Journalist, yes. “Jazz” journalist — why?

Hank Shteamer, writer-on-music at Time Out New York and blogger at Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches, writes “I am not a jazz journalist” in response to “The State of Jazz Journalism Now and Immediate Prospects” town hall meeting at the Jazz Journalists Association’s “New Media for New Jazz” conference yesterday (Jan 8). He doesn’t deny that he loves jazz and writes about it, but considers putting the title off an insistence for diversity. I’m president of the JJA and a jazz journalist — among other things. My response to him follows; not meaning to be defensive or ghettoize myself (I’ll take assignments on anything! Anything!) I hope to explain just why.

Hi Hank, thanks for attending the JJA event and for this
post. I’d like to respond in a way that I hope clears up some misconceptions.
In no way does the Jazz Journalists Association posit itself or its members as
high priesthood of jazz or jazz police.

As an organization we do not define jazz — in our current initiative we stress to nascent videographers about their subjects
“if you think it’s jazz, that’s good enough for us.” And personally,
most members have broad, eclectic tastes which they employ in their journalism.

I’ve listened to for pleasure, interviewed and or written
about everyone from gamelan and kora to Average White Band and Asleep at the
Wheel to the Jefferson Airplane, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Captain Beefheart, Toots
and the Maytals, Eddie Palmieri and Aretha Franklin. I’ve edited Guitar World
as well as Rhythm Music (world music mag), love the blues especially, country
swing, electronic music, contemporary classical composition, Afro-Caribbean
music, American salsa, raga, Chinese music and psychedelic rock. I’m pretty
much out of the pop world these days, but I’m looking forward to hearing Prince
at Madison Square Garden next week. I play flutes and saxes, piano and my new Korg
Monotron for fun, without believing I have to conquer chord changes or know
standards to do so. Heavy metal and most rap don’t interest me much except in a
clinical, analytical way, but I’m steeped in old pop, show tunes, etc. — and
have enjoyed Missy Elliot, De La Soul, what I’ve heard of Taylor Swift. I feel
free to refer to and comment on any of that when the inspiration strikes me. I
think jazz-beyond-jazz (name of my blog) tries to make that point: It’s all
available for us to absorb, embrace, utilize. That’s a genuine fundamental jazz
value. You hear it in the music of all the greats from Jelly Roll Morton to
those you mention — Darcy James Argue, the Bad Plus, etc. — today.

Unfortunately, such inclusion is not so much allowed or
acknowledged in other genres, which has often worked to the detriment of those
of us associated with jazz. For musicians: Braxton among others in the AACM
don’t want to be ghettoized as jazz musicians, but with rare exception they
have not been condoned by the contemporary classical world. This has had
practical ramifications for musicians seeking grants, performance opportunities
and educational positions, though many AACM members have by their undeniable
creativity, determination, productivity and longevity transcended the problem.
What I admire about those musicians is that they deny boundaries, but do
identify themselves with the historic culture of America that gave them rise.
Butch Morris (not an AACM member, but friendly to them) does something that is
not sound conventionally “jazz” with his conductions, and does not claim
to be creating jazz per se, but he continues to identify himself as a jazz
musician, proudly, because he knows that’s what he comes out of and what his
music has grown from. He has no reason to deny it (and I think in talking to
Braxton or Threadgill or Roscoe Mitchell or George Lewis or Muhal — or if it
were possible, Miles or the late George Russell — you’d find more nuanced
views than a rejection of jazz as an identifier).

By the way, the problem affecting musicians who work with
jazz values in transformative music is not restricted to black Americans. John
Zorn at the start of his career was understood as having something to do with
jazz even if he was turning it on its head — but the classical world would
have nothing to do with him. Improvisation was and still is not understood and
largely verboten in even contemporary classical circles, even though many many
many fine experimentally-oriented contemporary composers — Steve Reich, Terry
Riley, Tania Leon, Phill Niblock come immediately to mind — love, listen to
and draw from jazz.

To return to journalism: The JJA tries to identify itself
first and foremost as journalists. The organization strives to uphold and
instill professional journalistic standards and we are trying to develop new
approaches to using new media for music journalism. Those approaches have value
across music genres. We have never turned down anyone for membership due to
what they cover. We assume every member is interested in good music, as they
hear it. Most of the members enjoy learning from each other, and the majority
cover anything they can get assignments for: rock, pop, country, gospel on and
on. . . 

To call ourselves the “Jazz” Journalists
Association is more than an easy convention, however. It is in part that, the need
to put some sort of label on what we do, the challenges we face and the way
many of us think because we love and deal seriously with jazz that members of Rock and Rap
or the Music Critics Association of North America decline to
involve themselves in. Many years ago I was co-chair of a music writers’ caucus
organized by the National Writers Union. It aimed to be non-genre specific, but
quickly focused on issues specific to those critics involved with covering
rock-pop (it was the height of punk and beginning of riot girrrl era). Rather
than find ground common for all journalists, the caucus marginalized those who
weren’t interested in the stuff that those who were reporting on pop music had
to say. I think if you listened closely to the talk at the JJA town hall (and I
think you <i>did</i>, re your mention of David Adler‘s comments)
you did not hear anyone say we shouldn’t pay any attention to the rest of the
music world. We should indeed realize where the music we love fits into the
larger framework. That’s the best knowledge that journalists can arm themselves
with if they intend to cover jazz or other “fringe” music that is
considered outside the mainstream, non-commercial, un-pop, un-classical, new
and unusual or identified with minority “under-represented” American
population groups.

But as Alex Rodriguez of WBGO and the Newark Times Ledger
said yesterday, we shouldn’t be ahistorical about our music, either. Let us not
deny the extraordinary culture of jazz that informs almost all forms of current
music, not only in America but increasingly around the world. Let us not bow to
those who dismiss jazz as old-fashioned, out-of-it, yr parents’ music, etc.
Jazz values virtuosity, individual statement, group interaction, meritocracy,
rhythmic energy, emotional expressivity, exploration, inclusivity. Not all
forms of music do.

I’m not willing to limit myself to jazz — I teach courses
in the Roots of American Music and World Music as well as jazz and blues. I’m
about to write about Jimi Hendrix for a Ukrainian magazine. I wrote liner notes
this year for an album by the Imani Winds Quintet (albeit playing compositions
by “jazz” composers). One of the best shows I heard last year was
Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS with a choir singing music that defies strict
definition. I’ve argued in print with Wynton Marsalis back in the day when he
was espousing jazz “purity.” I’ve gotten into tiffs with other critics
about this. I’m a listener, writer, editor, blogger, broadcast producer, videographer,
adjunct professor and journalist. I belong to the Authors Guild, but few other
writers’ or journalists organizations have much to offer me. So I preside over
the JJA, working with freelancers and staffers alike to raise the profile of
good, smart, entertaining and enriching music of today and some from the past,
which has enduring value not just as curiosities or artifacts, too.

Be a member of the JJA — as you are – and partake of our
video initiative, our hashtag campaigns, our mentoring services,
panel discussions, Town Halls, interactions with groups like APAP, the NEA and
the Future of Music Coalition. (Many of these activities are open to people who
are not dues-paying members, though the organization does need dues-paying
members to keep its activities going). Don’t worry about whether you’re a
“jazz” journalist or not. Members recognize and practice
multiplicity; it comes with the jazz territory. I’m afraid that given your
multiplicity you may not find such understanding and acceptance elsewhere.
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  1. says

    Thanks for the shout-out, Howard — nicely put. I have used your thoughts as a jumping-off point for a longer post that sums up my response to the weekend here:
    I welcome your comments, and am happy to have recently upgraded my status to full dues-paying JJA member!