The scene: Sweet Basil, New York City, 1994. The occasion: a swanky CD-release party for a young lion that burst on the scene a few years before. The remark: a Brooklyn-by-way-of-the-Midwest jazz singer introduces me to her friend. “Hey, I’d like you to meet Eugene Holley, Jr. He writes for Down Beat and JazzTimes,” she says. But after I shake her hand and turn away momentarily toward my table, I hear my vocalist friend say to her friend in a hushed voice, “Yeah, he’s one of the jazz police, but he’s cool.”
That’s when I first heard the term “jazz police.” At first, I paid it no mind. I thought it was one of the many linguistic inventions and dimensions spawned by musicians – one of many verbal turns of fancy that have weaved in and out of the jazz lingua franca from New Orleans to Manhattan.
But as the years moved on, I started hearing that phrase “jazz police” in more ominous terms. It usually refers to a belief among musicians that there is a cabal of jazz writers, reporters, and critics who influence, undermine, and control jazz musicians. They stifle the true expressions of the music by deciding who gets five-star reviews and who doesn’t, who gets the big recording contract and who’s forced to stay at the indie label, who wins the Grammy award and who gets the big non-profit grant, and who ends up playing their hearts out in the subway for next to nothing.
As someone who has had the tremendous privilege of working as a jazz writer, reporter, radio station music/program director, documentarian, and essayist for 25 years, I can honestly say that no such cabal of jazz police exists.
After all, policemen have salaries, vacations, and unions.
But, notwithstanding that admittedly feeble attempt at humor, the belief in a jazz police has become very toxic these days. So I’d like to offer the perspective of one who has been lumped in with that sordid circle. I want to add some harmony to the discord that exists between musicians and writers. I strongly feel that we need to deal with this myth of the jazz police; otherwise the future of our music will continue to dwindle in the coming years.
Now, just because I say that there is no jazz police doesn’t mean that writers haven’t exercised power to make or break careers. Of course that’s true. Jazz history is replete with writers whose whims, tastes, likes, and dislikes—for good or ill—have determined who is a star and who is not—as evidenced by the critic Martin Williams’s dismissal of the great Ahmad Jamal as a “cocktail pianist,” which other critics echoed for a very long time.
But I have some good news for musicians. While yes, a critic with an influential newspaper or magazine column might have been able to sway the public to like or dislike a jazz musician of his or her choosing back in the day, today no writer or critic has that kind of power. In the 21st century, the explosion of social media, blogs, and online listening services have irrevocably reduced the once-powerful pronouncements of writers and critics to, at best, well-informed observations and opinions.
A critic could write that a musician’s new CD is not his or her best work, but a few clicks and you can hear for yourself whether you agree with the writer’s opinion. A consumer can also share his or her opinions about any musician with other like-minded listeners in an instant. This type of democratized discourse did not exist thirty years ago, and I suspect it’s here to stay. And while sites like Facebook and Soundcloud feature fan reviews and accessible sound files, respectively, the democratic accessibility of that data does not guarantee that opinions offered by fans are any less biased than the professional critics. We are still in the Wild West stages of this phenomenon. And while writers and record companies have been taken down a notch, their digital demotion may be a pyrrhic victory, because it still rings with the spirit of “us” versus “them.”
And nobody wins that contest these days.
This digital age has also changed the power relationships between the jazz musician and the record industry to a large degree. If musicians have access to the internet, they can become their own record company. Artists can create their own websites, complete with gig updates, biographical information, audio samples, tour dates, and videos.
But for all of the aforementioned advances available to jazz in this era, there are still a significant number of musicians who speak of a jazz police.
As someone who knows and is in awe of the power and artistry of jazz musicians, I understand the frustrations, outrage, and disappointment they must feel when they have put their hearts and souls into a gig, a record, the road, and a career, only to see their careers marginalized by shrinking media coverage, unless they die and/or are featured in a PBS documentary. I particularly marvel at the young people, who become jazz musicians knowing what may befall them.
But let me get a little personal here. While I don’t claim to have met every major jazz writer in the years I’ve been on the scene, I have had the profound privilege of knowing quite a few of them: Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour, John Murph, Willard Jenkins, Kelvin Williams, Jackie Modeste, Guthrie Ramsey, Robert G. O’Meally, Greg Thomas, A.B. Spellman, and two giants who left us recently—Albert Murray and Amiri Baraka. I have never seen them huddle to block anyone’s career. Musicians may not have liked everything they wrote, but I will go on record to insist that, at least with the people I mentioned, I saw no evidence of the jazz police some musicians talk about.
Yes, it is true that negative reviews—however crude, ill-informed, and distasteful they may be—do sell magazines and, in many cases, help establish the writer’s voice. Terry Teachout’s acerbic and condescending biography of Duke Ellington is one recent example. However, the notion of a jazz police that profits off of the misfortunes of musicians is downright unsupportable. I know a few known and unknown bards who are the antithesis of a jazz police; individuals who, without notoriety or fanfare, made great sacrifices for this music.
William A. “Bill” Brower of Washington, D.C., is a writer, concert producer, and former stage manager for the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival and Classic Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The late Bobby Jackson was the former program director of WCLK-FM in Atlanta and jazz programmer of Cleveland’s WCPN-FM.
Skip Norris is an intrepid Detroit entrepreneur who produces swinging gigs in the Motor City.
Zoe Anglesey and Tom Terrell, who both left us far too soon, and Arnold J. Smith are three Brooklyn-based, all-around guardian angels whose writings and work in the record industry have illuminated the scene.
If musicians want to search for a jazz police, they need look no further than themselves. The same digital revolution that has diminished the power of music critics and heavy-handed record producers has also exposed how some jazz musicians undermine and sabotage each other. Without naming names, writers have heard horror stories over the years: A musician sends someone to the wrong gig for an audition for a major jazz group. A group of sidemen on a recording session don’t like one person they’re playing with, and they purposely play badly to ruin the session. And most recently, a jazz pianist won a MacArthur grant and some musicians actually posted on his Facebook page the reasons why they didn’t feel he deserved the award.
My purpose is relating these examples, is not to hurt or embarrass musicians. But, as corny as it sounds, it’s to encourage musicians to treat each other better; and to emphasize that today, in an age where all jazz artists in America are underrated, musicians should know that, in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of jazz scribes and other individuals in the jazz infrastructure are there to help them, and, more importantly, the music.
We’re all trying to swing.
Eugene Holley, Jr. contributes to: Publisher’s Weekly, Purejazz magazine, Philadelphia Weekly and NPR: A Blog Supreme.