Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Eulogy in A minor

Recently I mentioned jazz critic, Ben Ratliff, late of the New York Times, not knowing as I wrote that the Times is more or less eliminating jazz coverage in the arts section. I was saddened to read this item in Salon.

Both jazz critics (Nate Chenin was the other one) have left the paper, in part because of recent changes in strategy and philosophy at the top. As the Salon piece points out, the Times used to think of itself as “the paper of record,” so covering jazz gigs and albums was part of its mission on the arts front. Same, I’m assuming, with classical music. But now the thinking of the brass (and I don’t mean trombones) is that you have to keep your eye on digital analytics and clicks, and the data show that nobody clicks on the jazz reviews, man, so find other ways to tell your jazz stories — I don’t know, human interest angles? one-eyed clarinet players? tranny trumpeters? — or you’re history.

Like so many of the best of the best things, jazz is conspicuously unpopular with the folk. That is, the folk who blow money on pop cultural crapola like what passes for the cinema nowadays, or stadium concerts. It used to be that the great jazz artists were on television all the time, everyone from Sarah and Ella to Louis and Dizzy and Miles. We were on a first-name basis with them. You have to seek them out today, know about them in advance, follow them, and support them by buying their records. Otherwise they become invisible. And now, thanks to the Times, you won’t hear of new names in jazz through record and concert reviews.

And yet, there are a lot of records and concerts to be reviewed. For a couple of years I subscribed to Downbeat magazine, that venerable jazz rag, but I let it lapse because I couldn’t keep up with the volume of material to investigate. I’m still working through back issues, which is how I discovered guitar players like Sheryl Bailey, Mary Halvorson, and Brad Allen Williams, singers like Cécile McLorin Salvant and Alexis Cole, and combos like the Deardorf/Peterson Group.

I guess what this boils down to is that the arts, spectacularly underfunded these days and dwindling, have to aim for micro-audiences and hope to survive on their enthusiasm as aficionados. Fans have to be active online, searching for and supporting jazz musicians (and certain kinds of novelists too), and they have to spread the word in their own social media arenas. The artists have to be in constant marketing mode, unaided now by reviews in the Times and other big media, just as (not to sound like a broken record) book reviews are fading from those outlets as well.

It’s a shame. As a learning jazz guitar wannabe, I know more now about what’s going on in jazz music, how complex it can be, how exquisite, and how fun it is to recognize the details. More listeners would find jazz exciting if they had more exposure to it and understood its musical vocabulary. (I’m also tired of classical music being marketed as “relaxing” when it’s so much more than that.) And if newer jazz players could become larger than life, like a Miles Davis or a Monk, the culture would take notice and listen.


9 comments on “Eulogy in A minor

  1. islandeditions
    March 10, 2017

    Sounds like the same problems lit-fic and creative non-fiction have been experiencing.

  2. Audrey Driscoll
    March 10, 2017

    You’ve hit a nerve. I got a pretty good education about classical music from Canada’s national broadcaster (the CBC) by listening to Radio 2, until 2009 when most programs were cut and what remained was watered down. The same thing happened to jazz; it’s still there but diminished. As to the ‘relaxing’ thing — I can’t agree more. And yes, it is similar to how literary fiction has been whittled down in the public mind to the few books that are nominated for or win the big prizes.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 11, 2017

      True, that all of this is related. Books, music, even movies to some extent. Watered down is the perfect way to put it. Every time I turn on a classical station I know I’m going to hear something from “The Four Seasons”!

      • Audrey Driscoll
        March 11, 2017

        I’ve started listening to Northwest Public Radio, out of somewhere in Washington State. It’s an NPR station. They play some more obscure composers as well as the old familiars, and the performers are quite often Canadians (disrespected in their own country, I think to myself). What I miss is the informed commentary by the radio hosts, who in the good old days were knowledgeable and often working musicians. I doubt we’ll ever see that again.

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 11, 2017

        I’ll tell you what I miss: an old radio show with Karl Haas called “Adventures in Good Music.” He really put classical on the map for me and I’ve been a fan ever since. I wonder if there are some recordings of him we could find …

      • Audrey Driscoll
        March 11, 2017

        When you connect with the person delivering the information about the music, you listen to the music differently and it loses that off-putting label of “elitist” or “boring,” often applied to classical music. Don’t know about recordings of extinct radio programs, though — they might come off as nostalgia or fossils. But maybe only to people who heard them live.

  3. pinklightsabre
    March 12, 2017

    I like that informed commentary Audrey mentions. I’d like to just let it pour over me, alongside the music…on a jazz radio program when I lived in Philly…yup, those days are dwindling.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 13, 2017

      I agree, it’s great to hear expert commentary while listening. You learn what’s going on in the music while picking up on the expert’s enthusiasm too.

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This entry was posted on March 10, 2017 by in Music and tagged , .
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