Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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.