How to Write About Jazz

John Robert Brown

If you are going to put a picture of a woman on the cover of your jazz book or magazine, give priority to someone who is young. Always include an instrument, preferably a saxophone. Don't worry too much if the picture is reversed, with the player shown using the wrong hands. Few readers will notice. The wearing of a hat is okay. The inclusion of a picture of a guitar is good for sales.

Remember the oft-repeated statement that jazz is America's classical music. Even if you have heard of them, ignore the claims of Philip Glass, John Adams or Terry Riley; theirs is not real classical music. Interest in such composers is mostly minimal - the very name of their style of composition tells you that. Any interest will soon pass. Jazz is the only music you can love if you wish to write about it. Divided loyalty, and having enjoyed a thorough musical education, are both suspicious characteristics in any jazz writer.

Good jazz cannot possibly be played by symphony musicians. Similarly, good jazz cannot be played by musicians from the Arab world, or those who wear well-shined shoes. Incidentally, jazz writers are never seen dancing.

Traditional jazz is simply old jazz. Jazz that uses a double bass, or the clarinet, is clearly old, and therefore traditional. Writers who know that in early jazz the double bass was used before the tuba, or that the guitar was used alongside the banjo, should keep quiet. In this context, historical truth is unimportant.

Jazz is nothing if not masculine. Good indicators of maleness are the wearing of facial hair, keen consumption of alcohol, vibrant chauvinism or swearing, and certain strong regional accents. A beard scores more masculinity points than a moustache. However, neatly trimmed beards are only for cabaret musicians and those who also work in jazz education. A waxed moustache is forbidden.

On the bandstand, beer (always a pint) is more acceptable than spirits. Real ale scores maximum masculinity points. The playing of good jazz is widely considered to be impossible if one is teetotal. The performance of jazz by women is not to be taken too seriously, in the same way that anyone employed in jazz education is thoroughly suspect, and possibly boring as well. Singers, and vocalists (a subtle difference), cannot be expected to know anything about music theory. Sheet music supplied by singers is usually riddled with mistakes, though disproportionately large breasts (on females) are always a compensation for accompanying musicians coping with these inadequacies.

Every jazz musician plays a horn, regardless of what their instrument is really called. All instruments, including drums, pianos and guitars, are blown. Saxophones are frequently called saxes, usually by writers or orchestral musicians rather than by jazzmen, but if you think 'sax' is 'cool', go ahead. We'll all know what you mean. Players of the saxhorn have learned to live with this. Remember that most drummers are frustrated at not being taken seriously, which is why so many drummers attempt to write arrangements. Admire their scores.

Players' first names are frequently changed to a friendly variant, such as Ronnie, Dickie, Jamie, Johnny, Herbie or Kenny. Writers are advised not to take the initiative in changing the names of well-known players. To refer to Clifford Brown as 'Cliff', or Michael Brecker as 'Mick', immediately betrays unforgivable ignorance, nearly as hopeless as speaking of 'Jill' Evans. For effective one-upmanship, invert this name trend by using the real names of players who are generally known only by their nicknames. Refer to Digby Fairweather as 'Richard', or Snake Davis as 'Chris'.

In writing about jazz, some adjectives are forbidden. 'Lilting', 'haunting' and 'limpid', being effete, are to be avoided. 'Coruscating', meaning 'giving off flashes of light', is okay, as is 'careening', which means 'to turn a boat on its side for cleaning or repair'. Don't ask me why. If something is out of tune, always describe it as flat, never sharp. A melody, or tune, is not necessarily a song, and a sequence not the same thing as a progression, but don't worry about this; nobody else does.

Rehearsal is unsporting, a form of cheating. In similar vein, no jazz solo is ever learned; all solos are made up on the spot. Writers should never suggest otherwise. An onstage announcement, or indeed any form of verbal communication, is a sign of commercial pandering, and therefore suspect. Some soloists keep secret the title of the tune about to be played. The ultimate is to begin playing without telling the rhythm section what tune or key has been chosen, leaving them to find out as they go. Interesting sounds can occur as a result of this behaviour. Honour the convention that all bandleaders are heartless martinets, especially in the case of Benny Goodman. Pay no heed to admirers who new him personally and experienced his kindness. Writing about a talented gentleman is never as entertaining as writing about a rich bastard.

Jazz Education is defined as the study of the jazz introduced during the years between 1945 and 1965. Topics and players to be studied are always chosen by the tutor, usually on an 'I Like It' basis. Those teachers in jazz education who don't play an instrument very well, or don't play at all (there are such people), usually specialise in free jazz, senior management, or research. Jazz research theses should include words such as 'diaspora', and 'paradigm' if they are to be taken seriously. If aiming for a PhD, and therefore not wishing your writing to be easily understood, incorporate words such as 'metoikesîa', 'epigone', or 'dystopia'. Mention of Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation is okay, but don't ever attempt to convince anyone that Russell's theory can be summed up in a paragraph. For this, you will be hated.

When writing record reviews, ignore musical shortcomings unless they are blatantly obvious. Concentrate instead on sleeve art, recording quality, CD running time, or previous issues of the same material. Seminal Miles Davis tracks that slow down appreciably (Milestones, for instance), a Tubby Hayes track from which some tape editor has cut 16 bars, and a whole Artie Shaw CD that runs nearly a semitone sharp are all good examples of flawed jazz performances that are rarely criticised. Indeed, these discs continue to attract praise. If you wish to write or broadcast about jazz, you would be wise to pretend not to notice such flaws. That way you will not embarrass those who can't hear them.

And in all cases be sure to mention freedom, the notion that jazz musicians are fortunate and unfettered, didn't need to study or do much practice, are truly creative, not subject to rules, and that jazz music is vastly superior to classical music.

That's how to write about jazz.

First published in Jazz Journal, January 2010. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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