that very many commentators on their work should enjoy handsome livings.

All right, let’s get to the good stuff. If times are so tough, who’s on the take? Well, so far as I can determine, nobody. This is not to say that any number of writers have not put themselves in apparently compromising situations. But let’s take the oldest example first; early in his career, John Hammond supported, with his own funds, a number of musicians’ attempts at bandleading, then turned about and wrote glowingly of their bands for Melody Maker. As far as I know, Hammond has never been accused of corruption. Why? Simply because his balance sheet showed a loss? When Leonard Feather, early in his career, worked simultaneously as an active critic and a publicist for Duke Ellington, are we to assume that he thought the Ellington band a third-rate organization, and only took the job for the money? To be sure, Feather is a master at placing himself in situations that appear to exploit others; consider the many record dates he has produced, always involving celebrated musicians and a raft of compositions by…Leonard Feather! Damning evidence? I doubt it. Many have forgotten that Feather quit New York for L.A. in the 1960s with the explicit intent of giving up jazz writing for composing and performing.

Liner notes, of course, have long been a source of suspicion, probably stemming from the days when several very active jazz companies kept small stables of reviewers who did almost all their notes. Some writers outside these exclusive stables believed that at best an unspoken trade off was in process; prominent reviewers, in exchange for kind treatment of Doughnut Records in the press, were getting lots of Doughnut liner gigs, while writers with trenchant typewriters (and lots of integrity) got none. Perish the thought that Doughnut’s select circle may have been chosen on the grounds of wide reputation, punctuality (a greater virtue in the old days, when some companies insisted that notes be written almost overnight), and writing skill (including the ability to project convincing warmth about the competent, pleasant, and quite unexceptional music that fills most new releases).

A few years ago, when Robert Palmer wrote notes for some Impulse items, then promptly wrote them up in the Times, I had one of my most impressive attacks of postadolescent outrage. Today, growing older and steadily more retired, I would only shake my head; Palmer’s act seemed careless of his reputation and Impulse’s—and when the Times found out, it was reportedly not at all pleased—but was there really any reason to suspect him of anything more than the use of all his resources to further records he liked? From liner notes and reissue programming to club booking and concert programming, ask yourself this: would we really want a jazz business without access to critical expertise?

Actually, I do know of one instance of jazz payola, but I find it impossible to understand. As I heard it, long ago a record label regularly paid one of the best known writers a small sum—less than $20 in 1983 money—each time he reviewed one of the label’s releases. Apart from the sheer uniqueness of the outright payoff, this deal had two odd features: first, it was sealed with written contract; and second, the deal didn’t specify favorable reviews. This last is particularly strange, since both the writer and the company were prominent enough that he would certainly have had to review a lot of its records anyway. Even here, in the midst of actual payola, we see the work of someone’s peculiar sense of integrity. Jazz may simply be too small time to support some of the racier lapses of ethics.

It is also too small time to support writers, particularly through anything like a lifetime career. Active jazz writers over 50 are not thick on the ground. Among the elders of the tribe—those who have been around since the ’50s, and remain truly active—a particular rumor floats about hovering above one head or another for no apparent reason: so-and-so has family money and doesn’t really need to make a living. Maybe it’s true and maybe not, but in either case, the elders have not been shoving their successors off the lower rungs of the jazz-writing ladder. I cracked the Voice on the eve of my 24th birthday. Gary Giddins, my senior by a year or two, had arrived only months before me. Bob Blumenthal, slightly older still, was in the Boston Phoenix (then Boston After Dark) by 1971. Peter Keepnews was doing a first rate job of editing Jazz Magazine when well short of 30. True, all of us arrived at a time when editorial and popular interest in jazz was higher than it had been for a decade, and I am immodest enough to think that all of us were qualified for the work.

Not all our contemporaries were as capable. Even today, one writer after another pops out of college, armed with no more than enthusiasm, basic writing skill, a small jazz record collection, and a lot of chutzpah and breaks into national print. One of these announced himself to a friend of mine—in all seriousness—as the next great jazz critic; at the same time, he announced that he had just bought a Coleman Hawkins record and was eager for his first hearing of such a venerated musician. If you put any stock whatsoever in Down Beat’s Critics’ Poll, I can guarantee that conversations with a few of those who’ve voted in it would change your mind.

At Down Beat and elsewhere, jazz writers have always tended to be too young. Would that nothing else were wrong with Down Beat, a publication I have never tried to write for. (They used to invite me annually to become a polled critic, but it seemed to me a relatively pointless task, apart from whatever self-promotion I might have gained from it.) Space prevents recitation of all the db horror stories: one editor (very young) with no writing ability, and apparently no knowledge of jazz; another (not so young) who lost some important contributors through his insistence on running reviews without bylines; the intramural squabbles in recent years over the financial wisdom of putting black musicians on covers; and more.

The question is not, how bad is Down Beat, but whether it is possible for another magazine to do better and survive. Amiri Baraka recently praised the DB of the mid-’60s, without noting that the magazine was in those years essentially the hobby of its prosperous owner, a printer who had surrendered control of his main business interests under doctor’s orders. After his death in 1967, and despite six years of heroic resistance by Dan Morgenstern, the new owners gradually made db what it is today—which is, to be fair, a lot better than what it was eight or nine years ago. Baraka also praised the last days of Metronome, without noting that its demise coincided with the end of the need for the tax break that made its last year possible, and the Jazz Review, without noting that its bankruptcy occurred even though all copy and editorial services were gratis. A list of ’60s and ’70s obituaries of jazz and semijazz periodicals and their vastly differing editorial philosophies would run to a page; I will mention only Jazz Magazine, more recent than most, better than most, and dead despite a grant that supported a subscription-building mailing. Who will support a jazz magazine, particularly a good one? Subscribers? Advertisers? Foundations? Universities? Wealthy individuals? The National Endowments? The record suggests that the answer is none of the above. Among small publications which survive on a nonprofit, no-pay basis, the story is always the same; one or two dedicated individuals stand in the way of extinction.

I’ve written a lot about a subject of interest to few. I could have written at least twice as much off the top of my head, without going beyond the points I have briefly raised. And other points could follow. What are the limitation of writing for a daily (how many of your readers will know that Louis Armstrong played the trumpet?), or a slick monthly (this month the editor will sit up and beg for a story on Wynton Marsalis; two years ago, when Marsalis was the unrecorded talk of jazz world, no sale)? Where is the outlet for criticism beyond the record review level? (Partial answer: reissue liner notes, where a lot of serious writing has been found since the early ’70s.) Finally, and perhaps most seriously, aren’t jazz writers increasingly being asked to do an impossible task? Stanley Crouch’s recent remarks on Cecil Taylor and Olivier Messaien brought only one example of mass critical sleepwalking to light. Isn’t it mad to expect a brigade of part-time volunteers to do justice to a music that now reflects not only 80 years of its own recorded tradition, but also Messaien, Jimi Hendrix, and the music of Joujouka villagers? Where is the time for all this going to come from—not to mention the money for the nonjazz records, or the jazz records we don’t get as review copies? And what is the alternative? To return to the critical mores of yesteryear, when many jazz writers were flat out provincials, bop specialists who hated or ignored New Orleans, big band freaks who wouldn’t think of listening to Monk? I hope not.

By J. R. Taylor

[Originally published in The Village Voice, August 30, 1983—thanks to Bill Kirchner]