The Uh Uh Uhs
Commentaries on Current Music Criticism
Dr. Iain’s Talk Cure
Ever since JazzTimes yanked Stanley Crouch’s monthly rant, there is only one must-read column in any English-language jazz periodical. It is Iain Ballamy’s “In The Saxophonist’s Chair,” which runs in Jazz UK. Ballamy is best known as a saxophonist and composer. He came up in the ‘80s with Django Bates and others for whom the big band Loose Tubes was something of a clearinghouse. In recent years, Ballamy has formed strong collaborations with Norwegians, manifesting in Food with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Thomas Strønen, and a duo with accordionist Stian Carstensen (documented on a series of strong albums on Feral, whose art direction is in a league of its own).
“In The Saxophonist’s Chair” is actually Ballamy’s second Jazz UK column. In the first, “Ask Iain,” Ballamy played the agony uncle, who doled out advice to the jazzlorn, frequently employing droll double entendres. Jazz UK readers quickly caught on, and soon Ballamy was fielding outrageous queries. One musician who claimed to play a mannequin’s leg in a jug band (using thimbles on his fingers no less) sought advice on how to counteract his worsening arthritis. Then there was the organist seeking exercise advice to keep his pedal work supple. In each instance, Ballamy had the right prescription, be it go-carting (using Ginger Baker’s example) or shedding in a reasonable facsimile of Dr. Who’s Tardis telephone box.
In the new set-up, Ballamy transformed into Dr. Iain, therapist to the UK jazz community. Each issue, another musician takes the chair, presenting wry understatements and pithy comebacks. Regardless of age or background, Ballamy’s patients open right up. Within a few column inches, he had pianist Stan Tracey explaining why he is a hermit – “I meet a nicer class of people that way.” Occasionally, Ballamy successfully triggers a primal regression in his patients, which was the case with Bates, who reverted to a nine year-old on a boat “chug, chug …Phut.”
Lately, however, Dr. Iain’s patients have been a bit too earnest. Take Gerard Presencer in the November/December issue. Presencer is described in the lead as “a fabulous trumpet player, head of the Royal Academy jazz department, father of three – and he’s still young!” He has a few wane lines (“the pills are still working”), but seems unprepared or unwilling to run wild with typical Ballamy lobs like: “Do you have a secret ambition?” For too much of the session, Presencer stays on his talking points about the virtues of jazz education and networking. Perhaps Dr. Iain should begin giving potential clients a preliminary exam for humor deficits.
The 12th Commandment
Over the decades, musicians have occasionally crossed over to the dark side and have reviewed records for jazz magazines. It’s a diverse, often entertaining body of work. The best in terms of providing a howling good read and illuminating the times are Kenny Dorham’s railings against Albert Ayler and other New Thing exponents in Down Beat during the 1960s. Ever faithful to the jazz musician’s 11th Commandment – Thou Shall Not Diss Another Musician, Even With Faint Praise – Dave Liebman’s reviews in Coda during the late 1980s were fastidiously even-keeled, arguably to a fault. Regardless of their tone, musicians always, and quite naturally, draw upon their status when writing record reviews. It’s really at the core of why they should be read. Otherwise, Dorham would just be another vitriolic ideologue and Liebman another cautious stylist.
Ethan Iverson has joined the fray, reviewing John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up; Live At The Half Note (Verve) in the November Down Beat. The Bad Plus’ pianist is a good pick, as he is relatively young, obviously well schooled and has demonstrated through his music a willingness to jerk the establishment’s chain. His first assignment is a slam-dunk: two CDs featuring the Classic Quartet, culled from an early 1965 radio broadcast. Iverson handles the nuts and bolts in workman-like fashion, giving a good background summary. He additionally makes some interesting observations, particularly his comment on the “bizarrely Herbie Hancockish dominant substitutions Tyner plays eight-and-a-half minutes into ‘My Favorite Things.’”
Remarkably, Iverson does two things critics tend to shy away from. In his lead sentence, Iverson makes the gushy wish that in his lifetime, “every recorded scrap of the John Coltrane Quartet will be available for us to study and cherish, despite sonic limitations or uncertain provenances.” Read “uncertain provenances” as “bootleg,” “pirated recording,” or an equivalent term. Then, in the last paragraph, Iverson does something that no critic with any survival instincts would ever do: He confesses to possessing various bootlegs of other Coltrane Half Note performances. And, he lists several that he has in his collection, and he lists several he’s lacking, perhaps in the hopes that someone will lay them on him.
It’s a relatively open secret that musicians circulate unofficial recordings among themselves; but Iverson’s admission is an arch assertion of status. Iverson is essentially saying: It’s cool; I’m a musician. Given the material in question, he’s most likely right. Undoubtedly, had Iverson copped to having Mingus bootlegs in the pages of Down Beat, Hurricane Sue would have leveled Iverson’s home by now. Still, maybe there should be a 12th Commandment for both musicians and critics: Thou Shall Not Admit To Possessing Bootlegs.
And The Winner Is …
Since it is year’s end, an award seems in order. Ken Waxman’s November 14 UnAMERICAN ACTIVITIES (sic), a column in One Final Note, the weekly jazz and improvised music webzine, has provided the inspiration for PoD’s first. We hereby announce the Stuart Nicholson Prize, which will be occasionally awarded to a critic for his/her gratuitous cheap shots against Americans despite knowing little to nothing about them. And, Waxman, whose column exclusively reviews CDs by non-Americans, is its first recipient.
Waxman exemplifies the award’s namesake’s cluelessness when it comes to American culture. For years, Nicholson has tried to boost his stock by championing European jazz artists in large measure by slamming their American contemporaries. Nicholson’s snipes against what he perceived to be a death of creativity in American jazz were non-toxic until he notoriously opined, over the span of six months in 2000-1 in the pages of JazzTimes and The New York Times that Americans “have long regarded European jazz with the same kind of tolerant smile they reserve for Japanese baseball.” Ouch, the suggestion of American racism from a writer whose country was largely responsible for the American slave economy and the exploitation of indigenous peoples throughout Africa and Asia for centuries.
The real problem with Nicholson’s zinger was that the Times article ran when the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki was the hottest hitter in Major League Baseball and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It’s that type of cultural tone-deafness that inspired naming the award after Nicholson. Waxman shows the same trait with the snide naming of his column. For Americans, “un-American activities” is forever linked to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which yielded the Hollywood Blacklist and set the stage for the McCarthy witch trials. “Un-American” is a term that one of the committee’s early luminaries – Richard Nixon -- used as a blunt object against intellectual freedom and political protest for the remainder of his career. Waxman appropriates what remains a loaded term for Americans of conscience for what he thinks is ironic effect; in doing so, he diminishes the obvious fact that noteworthy jazz and improvised music is being created by musicians from every continent, with the possible exception of Antarctica.
The insensitivity of the column’s name is one thing. Waxman’s inability to pass up an opportunity to stereotype Americans is another. Here are the opening two sentences of his November 14 column, which earned him the Nicholson Prize:
It’s unclear what Waxman means by “one conception,” but the idea that there are throngs of Americans who consider Canada to be geographically or otherwise “puny” is laughable. His assertion about Canadian sophistication and multiculturalism is equally hackneyed, but let’s indulge it for a moment. Stipulated: Vancouver is a sophisticated and culturally diverse city, but is it really more so than comparably sized US cities like Boston and Seattle? While we’re at it, let’s compare Edmonton to San Francisco, Winnipeg to Memphis, and Halifax to Miami, each pair having similar numbers of residents. The point here is not that the US is superior to Canada, but that it bears no resemblance to Waxman’s biased portrayal.
So why do writers like Waxman pursue this line so doggedly? They believe it. Why do editors abide it? They believe controversy sells. The fallacy of their overlapping beliefs is the idea that artists benefit from this nonsense, and appreciate being the poster children of a writer’s prejudices. Neither is true.