Heard at the National Jazz Museum, Harlem

On Saturday morning I scurried uptown to 126th Street, the home of the National Jazz Museum, for a symposium on the relationship between writing and jazz music with the unfortunate title The Pen is Mightier than the Sword. As usual I was wearing multiple hats for the occasion: as a sometime reviewer of jazz gigs, as a writer looking to better understand the mind of the musician for her next book, and as a former volunteer administrator in the Sydney jazz “scene” seeking to understand the dynamics of this corner of New York’s musical culture in order to contribute usefully to a similar discussion in Australia, which for various reasons continues on a rolling boil.

The symposium outline mentioned the recent demise of Jazz Times magazine and the cancellation of the major New York jazz festival as two events calling into question the state of jazz as a “viable institutional force”. At the same time, it pointed out that in the face of relentless announcements of jazz’s death, the number of students studying jazz in college continues to rise. The symposium promised to explore whether journalists and musicians see eye-to-eye on a vision of a jazz future, and what role race and cultural background plays in the often contentious discourse between and among musicians and journalists and critics.

When I got there, the panellists outnumbered the audience, and did so for an uncomfortable while thereafter. (It was 10am on a Saturday, after all.) Their stars shined brightly, however: Gary Giddins, who for 30 years wrote a column on jazz for the Village Voice; Howard Mandel, a prolific jazz writer and current jazz blogger for the online Arts Journal; and scholar John Gennaro, who has made a study of critical responses to jazz music. They all looked whiter than white against the multiracial profile of the participating musicians, who included Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer and Lewis Nash. Moderator Greg Thomas did his best trying to keep a formal shape to the bulging conversations, but there seemed to be more interesting questions and challenges bubbling among members of the audience, who unfortunately were given limited opportunity to contribute to the “debate”.

I took copious notes but left at lunchtime because the discussion seemed chronically limited to “what musicians think of jazz critics” and the critics’ defenses of their work  in a rather ecumenical context of “we’re all fans of the music”. Who needs to hear this again? Perhaps the discussion heated up in the afternoon, but I was looking for a much more politically conscious, provocative exploration of the position of jazz in relation to other types of music. There was no mention of jazz music produced outside the US – and there is so much interesting music coming out of Europe and Australia – and there was no discussion of race, either. This should not have surprised me after spending so much time in New York in recent years, but it did. It also struck me later that the looped question of the relevance of jazz music and jazz criticism – it has been going around for decades – is very similar to the allegations of the death of the novel, which have been uttered regularly ever since Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author in the late 1960s. Just as university jazz programs continue to accept increasing numbers of students, so too do would-be writers flock to Master of Fine Arts programs (across the US in particular; see Louis Menand’s wonderful piece in the New Yorker on MFA programs). Whether you’re an aspiring jazz musician or novelist, you pursue these interests because they are your passion, and if you care enough about it, you are trying to work on your craft and eventually produce something that might be called art by someone whose professional opinion you respect. You do so, like all artists, in the face of the profound indifference of mainstream culture, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

In terms of a comparison with the Australian jazz scene, there are more similarities than differences. In both music cultures jazz occupies a small but significant place; it is routinely ignored by publications that believe they cover the arts; when it is written about, it is often done so in a shamefully ignorant manner that would not be acceptable in other art forms or music genres; and that the iTunes-led transformation of music consumption needs to be accepted and leveraged, rather than resisted, in order to cultivate existing and future audiences for the music. The role of the critic in such a climate is part publicist, part educator, part interpreter. This seems to me an appropriate portfolio for any cultural critic, regardless of your musical taste.

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