Onward And Upward With Jazz Criticism

For some time–years–I have been bothered by the further deterioration of a craft that too often has not achieved the status of serious criticism. I write, sad to say, of jazz reviewing, in which assignments all too often go to the lowest bidder, or to no bidder. These days, they go less frequently than ever to those who know something about music or are willing to learn about it, or who have qualifications beyond an eagerness to get free records or free admittance.
When a Canadian acquaintance sent me the Montreal Gazette review of last week’s Maria Schneider concert at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, I thought it was a spoof of incompetent, malevolent, reviewing. It is not. It is the real thing, incompetent and malevolent. It is also misogynist.
Here are the headline, byline and first few sentences:

Jazz fest 2009: Maria with the long bare arms
07 02 09
My high-school jazz band was never conducted by a woman, let alone a middle-aged American blonde with a penchant for sleeveless black tops that show off her Pilates-styled arms. But then, again, if my high-school jazz band had been conducted by such a woman, I might have been too distracted and never become a gifted clarinet player. Actually, that’s a lie; I gave up the clarinet pretty early. So what was so bothersome about the show Maria Schneider and her jazz orchestra gave the other night (Tuesday) at Théâtre Maisonneuve? Well, a couple of things: Schneider’s irritatingly stiff body-language and the equally stiff sound of her musicians, as excruciating visually and aurally as your run-of-the-mill high-school jazz band. It was creepy, the way the soloists schlumped across the stage to do their number then schlumped back to their seats and their music stands, like adolescents in uniforms going through the paces.

Heinrich.jpgThe in-depth misogynism comes in the rest of the article. To read the whole thing, go here. Then scroll down to read responses from readers of the Gazette, nearly all of whom know more about Mr. Heinrich’s subject than he does and all of whom are more articulate and civil, even the one who wrote, “Your an idiot.” To paraphrase many of them, what were the editors of the Gazette thinking when they assigned Mr. Heinrich to review something for which he had a priori contempt? What were they thinking when they examined his copy before they published it? Did they put it through the editorial process at all? Any answer to those questions is disturbing.
Mr. Heinrich’s level of gratuitous nastiness is not typical of most jazz reviewers. All too often his level of ignorance of the subject is typical in both specialty and general publications. There are jazz critics who pride themselves on writing from a base of knowledge, perception, taste and fairness. They have worked, studied, researched and listened hard to achieve that standard. There are, alas, countless editors and publishers who do not hold their staff writers or free lance contributors to high professional values. That is bad for everyone–readers, listeners, musicians and, ultimately, newspapers, magazines and the journalism profession.
As jazz magazines go out of business and coverage budgets at general circulation publications dry up, one part of conventional journalism wisdom is that the web, specifically bloggers on the web, will take up the slack. Please don’t let it disturb you if I point out that most bloggers work for nothing more than the challenge, the thrill, the contacts or the loss-leading benefits of using their blogs as adjuncts to whatever they do for a living. It would be a mistake to count on them (us) to provide the standards and oversight that print publishers are unwilling or unable to observe and practice. In journalism as in the rest of life, generally you get what you pay for.

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  1. tony gifford says

    The review by Alain Londes of Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra’s performance at the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival on 28 June was exemplary. It is available through the e-newsletter daily performance reviews from http://www.tojazz.com. Alain’s reviews have been insightful, analytical and technical. BTW, Maria Schneider’s clothing in my exeriences of her conducting is tasteful and highly suitable for an energetic in-the-moment leader. The review you profile/quote represents the lowest standards in reviewers’ pieces and justifies your outrage.

  2. Ken Dryden says

    Jeff Heinrich’s attempt at being a jazz journalist reads like an amateur teenaged writer, not an adult. This piece told me nothing about Maria Schneider’s music and it is obvious that he lacks the basic skills to describe a musical performance. If he was paid for this piece, the editor who accepted it deserves to lose his or her job.
    The fact that Maria Schneider has been a regular Jazz Journalist Association nominee for her work as a composer, arranger and bandleader, along with receiving praise from many prominent jazz musicians, including Bob Brookmeyer, who was one of her mentor, reaffirms how out of touch Heinrich is with the world of jazz. Not to mention winning a Grammy for one of her limited edition ArtistShare CDs, an incredible accomplishment in a world dominated by major labels.
    Perhaps he would be better off writing for an on-line fashion website, if anyone will accept him.

  3. says

    This is a disturbing situation. I think that as a critic, even if you are unhappy with a performance, you are duty bound to review the music itself in as fair a manner as possible. The appearance of the musicians or crowd is of little consequence. If the reviewer isn’t familiar with the music, perhaps the best course of action is to decline the assignment, or at the very least make it clear to your readers that you are out of your comfort zone. By ignoring the music for the most part to make biased and judgmental statements about the musicians and the audience, Mr. Heinrich has failed in is task as a journalist.

  4. says

    As I’ve posted on my own blog and on Facebook, Jeff Heinrich is neither a regular music reviewer nor some wannabe freelancer/junior staffer: he is a very senior, award-winning writer at The Montreal Gazette. A second point of context, since his “review” was posted on the paper’s Words And Music blog, and given his position at the paper, it’s unlikely that any editor was involved.
    Don’t misconstrue any of this as an attempt to let him off the hook; I just wanted to provide some context to the discussion since some others have gotten the facts wrong about this situation.

  5. Alan Kurtz says

    Doug, with respect, this is one instance where you take yourself way too seriously. As the nonrenewable resource of jazz grows ever closer to its point of exhaustion, writers increasingly pontificate about the “craft” of jazz journalism, and fans resort to a bunker mentality. Case in point: Jeff Heinrich’s review consists of 332 words. Counting the 68 online comments to the Gazette, the 4 online comments to Rifftides, and your blog itself, there have now been 7,351 words posted in response—an absurdly disproportionate ratio of >22:1, that will no doubt continue to grow. Why does it take 22 words of mostly sputtering and occasionally vulgar rebuttal to counter every word that Mr. Heinrich wrote? Come on, people. Jazz writers and fans need to lighten up. It’s undignified.

  6. says

    Amen, Mr. Ramsey! Your example is an excellent demonstration of the challenges that the “new media” of jazz writing has to face. Many more words will be written about jazz, simply because it’s so much easier to get them out there, but the editorial function that in the past has kept crap like this out of circulation is being compromised as newspapers die out.
    There is some interesting work being done to address this — ESPN, for example, has sponsored a network of basketball blogs that share a certain quality standard and format in exchange for regular linkage to the ESPN main site and their flagship blog TrueHoop. I hope that those of us in the jazz community start looking into how to address these very real problems exemplified by Mr. Heinrich’s awful review.

  7. Mickey says

    Doug – This kind of misogyny and ignorance towards female jazz artists is old hat (I experienced it for many years, as flustered male audience members approached the stage after performance to recite that old saw, “You play pretty good for a girl!”) What a shame that the editors of the Gazette have such a nonchalant attitude about perpetuating that ignorance. Heinrich has no business writing about jazz in general or about composers, arrangers and conductors in particular.
    Worse, however, is having to tolerate the silliness of people who admonish us all to “lighten up”. For those who are openly hostile to jazz, no one is forcing them to listen to it.

  8. says

    The whole idea of “Criticism” desperately needs a makeover. How exactly are the critics contributing to discourse and knowledge expansion?
    It is an utterly ridiculous conceit and power trip by a doomed entity. I prefer “description”, something most “critics” fail miserably at in their rush to save us all from bad clarinetists.
    My reviewing method is derived from writing descriptive nature prose as a hobby. I sit in some compelling jumble of ecotones quietly and watch what happens and try to describe it.
    A critic would bitch about how the observed Oriole didn’t do it’s song as well as other Orioles or the bear claw marks on the beech tree weren’t as high up as bear claw marks on a different beech tree.
    There is a worried Canadian jazz writer out there who is an officer of the Jazz Journalists organization who is sensitive to the rise of ‘critic’ bashers of which, I am presumably one.
    But I am puzzled why he and his colleagues cling to being critics when they could elevate themselves to a higher calling, deft musicologists for a field that needs more description and analysis and less gibberish about why so and so is either ‘bitchin’ or ’sucky.
    And so I try to save my critical analysis for the sorry support elements of the idiom, the lame critics, greedy festival producers, racist certification entities and moron major label executives. That is more fun as it’s like shooting fish in a barrel and lets the music be.
    Beyond designating a few crappiness archetypes like Wynton or Kenny G for the purposes of argument color, I leave the musicians alone if they don’t float my boat. Writing descriptions wants real effort and I’m not about to spend a week listening to a Brad Mehldau disc over and over again just so I can yammer about why he’s a boring clone.
    And I’d add that criticism in the idiom is an odd ‘sausage party’ as female Jazz writers are nearly as rare as Ivory Billed Woodpeckers. It’s a pity as their contributions would probably be a discourse improvement.
    I would also argue that Jazz is not a dwindling resource as Free Jazz is now assuming its rightful place after being deferred for decades and a surprising number of musicians are showing up and moving it all forward.
    Yes, we won’t see another Fats Navarro but the core of it all is fine and is faithful to its lineage and time. The nostalgia crowd is just displeased that they weren’t consulted when the artists decided to do something different.

  9. Christopher Smith says

    James Hale states (most likely correctly; he is eminently believable) that probably there was no editor involved. My response to that is why not? The comment appears on the webpage under the giant logo “The Gazette” with all the trimmings, there is a link to an actual editor (out of town until July 9) and an abridged version of the article was printed in the pulp version of the Gazette (albeit with the worst of the content edited out.) With the association with a (supposedly) reputable daily, we expect the content of everything associated with the newspaper to be held to an equally high standard. I do not think I am being unreasonable in this.

  10. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    I wonder if I may ask you for updates should they come to your attention: particularly any published retractions/apologies, but also reaction from Ms. Schneider or her colleagues. Also news of any disciplinary measures would be PARTICULARLY welcome.
    Reading the comments, here, I was amused at mention of the Canadian jazz writer who was ‘sensitive’ to the rise of “critic bashing”. That REALLY appealed to me… Ha! (“Bash ’em harder”). And then there was, yawn, A. Kurtz, who claims the many rebuttals are “vulgar” and “undignified”. Compared to what, may I ask? Compared to what?
    (The Rifftides staff will continue to follow the story. — DR)

  11. Ingrid Jensen says

    I blame all of this on the evils of Google alerts! And a mean spirited man who failed to discuss what we did that night. My reason for saying this: Both my sister and I have Google alerts set up for our names, Maria and Nordic Connect. If anything comes up with our name in it, the search engine sends us a link.
    ” The piece’ that was posted on the blog of the Gazette was tagged and I (we) , unfortunately followed the link and ended up with a bad taste in my mouth for quite a few days. I was expecting to be in a positive and inspired space after playing my heart out on Maria’s tour, but thanks to that review and the strange treatment of Maria at the festival, (we had the worst slot, the worst room for big band and not ONE festival organizer stop by to say hello) it was anything but a well-deserved woo-hoo! for the entire gang.
    (Ingrid Jensen is a featured trumpet and flugelhorn soloist with the Maria Schneider Orchestra — DR)

  12. Larry Kart says

    I wish that Schneider, in her reply to the original review-post, hadn’t said that this wasn’t her band’s best night. Heinrich probably wouldn’t have known the difference between the performance he heard and the greatest one Schneider’s band ever gave — not so much through ignorance on his part (though he seems to not know the music) but because pretty clearly he was looking to say something snarky; in fact, I would bet that doing so is part of his regular journalistic shtick. As a former journalist, I’m familiar with that disease, and it needs to be identified for what it is — not confused with any sort of aesthetic response.

  13. Christopher Smith says

    Maria and some of her musicians have posted responses, and Mr. Heinrich himself has finally responded, but not with a retraction or an apology.* In a nutshell, he claims that it was a just a personal blog post and thus is not subject to the same rigour as a review. My response to that is right after his post, so I won’t bore you reproducing it here.
    He was right that many of the replies to his review were more vulgar and insulting than his was (which does detract from the argument they are trying to make) but there were also MANY that were not and dissected his commentary with proper rigour. He did not seem to respond to those. Also, I hasten to point out that readers’ feedback is not supposed to be held to the same standards as the output of professional journalists.
    I think he has to say, in so many words, “I shouldn’t have written that.” He has lost considerable credibility over this.
    *(Mr. Heinrich’s defense is posted among the more than 80 responses to his column, at
    http://communities.canada.com/montrealgazette/blogs/wordsandmusic/archive/2009/07/02/maria-with-the-long-bare-arms.aspx — DR)

  14. says

    Doug, thanks for alerting us to this and for using it as a springboard to a larger discussion. Jazz criticism, like most film, pop music and even literary criticism seems mistakenly tied to commercial appeal, something that always puts jazz in a backseat position. I have some thoughts gleaned from my 12 years with the Los Angeles Times at http://www.cabbagerabbit.com. Thanks again and keep up the good work.

  15. Joseph Perez says

    Mr. Ramsey,
    Being a jazz musician here in NYC, knowing people who posted in response to the article on the Montreal Gazette site, and now having had many conversations with fellow musicians about it, I feel moved to post (especially now that we have been accorded some time for feelings to mend and people to settle down).
    First let me say that I dislike the “review” as much as most, given the perceived (intentional or not) misogyny and overall rudeness exhibited by Mr. Heinrich. While I dislike it, I must admit I am MUCH more troubled by the vehemence exhibited by my compatriots in the jazz community in response. The response by readers and musicians has demonstrated exactly why “Jazz” as an industry and business has become virtually non-existent. In short, to quote a Hank Mobley album, there is “no room for squares” (or outsiders).
    I was first alerted to the article through a FaceBook post by a particularly livid musician. This musician defended the band and Ms. Schneider with zealousness, attacking the writer’s expertise in the field, the misogyny, and going as far as to call for his firing. All of this AFTER Mr. Heinrich had responded to the comments pointing out that A.) he is NOT an expert in jazz or a jazz critic, B.) that he did not treat this as a proper review, and C.) it was an informal blog-posting, more a telling of his concert-going experience than anything else (despite the fact it was published in the paper)
    What was interesting was that these seemed to matter little to everyone who posted after that (or to all of the musicians and listeners who remain upset by the incident). While I agree Mr. Heinrich went too far in his comments concerning Ms. Schneider’s appearance and things of that nature, and that it is very poor journalism overall, it is everyone’s right to their opinion of what any particular music does for THEM (and you can infer by the tone of his article that in terms of Maria’s music it is not much). Much of the postings (and conversations) ended up being defenses of her music and, in a way, a defense of Jazz itself.
    Now, I understand the value of informed journalism, especially as it pertains to Jazz. The importance of people like Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddins, Nate Chinen, yourself, and others is not lost on those of us for who Jazz is life. However, there has been a trend which seems to have come to a head that I find disconcerting.
    Now, I am only 30-years-old so my hindsight won’t reach as far as others, but being a student of the music I do know that for the majority of its’ life Jazz has been something of a niche music (understatement of the week). But these days there seems to be a “rounding up of the wagons”, so to speak, in our community. Any negative critique is considered a stab in the back and newcomers to the music need to be “educated” as opposed to just enjoying. It is rare to even have a musician feel comfortable enough to voice his/her opinion fearing retribution. Mr. Heinrich’s column actually was refreshing in that it wasn’t the mindless, fan-boy ranting I usually see in reviews in AllAboutJazz and the like. Your point to the lessening of journalistic values works the other way too. There are just as many (or far more) uninformative, unenlightening, and uneducated POSITIVE reviews than negative, but we don’t get agitated about those. Perhaps the jazz community and musicians don’t mind as long as it helps them.
    We allow that and yet we keep insisting that anyone who dare speaks about Jazz “knows what they are talking about”, we insist people become “educated” (sounds fun, right???), and the jazz community (MUSICIANS) questions the taste of anyone who doesn’t like what they do. While all of this goes on venues disappear and the audience dwindles. Budgets get cut, work gets harder to find and yet we never look in the mirror. We don’t ask ourselves if we are adding to the problem. We are making a specialized music for specialized people, yet we want EVERYONE (people like Jeff Heinrich) to love it and when they don’t we deride them. We end up losing what Jazz claims to be a symbol for, democracy and conversation. It seems the Jazz world doesn’t want to speak with you, only talk at you.
    Maybe our cocoon has become a little too comfortable… just a thought.
    With respect,
    Joseph Perez
    (When I wrote the initial piece about Heinrich’s review, or column, on July 6, I wasn’t aware that it was from a blog. That would not have made a difference in my evaluation. He is a staff reporter who works for a newspaper, blogging under the newspaper’s imprimatur. It is incumbent on him to maintain standards and on his editors to impose them. They did not. That is an issue that demands serious consideration as we all get deeper and deeper into digital journalism, or accuracy and fairness will disappear. Then upon whom will the public depend for information it can trust? — DR)