John Zorn asked writers not to review his performance opening the season at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, though he was pleased we wanted to attend. How can/should an arts journalist comply?
Publicist Blake Zidell, no stranger to the particularities of musicians, presenters, freelance critics and others on the New York City scene, was apologetic. “Maybe you’ve run into this before with him: John is happy to extend press tickets to you tonight, as long as you don’t write about it.” And it wasn’t just me: he’d told the same to two reviewers from the New York Times.
It isn’t that Zorn’s piece wasn’t ready to be reviewed. It’s that Zorn doesn’t believe in reviewers reviewing. He’s of the opinion. I’m afraid, that music journalists are ill-informed and demeaning, unnecessary and maybe parasitical, not just unsupportive but actually obstacles to the realization of musicians’ potentials. But he has received a fair amount of highly laudatory press over the years as well as some negative and ill-informed comment, and has been given a MacArthur fellowship, among other awards, so its not like he was under a rock and nobody noticed. What have music journalists done to deserve this?
I first heard John Zorn play reeds in 1976, at a loft across the street from Joe Papp’s Public Theater, with guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, celebrating Charlie Parker on the anniversary of Bird’s death. I’ve followed his music ever since, through its many unprecedented twists and prodigious expressions. I’ve written about him — in liner notes, record reviews, interviews, magazine features and my book Future Jazz, to which he contributed a nice blurb. I produced a nationally syndicated half-hour radio program featuring his explanation and all-star performance of his intriguing composition Cobra — which I also played at the old Knitting Factory among a distinguished troupe of music journalists. I got to know him in a collegial and neighborly way. I am aware that he cultivates at least a superficially contentious relationship with the press, and takes vocal, often principled exception to dull and generic conventions of performance, presentation, production and dissemination through his own compositions and improvisations, the records tumbling out on his Tzadik label, the nightly chamber concerts in his recital room The Stone.
“What does John mean,” I asked the publicist caught in the middle, “that I can’t write about the event — ever? In any form?” I’m thinking that this agreement would be sort of a reverse on the clause publishers now slip into contracts of unwary authors, claiming all rights in all forms of media now known or to be discovered in this or other universes. “If I paid for a ticket — $30, for an hour-plus with an interesting audience at a cool black box theater specializing in cross-genre rock/art happenings — then he would approve my writing about it?” (Some publications demand that rather than face conflict-of-interest charges against those of us who receive tickets free, but it flies against a freelancer’s expense realities).
“If I don’t write about it, should I just forget it existed? Maybe I shouldn’t hear it anyway, as I won’t be able to forget it (if it’s any good), so it might infect any writing (about anything) I do in the future. If I don’t experience it, I don’t have to forget it. Then too, if he doesn’t want me writing about it, he might not do it — play music, as promoted, in a public space.”
Well, I attended the performance. As it’s already public knowledge, I feel free to print here’s who was in the ensemble Zorn directed (playing alto sax on one piece): guitarist Marc RIbot, drummer Joey Baron, keyboardist Jamie Saft, vibist Kenny Wolleson, bassist Trevor Dunn and percussionist Cyro Batista. Repertoire was from a new album, The Dreamers, two pieces from a previous release, The Gift, were performed as encores. The next night Zorn was scheduled to provide music for historic silent movies. I won’t say anything more about his engagement at St. Ann’s Warehouse than that. Hold me to it.
But tell me, too: What can a musician legitimately demand of a music journalist? Dutiful awe? Guaranteed praise and promotion? Accurate reportage? Insightful, empathetic analysis? Honest personal response? Broad and realistic perspective? Sensitivity to innumerable social and esthetic issues? Or self-negation: dumb silence?