[Dixielandjazz] critic and reviewer ---- me?

ROBERT R. CALDER serapion at btinternet.com
Fri Sep 5 13:42:21 PDT 2008

I see I was named a few days back as one of the people who have written about jazz and might comment on various questions. 
The main thing is that critical writings (and I have been reviewing books for decades) shouldn't differ in essence from participation in conversation.  The same is true of writing for reference books, like the Encyclopaedia of Scotland, for which I worked. 
One of the main things is to forestall misconceptions,  like anybody might do in conversation (the crucial notion). The Scottish poet Edwin Muir, a greatly gifted literary critic, identified criticism with co-operation, not in the sense of advising musicians who possibly know more than the writer, but contributing to the same general musical objectives, again clearing up misconceptions among reader-listeners, distracting them from the indulgence of bad habits which prevent them hearing. 
It's also important to maintain perspective, in a musical field including the writer and this that and the other musician, and Messrs. Ellington, Condon and whoever else.
It would be nice to help people realise that the bigger names they have heard don't necessarily represent something always better than the music of some people they haven't heard of.  I was once reprimanded for having transgressed the bounds of propriety when I gave as a Christmas present an  LP by somebody the recipient had never heard of.  The recipient subsequently repented, under the influence of the music. I review blues, and it's worth noting that some bluesmen really never had much of a repertoire, but are what Morton referred to as specialists -- they can do some things nobody else could, though overall not so many things. It does no good to avoid telling readers that they are likely to suffer some level of disappointment,  but it can be good in the course of reviewing a recording which has disappointed me, to mention some other things by the same artist. 
No turn unstoned reviewing is for me a species of idiocy.  It's infantile, like the habit of one bete noire of mine of writing reference page entries which dramatise biography with a lot of verbal cleverness (and inaccuracy).  I have slammed mercilessly some incompetents who should never have been engaged to compile the anthologies of which they are guilty. The boot goes in for ignorance, and for pretension. The recent demise of one major musician has on one occasion made me especially severe on a recording of no great quality, whose inclusion of a tribute to the lately departed struck me as opportunism. The degree of false hype applied does also influence me. Some of the worse experiences with young performers are somebody else's fault. The company, or bad education, or tendencies to suppose the inaccurate oversimplifications hack journalists perpetuate.
Among current young exponents of bebop I did really put the boot into the notes which suggested that the guest appearance of a veteran performer jacked up the band's performance notably above their usual standard. The statement was crap, and the band's performance on their previous CD showed them as belonging to the same elevated category as their guest. That previous CD also caused me a little discomfort, because I'd been very enthusiastic about another very gifted ensemble playing the same sort of stuff very well,  but that band simply wasn't in the same class as the one whose liner note I had attacked. There was no mention of my attack on the liner note when the band thanked me for my reviews. 
I have even been thanked by musicians for a review which was in general positive, but which warned off some potential listeners, who I was sure would have hated about half of the CD in question. 
I once received a furious response from a musician whose work I had admired greatly, although I tried as clearly as possible to say what I thought was wrong. The man was also very angry at my having said the music on the CD wasn't jazz. It wasn't that he thought it was jazz. He and I were agreed on that much. He asked who had ever claimed it was jazz. Of course since he produced recordings of very good jazz (at least one of them unlikely to offend members of the present group) it seemed obvious to clarify that he wasn't even trying to make any kind of jazz on that recording. 
A year or so back, before I had to take a long rest from writing due to the onset of stress, chronic fatigue etc., I had the unusual problem of wondering whether the CD 'The Green Room' by the Django-ish band Hot Club Sandwich was quite of the standard I'd taken it to be. The first friend on whom I tried out the music asked me was I kidding, was this music actually about a year old and the work of mostly young me?  Could people still play like that? Yeah!  
I also found other reviewers suggesting that that band played a lot of different sorts of music, but actually they didn't. There was a lot of variety in the music, Latin influences etc. (but there is that Yank Lawson recording with Chico Hamilton, Pee Wee, etc., and other exotica was incorporated long ago).  
I also like to mention the non-newness and non-innovatory character of various things which crop up on new recordings.  People do tend to have narrowed notions of what any kind of jazz is.  To a very great extent, supposed innovations have commonly been things that were there already in differing proportions, or in a different perspective as regards the whole.
I was delighted to be able to review a lot of relatively out of the way recordings. I also tried to provide as much info as possible, it can at times be in short supply. 
It's also important to add that no serious critic started the business of reviewing etc., which could exist without scholarly information and conscientious attention to both the music and hostility to no turn unstoned base rhetoric. One of the critic's duties is the effort to prevent the jazz-writing business being as bad as it sometimes is. And reminders of the best critics are definitely a good thing. The jazz writers who influenced me were often compatriots and near-contemporaries of Humphrey Lyttelton, with the single and signal exception of Humph himself, my revered professor. 


More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list