[Dixielandjazz] Jazz Reviews - Critics

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Sep 3 10:47:54 PDT 2008

Here's my 2 cents.

It is not easy to succeed as a jazz musician or a critic.

Dave Brubeck wrote:

"The critics will help you when you're coming up. I had all the help  
in the world coming up. John Hammond was writing glowing things about  
me when I was an unknown. But get to the top and see what happens. The  
same structure that helped you up is gonna turn that wheel on you and  
try to put you down. Almost everybody does a full 180-degree turn. The  
guys that didn't like you start liking you, and the ones that  
discovered you say you've gone commercial. Why have you gone  
commercial? Your records are selling. You haven't changed..."

Oscar Peterson wrote:

"I'm a musician, and just as the critics are sometimes hard on me, I'm  
hard on the critics. I don't believe what the critics say, because  
often I sit down at a concert beside them and they ask me what the  
musicians on stage are doing. And they're supposed to know that kind  
of thing . . . (e.g.) at a certain moment the music changed tempo by  
design, but very quickly came back to the original tempo, and the  
critics said to me that the rhythm section wasn't right,"

IMO people like Brubeck or Peterson or Coltrane suffered in some  
critical reviews because the critics did not understand the vocabulary  
that these virtuosos used. They, were often excoriated for "playing  
two many notes". But what that means to me is that the critic doesn't  
have the ears to hear the total line. He expects only to hear certain  
notes and is unable to process the rest. Peterson often used the  
analogy of a child waving a sparkler. What the eye sees is a tracery  
of line. When he, (or Tatum, or Trane) produced a rapid stream of  
notes, the sensitive ear hears not the succession of notes, but the  
stream they leave behind. The vocabulary is note the individual notes,  
but the stream that endures. (from Gene Lees' biography of Peterson)

Brubeck was often accused by critics of being too bombastic to which  
he replied: "Bombastic? Dammit when I am bombastic, I want to be  

Point being that some of us humans listen and some of us hear. There  
is, IMO, a big difference. For example, how do we listen to a  
performance. Do we just pick out the lead instrument, or do we listen  
to the entire group? Do we hear the bass line? Do we know if the  
drummer is using sticks or brushes? Do we hear the chord changes and/ 
or substitutes/inversions. Do we hear the interplay among the  
musicians? Do we hear the challenges they throw out to each other? And  
how these challenges are met?

Personally, I do not think some critics (or fans) hear. They know what  
they like and they know some things they dislike. And when you read a  
negative review, often it is because the critic didn't like, or didn't  
understand what you said.

Music is a very personal conversation. Some use a vocabulary that  
others don't understand. And IMO, when critics don't understand the  
musical conversation, they should not write about it.

It was very personal for me when Jonathan Russell burst on the scene  
at age 7 or 8. He caught all kinds of flak from people who were  
critical of bow technique, his tone, his intonation etc. They were  
comparing him with much older violinists. What they did not hear was  
the music this kid was playing. Pure, improvisational jazz, that many  
older players today still cannot accomplish.

Others "heard" his genius. Like Svend Asmussen, Regina Carter and now  
Wynton Marsalis.

Steve Barbone

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list