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On the Need to Keep Proper Critical Perspective

December 13, 2011 Leave a comment

While what I’m about to outline is not a direct response to any of those currently in the grip of the controversy surrounding Nicholas Payton’s recent comments (unlike Ted Panken I haven’t found a whole lot healthy about the discussion, quite the opposite in fact); however, what I’m about to say is informed by the discussion and has come from me considering many of the angles wrapped up in the debate.  In short, I simply urge everyone who discusses or writes about jazz , or BAM, or whatever you want to call it, to remember how important it is, especially for jazz critics and/or journalists, to keep a proper perspective when reviewing an album.

Among other things, much of the firestorm in the jazz world has to do with the various expectations that artists, audiences, critics and others involved in the jazz art world have.  As Payton – and the numerous cultural critics before him – rightfully acknowledges, “jazz” is a limiting term.  This is a fact.  Any word that tries to define a huge and diverse group of cultural practices is inherently going to  exclude.  Along with this exclusion comes the exercising of power by a dominant group over a subordinate group.  This is what Payton is arguing, and he’s pointing out that this just isn’t a matter of defining what is and what is not jazz, he’s pointing out that any discussion of the meaning and definition of jazz is inherently tied in with racial inequality, the history of racial oppression, etc.

Something that is important in this current discussion, and which I think is being partially overwhelmed by personal attacks, is that one of the responsibilities of people who wield the cultural power of writing reviews that will be read by the public

and yes, it’s almost nothing but educated, white dudes like me who have this power and who are published in major media outlets – I acknowledge and continuously remind myself of my privilege as a college educated, white male in American society

is that the critic MUST keep a proper perspective on what it is they are writing about – failure to do so does a disservice to the musician, their hard work, their music and everyone else involved.

While one of the necessities of writing about anything is having to use a term to signifies what it is you are talking about, doing so has the unintended consequence of limiting possibilities.  By pegging someone as playing “x” kind of music, that restricts their ability to do “y,” or at the very least restricts having “y” being accepted and understood by those who operate within a strict “x” paradigm.

A few years ago I was reading A Theory of Musical Semiotics by Eero Tarasti.  One of the things that blew my hair back was his observation that our expectations have a huge influence on how we perceive and understand music we hear for the first time.  While he is not the only person to make this point

it blew me away at the time because I hadn’t come across anybody writing about music this way – thus it’s always stuck with me

I think it’s particularly important to consider in light of the recent obsession in jazz discourse.  If I’m a critic, and I have pegged some musician as a jazz musician, and when I see he or she is coming out with a record, unless I’ve heard otherwise about what the album is going to be like it makes sense that I would assume that the album is going to be a jazz album, because I have pigeonholed this artist as one who plays jazz.  What happens when I get that new record and it’s not what I expected?  One plausible response is confusion, which could lead to a dismissal of the album, or a negative opinion of it.  This would happen because I’d be judging the album from a jazz perspective and not from the perspective and musical and social context that the artist made the album in.

As numerous scholars of black music point out – most notably Samuel Floyd and Guthrie Ramsey – one of the most important things to do when analyzing black music is to do so on its own terms.  In other words – you’re not going to use a framework that classical music critics use to analyze Albert Ayler.  To do so would yield a hatchet job.  Put another way that directly relates to the current jazz obsession – Payton refers to the music on his new album “post-Dilla modern New Orleans music.”  In order to do justice to Payton’s album in the review – and whether or not you like the music is not of concern with this point – you had better know who Dilla was and what he did.  If you don’t, you are not going to have the proper perspective with which to evaluate Payton’s record.  I’m not saying all you need to do is put on Dilla’s Donuts, wave a magic wand, and poof – you’re qualified to review any album that is influenced by Dilla.  I’m just suggesting that not taking the effort to figure out an artist’s influences – when they are clearly stated – is not doing the necessary homework to try and get as much perspective as you can on any given record (it’s impossible to understand anybody’s complete perspective, but attempting to do so is a necessary part of writing criticism and is one way you show your subject, your readers, and the music respect).

A similar situation to the hypothetical one I just outlined happened to me when one of Bob Hurst’s newest records showed up in my mailbox earlier this year.  Before receiving the record I only knew of his work with Wynton and Branford (which I love).  When I put in the CD I was confused, I didn’t know what was going on, where Hurst was coming from, etc.  I was initially leaning towards not liking the album.  For those who’ve heard Bob Ya Head, you’ll know that it doesn’t sound anything remotely close to Hurst’s work with the Marsalis brothers.  But, I went back to the CD multiple times, because I wanted to figure out what was going on.  Then I started hearing and identifying the numerous influences – sure there was jazz, but also hip hop, soul, and West African pop to name a few.  When I started to figure out what Hurst and company were doing, I began to really like the album – and now it’s one that I listen to regularly.  Had I not made the effort to see where the album was coming from, its influences, or written a review on my first reactions, I would have done Hurst and the musicians a terrible disservice.  Sure, there’s some “jazz” playing on the record, but there’s also a lot that many people would not consider to be jazz.  So, had I tried to understand and analyze the album with a narrow, or rigid, jazz mindset would not have been analyzing the music on its own terms, as Floyd and Ramsey urge us to do.

What I learned from my growing experience from listening and living with Hurst’s album, and to a certain extent from the controversy surrounding Nicholas Payton, is that I need to continuously remind myself that reviewing a record by a “jazz” musician using “aesthetic standards of jazz” (whatever that means) can lead one to write a botched review.

I would suggest to my fellow writers and critics out there (and yeah, most of you don’t need to be reminded of this point) that we must always accept the music on its own terms, to look at the musical conversation a particular artist or album is engaging with, what the album is doing, etc.  Sure, doing that won’t guarantee a well written review, but hopefully at the very least it will require the writer to approach the music and the musician with the respect and attention they deserve.

One final point: I’ve seen some of the gladiators in the current firestorm use one of my previous posts to further their agenda.  I’d just like to point out that I do not condone the use of my work by others who are looking for allies – especially by those engaged in personal attacks.  My views are my own.  Feel free to criticize, praise, or seek out a professional discussion with me.  I only ask that you do not appropriate my writing for your own goals.

And with this, I’ll see y’all later.  Peace and love.

I’m out.

An Open Letter to Nicholas Payton: How Far Are You Willing to Go?

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Dear Mr. Payton,

I recently read your November 27 blog post entitled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore” in which you, among other things, argue that jazz stopped being cool in 1959.  But your main point was explaining your decision to reject the term jazz and to critique the very word, arguing that it has served to limit and hem in African American musicians – that it is fundamentally racist and a tool to oppress African Americans.  As you know, many people, including jazz musicians, take issue with your argument.  Some folks may have even took offense to your tone, but I have no problem with it (anyone such as myself who studies Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and other Black Arts Movement cultural critics are used to engaging with similarly argued criticism) – although it’s a rhetorical strategy I would not take.   While your argument is not new – scores of African American jazz musicians and cultural critics have taken exception to the term jazz for similar reasons you do – thinking about your position led me to ask you the the following question: just how far are you willing to go?

In your decision to reject jazz, are you willing to go all the way?  By rejecting the term, are you willing to reject every so called “jazz” institution?  This would entail not playing at any jazz venue, festival, or clinic.  It would require you to stop sending your recordings to jazz magazines, journalists, critics and other jazz media outlets in the hopes of getting your albums reviewed.  It would require you to not record with a jazz label (I congratulate your effort to fight Concord records for what you felt was injustice – but if offered a deal by a jazz label in the future would you sign it?).  It would require you to not hire or share the stage with jazz musicians.  Plenty of musicians who share(d) your philosophy have done these things in the past.  Members of the AACM created their own venues, did their own promotion, and did not refer to their music as jazz.  But, on the other hand, while many of them stayed true to their principles, they were never seen as mainstream artists, and did not profit from their work as much as “jazz” musicians did.

To be clear, I’m not saying you have to do any of these things – I could in fact see how rejecting the word jazz while profiting off of jazz institutions can be an act of subversion in and of itself.  And if you want to game the system for your own financial benefit, go for it.  At the same time, attempting to critique and challenge the jazz world from within may be futile, as I will discuss below.

In your effort to free Black American Music from the constraints placed upon it by the white superstructure, are you willing to acknowledge the contradictions and hypocrisy in your views?  You state that one of the strategies of colonialism is to divide and conquer, and that white people love seeing black people argue amongst themselves.  By likening African American musicians like Marcus Strickland who embrace the term jazz to former slaves who wouldn’t leave the plantation, you are engaging in the same colonialist project you critique, as your comments have no doubt created animosity.

You say you play “Postmodern New Orleans Music.”  I applaud your efforts to take control of what your music is called, although I’m not sure what you mean.  The term postmodern, like jazz, is one way in which a group of people attempt to order the world, even if the word postmodern describes a situation in which meanings are no longer stable.  While I would assume that you would agree that postmodern is not as racist as jazz, you have replaced one limiting term for another.

Perhaps I can tie together my point with a brief discussion of a 2011 performance of yours I recently watched on youtube from the Rio das Ostras Jazz and Blues Festival.


What I find particularly ironic is that when you blow your solo on the jazz standard “Days of Wine and Roses,” you are standing right in front of a giant sign that is dominated by the word “Jazz.”  To use standard, and what I admit is fairly limiting language, your solo is straight ahead, steeped in the bebop tradition.  No doubt you and your group was well paid for this festival performance – but the image of your blowing over a jazz standard in front of a big sign with the name of the jazz festival in front of it leads me to wonder just how far you are willing to go in the pursuit of your social and artistic goals.   By performing jazz standards at jazz festivals in a manner that is stylistically consistent with many peoples’ ideas of what jazz is, you are placing yourself in a situation in which your audience will continue to describe you as a jazz musician, whether you want them to or not, which will only hinder your efforts to escape the term.  Just how far are you willing to go?

Good luck and best wishes,

Chris Robinson

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