The Jazz.com Blog
January 17, 2008 · 2 comments
Well maybe not a real knife fight. This is the Internet, after all, and the bloodshed is only virtual. But if this had been the corner bar, instead of a web site, I would be sweeping up broken glass and filling out a police report right now.
It all started with Sun Ra.
You don’t know who Sun Ra is? Do you come from Saturn? Whoops . . . if you had come from Saturn you would definitely know about this musician, who had astral connections few other jazz players can match. Sun Ra claimed to be the descendant of an ‘angel race’ from the planet Saturn. He took his name from the ancient Egyptian sun deity, and led a number of bands – for example, The Solar Myth Arkestra or the Blue Universe Arkestra – which usually relied on the term 'Arkestra' somewhere in the name.
Small-minded people will tell you that this is a deliberate mis-spelling of ‘orchestra,’ but I prefer to think of it as a musical extension of Noah’s Ark – with Sun Ra aiming to get at least two of every kind of sound in his Ark-estra. In practice, his music might be played by solo piano, or with thirty or more musicians, or with any combination in between.
Alas, some sullen terrestrials have tried to disprove Mr. Ra’s genealogy. They suggest that Sun Ra was actually a fellow named Herman Blount, born in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914. But this slander is hardly credible. Anyone can tell by a quick glance at the artist’s wardrobe that it could only have arrived from outer space.
I must admit my fondness for some of the recordings of this interplanetary visitor. His releases always held surprises, and often pleasant ones. There were a few clinkers in the mix but, in general, the fine musical moments out-weighed the lesser achievements of the Arkestra. And, when you are trying to capture two of every kind of sound, some allowance needs to be made for the slimy and scaly creatures that find passage on the boat.
But our staff reviewers – a cantankerous group, known for (heaven forbid!) sometimes disagreeing with my musical judgments – have been less kind.
Steve Greenlee, for example, in his review of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” opens his review as follows:
“Did Sun Ra really think he could get this song played on the radio? The same two bars and two chords repeated over and over for nearly eight minutes? Ra and his backup singers reciting FCC-unfriendly lyrics that contain a 12-word noun commonly heard in the R-rated films of Quentin Tarantino?”
Or here is Alan Kurtz, from his review of Sun Ra’s “Medicine for a Nightmare":
“Sun Ra had visited Saturn as a teenager, and later renamed himself after the Egyptian sun-god, Ra of Heliopolis. (Well, why not aim high?) With a keyboard technique reminiscent of Imhotep wielding mummified fingers, Sun Ra doesn’t tickle the ivories so much as scuffle with them.”
But Kurtz goes further, comparing Sun Ra to schlock film director Ed Wood and – even worse -- casting doubt on the Egyptian origins of this keyboard deity in his review of Sun Ra’s “The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters.” Here is the offending passage:
“Sonny [Blount] changed his name to Sun Ra. His music, however, remained surprisingly devoid of Arabic influence. Instead of the distinctive Arabian scales, rhythms or instruments that evolved from ancient times, Sun Ra dishes out cheesy electric organ to inept accompaniment. If teenagers played this in your garage, you'd swear they have no talent, and you'd be right. These ‘Pharaonic Jesters’ ought to be called ‘Moronic Gestures.’”
It was only a matter of time before the devoted fans of Sun Ra fought back against these calumnies. The dictionary defines “saturnine” as “sluggish in temperament; gloomy; taciturn.” But clearly the people who write these definitions have never met anyone from the planet Saturn. I know from experience . . . since the Saturnians who rose up in Sun Ra’s defense were anything but taciturn or sluggish.
They started their attack with a few testy comments on our review pages, and then mounted a far more vehement (and sometimes potty-mouthed) attack on Mr. Kurtz in the pages of another web site (Bagatellen, which I should note, is a fine source of information on various contemporary jazz styles, and not just Egyptian deity jazz and interplanetary jazz).
In the interest of bringing about a lasting peace between the Sun Ra fans and foes, I stepped into the comments page of Bagatellen with the spirit of reconciliation in my heart, and honeyed words on my lips. Here I rapidly took a few blows to the chin, and had several stones thrown in my general direction. I hastily retreated back to the safe haven of the jazz.com blog. But I did agree to explain and defend jazz.com’s review policy in an interview with Derek Taylor of Bagatellen.
Derek did not offer up softball questions – quite the contrary! He made me defend and justify a lot more than just some harsh words directed at Sun Ra. But I imagine that many of the questions he asked are also on the minds of some jazz.com readers. So -- in the interest of full disclosure -- I am providing the complete and unedited text of our interview below.
How did Jazz.com come about?
I am not sure of the entire history of the www.jazz.com domain. I imagine that it has changed hands a few times, but I am not aware that it has ever played much of a role in the jazz world. But I was intrigued when the current ownership of the domain name asked for my help in building it into something special.
This is an unusual project for me. As you probably know, I have rarely written jazz journalism or reviews. I have focused instead on books and historical research. I like big projects that allow me to tackle large subjects. I spent more than a decade researching my recent Work Songs book, and my big book Delta Blues, another huge undertaking, will come out later this year. Web writing is usually the exact opposite – a place where people toss off random thoughts, often poorly thought out and rarely backed by research.
I decided to try to bring my “big project” approach to the jazz.com site. I wondered if I could gather a team of top notch writers, reviewers, photographers, artists, and other talented people, and succeed in providing a multi-layered and comprehensive approach to the jazz idiom.
Probably the most ambitious idea was to review individual tracks – not entire CDs – and try to cover the whole history of the music. By my estimate, I will eventually need more than 10,000 reviews to do a good job of this. We have around 1,400 completed right now.
That is impressive, but your indictment of “web writing” gives me pause, particularly since the brevity of many of the reviews on jazz.com could potentially invite a similar conclusions. In this regard, they read like soundbites rather than fully cooked meals of criticism. I suppose this fits with the focus on tracks over albums. But readers familiar with the music may find them lacking, as I have. Do you see this as a viable conclusion to reach or am I looking at them in the wrong light?
This is an important issue. I too am concerned about any approach that reduces music criticism to sound bites. In fact, I have changed some of our guidelines on reviews in recent weeks. When we first started writing track reviews, I suggested that our critics write reviews that were between 50 and 100 words per track. I am now encouraging the writers to stretch out, and contribute longer and more detailed reviews when they feel it is appropriate.
I remember my disappointment at many of the reviews in the All Music Guide, which attempted to sum up an entire CD in one or two sentences. I don't want to go down that path. In some instances, I am now publishing reviews of individual tracks that are longer than reviews for individual CDs in other periodicals.
Of course, the quality of the review is more important than absolute length. But I want to give our critics the flexibility to go shorter or longer depending on what they want to say in the review.
What is the rationale behind reviewing individual tracks rather than albums?
I have always been unhappy with the traditional CD review. Back when I wrote my book The History of Jazz, I was asked by the publisher to add a list of recommended CDs. I refused. Instead, I compiled a list of recommended tracks. This was long before the rise of downloading and the iPod. But even back then, I preferred focusing on the individual track for a variety of reasons.
As we know, CDs are often a mixed bag, with some strong material mixed in among weaker performances. Also, the most important historical tracks often show up on various reissues, some of which go out of print very quickly. So you can recommend a CD only to find that it has been discontinued by the label, while the song is now available on some other compilation. A track-oriented focus avoids these problems.
But perhaps the most important advantage of recommending tracks is that it encourages closer listening of the music. When people listen to an hour-long CD, they often treat it as background music while they do some other task. If I can get people to listen to a track, in contrast, there is a greater chance that they will focus their attention on the music. For these reasons, I am firmly convinced that a track orientation is a much better approach for both the reviewer and the fan.
Of course, with the rise of downloading, the track review is the way of the future for purely technological reasons. I think you will soon see other people jumping on this format for reviews.
The death of the album as default music format does seem imminent. But what about recordings that are conceived of as albums by the artists (ie. Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, A Love Supreme, etc.)? Doesn’t parsing them apart do the overall whole a disservice?
You're quite right. I've learned that I need to make exceptions in certain instances. For example, we sometimes need to discuss works that encompass multiple tracks -- such as an extended composition -- in a single review. I recently did this in a review of Wynton Marsalis's Blood on the Fields. I considered reviewing individual tracks from this extended composition, but finally felt that I needed to treat it as a single entity. We did the same with Ellington's Black, Brown & Beige. So we are willing to break our own rules, when they don't seem to work.
How did you recruit the staff and who handles what in terms of operations? What qualifications do you have for contributors?
I am responsible for recruiting reviewers, and I have been working hard at this for more than a year. I want critics who know the music and write well. The quality of the writing is especially important to me, since so much web journalism falters in this regard.
I have written some short guidelines for our reviewer. Let me quote from them. “We look for intelligent, stylish reviews. We don’t ‘dumb down’ our writing. We encourage you to develop your own tone and attitude, and not try to match some perceived generic style of writing.” Etc. This gives you a sense of our philosophy. I want to encourage individual reviewers to develop their own voice and approach to the music. I am not imposing any ideology on them. In fact, I strive for the opposite. I think ideology has done a lot of harm in the world of jazz criticism.
Our web technology is also a big help. Our software architecture allows me to publish multiple reviews of the same track – and each with comments from site visitors. This encourages different perspectives and attitudes, and is a major advantage the web has over the print media.
Bagatellen operates in a similar fashion, but on a much smaller scale. One of the unfortunate by-products of an open comments policy is anonymous invective, usually followed by conflict. What steps are you taking to curtail this sort of behavior on Jazz.com?
We have a policy that allows us to remove comments that are abusive or otherwise inappropriate. But so far I have only censored one comment from a site visitor-- and that was from a woman who invited people to visit her salacious web site for purposes that seemed to have nothing to do with jazz music.
In perusing the site, I came across several examples where the reviewer did not appear to possess a grasp of the artist under review. What sort of quality control measures do you have in place to ensure that an artist receives fair and accurate appraisal?
I am working to recruit the best critics I can find for our track reviews. I am quite proud of the team that I have compiled – currently 26 reviewers and growing. I enjoy reading Rob Bamberger writing about Jelly Roll Morton, or David Sager discussing King Oliver, Jeff Sultanof on big band music or Eric Olsen on hard bop, and the like. I bring in the critics that have the most interesting things to say, and give them a platform to say it.
I see that some of the posters at Bagatellen have questioned Alan Kurtz’s familiarity with free jazz. Honestly, Alan was hanging out with Eric Dolphy back in the day, exchanging views with Dolphy after both of them had been listening to a John Cage concert. He brings a lifetime of intense jazz listening to his reviews. Alan – and our other reviewers – teach me new things all the time. And he is a great prose stylist, which is very important to me. The fact that he doesn’t like a particular Sun Ra recording is not grounds for disputing his knowledge of the music.
That said, we encourage intelligent rebuttals from site visitors. And we also can publish multiple reviews of a single track. So this isn’t like the old days at Down Beat when there was no way to criticize the critics. We like frank and spirited exchanges.
In the case of Kurtz, the issues centered on his apparent unfamiliarity with Sun Ra’s music and the conspicuously provocative nature of his prose. His pieces contained very little in the way of specifics about the music, trading instead in cagey quips and erroneous generalizations. To me, that’s not good criticism, nor is it especially good writing. There’s no problem with not liking something, but in the case of a critic, such dislike should be substantiated with an informed perspective. From my vantage, such a standard didn’t seem in place with Kurtz’s pieces.
I imagine Alan could have added another paragraph or two elaborating on his views. But I don't think that would have softened the blow for Sun Ra fans who disagree with his sentiments. Alan didn't like the recording, and he made his points using humor. That's a valid way of expressing an intelligent opinion.
I thought his views were provocative and amusing. I still do. Of course, I also knew that they would generate controversy. When he first showed me the review, I sent him an email suggesting that it would get people 'hot and bothered' -- those were my exact words. But I also laughed out loud at his wit. So I never considered not publishing his review. But that doesn't mean that there aren't other perspectives on this track. We would publish an alternative review from another critic without hesitation.
By the way, even the most devoted Sun Ra fans need to realize that there are different opinions about this body of work. Sun Ra's music -- in fact, his entire career -- was designed to evoke strong reactions. When you set yourself up as an Egyptian sun deity you have to expect some flack.
In light of the rapid growth of content (1400+ reviews in several months) what concerns, if any, do you have about maintaining depth of coverage and caliber of writing? If the history of All About Jazz is any indication, the danger would seem to be quantity trumping quality.
We have been writing these reviews for more than a year – so it isn’t like we cooked up all this material overnight. We didn’t open the site until we had a solid library of content ready. There has been no rush to pad the site with hastily written reviews.
Of course, we all know about other places on the web that publish lots of poor quality reviews. Or publish good reviews mixed in haphazardly with bad ones. These outfits operate like fanzines. They serve a function, but this is different from our vision for jazz.com.
First, we pay our writers, and that gives me an advantage over the amateur outfits. Site visitors can submit reviews too – so we can publish the work of fans as well as experienced critics. But I haven’t started doing that yet. And I won’t if the submissions aren’t good enough.
I am convinced that anyone who takes the time to read a couple hundred of our reviews will be impressed by the high caliber of what we are doing. Will they agree with everything our critics say? Of course not. But that is always true of good criticism. It is supposed to engage people with provocative viewpoints, not just dish out bland comments that never offend.
I am having a little trouble with your claims of across-the-board quality. Not to pick on poor Kurtz again, but his reviews of Charles Mingus’ “Stormy Weather” (97/100 rating) and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (100/100)-to name just two examples- leave me in serious want of more in the way writing and criticism. Both read like off-the-cuff blog or fanzine entries and neither delves deeply into the music’s mysteries or mechanics, despite awarding near-perfect and perfect ratings respectively. Are you concerned about the magnitude of your content masking reviews that do not measure up to your intended standards? It appears to have done so in some cases already and to put it in direct terms some of the content does feel suspiciously fanzine-like.
Alan Kurtz is probably the best prose stylist on our reviewing staff. I work hard on the style and flow of my sentences, but I often find him delivering metaphors and turns of phrases that I wish I had come up with myself. I would hire ten more like him if I could find them. Honestly, compare his work with what passes for reviewing in the major magazines, and it compares quite favorably.
And there is an art to writing a scathing review. Check out Kurtz's take on Kenny G's "Songbird" which belongs in the Hall of Fame for musical invective. But he is also generous with his praise when he finds music he admires.
How is Jazz.com funded? I noticed direct purchase links to Amazon.com on the review pages. What rebuttal would you offer critics who see this arrangement as a conflict of interest?
We are just like other small jazz outfits – such as independent record labels, nightclubs, magazines and the like. We rely on funding from individuals who love the music and want to do something for it. The only difference is that we have a philanthropic approach, and intend to donate any money we make back into jazz-oriented charitable causes.
If, God forbid, something like Hurricane Katrina happens again, we want to be able to offer help to the members of the jazz community who are impacted. And, of course, there are many pressing areas for jazz philanthropy that arise all the time. If we can get Jazz.com on a stable financial basis we will use the cash we generate in these areas.
I see that some people have suggested that Amazon.com is funding us. Wouldn’t it be great if Amazon was actually channeling money into jazz web sites? But that is not the case. We have no corporate funding.
We put in the Amazon links as a service to our site visitors. I am trying to create the kind of site I would enjoy visiting myself. I like listening to new music every day, and when I read an interesting review I want to be able to find the music quickly. The links to Amazon allow that. We could just as easily be linking to iTunes or eMusic or other sites. But Amazon has the widest selection, and they do a great job of offering even obscure and out-of-print releases.
Who handles the editing of content and what is the process? How is content determined? To what degree is it left to the discretion of the reviewers?
Until recently, I was the only editor, but that’s changing. I recently brought on Tim Wilkins to take over some of the work of editing our on-line encyclopedia. We have ambitious goals for our encyclopedia, much as we do for our track reviews. Soon I will probably need some help editing reviews as well. In the last 24 hours, my reviewers have sent me around twenty submissions to edit -- so this keeps me pretty busy, maybe too busy. And I want to have time to write more myself.
My editing style is fairly low key. I ask the reviewers to suggest which tracks they want to review, and I almost always let them focus on the music they like to cover. Many of them have different opinions on the music than I do – but that is fine. In fact, it’s desirable. I encourage them to take a stance on the music, and express their views clearly Sometimes I have sent back a review for more work because it didn’t take a firm position. And I am a stickler for good writing. I will be quite insistent on that. You can have controversial views on the music, and I will publish them. But if you write poorly, there is no place for you at jazz.com.
Please explain the rating scale for reviews. A spectrum of 1 to 100 points seems quite broad, not to mention a potential breeding ground for ambiguity and inconsistency.
I never liked the one-to-five-star rating system that you find, for example, in Down Beat. In practice, reviewers almost never use the top end or low end of any scale – so most reviews are crammed together in the three star or four star range. It’s hard to see what use that is to anyone. I wanted a range with room for more nuance and subtle gradations. I find that the one hundred point scale works well.
Good points, but such a scale also leads to potential anomalies. A Bagatellen reader noted the Harmon trumpet feature where Chris Botti in the company of Sting trumps Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan AND Dizzy Gillespie in terms of rating points. Regardless of where one falls in regards to Botti, the average jazz fan would probably find such an appraisal suspect, if not plain crazy.
Could you maybe take me through the process by which you personally assign scores? Let’s take your “12 Essential Brad Mehldau Performances” piece: the scores for the 12 selected tracks range between 88 and 98, a ten-point spread at the top end of the overall scale. What makes “All the Things You Are” a “98” and “Martha My Dear” a “95”? Also, are those scores in relation to jazz writ-large? Or just Brad’s own catalog?
You can compare review scores, and wonder why I gave a higher score to one Brad Mehldau track rather than another. But, honestly, I couldn't say anything here that would be any more astute than what I have already communicated in my reviews. I don't give out scores of 98 cavalierly, and any time I have done so in a review, I will try to communicate as clearly as I can why I did so.
Will everyone agree with my score? Of course, not. It wouldn't be much fun if everyone agreed. But I absolutely stand by my Mehldau reviews. Just as I am sure that Alan stands by his reviews.
A stop by the homepage today (1/12/08) revealed links to articles and reviews on Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Brad Mehldau, Cyrus Chestnut, Lee Morgan and Frank Zappa. Save Zappa, such a sampling seems pretty centrist or “mainstream”. What sort of plans do you have to more prominently feature other styles/eras of jazz (free, third stream, Dixieland, etc.)?
We want to cover the full range of jazz music. I am painfully aware of where we have gaps in our coverage, and I am working to fill them.
For example, during the last few weeks, I have been working to recruit reviewers and photographers from outside the United States. In just the last few days, I have added three more European reviewers and two European photographers, and I have some leads in other parts of the world. This will help alleviate the US-centered bias that is so pervasive today in jazz journalism.
But there are many other gaps that I need to address. Our last three features, as you point out, were devoted to Clark Terry, Frank Zappa and Maria Schneider – I think that is a reasonably diverse trio. And in the last ten days we have published reviews of Willem Breuker, Cheick-Tidiane Seck, Stan Kenton, Don Grolnick, Marian McPartland, Etta James, Woody Shaw, Deborah Harry, Philip Catherine, Kerry Politzer, Paolo Fresu, Pat Metheny, Nancy King, Art Pepper, Frank Zappa, Martial Solal and Ed Palermo, among others. I don’t think anyone can look at that list and say that we have a narrow definition of jazz.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia