Saturday, February 25, 2017

Paquito D'Rivera: Portraits of Cuba [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The thermometer outside of the venerable St. Peter's Church in Manhattan's Chelsea district read in the low 20s. Due to a momentary malfunction of the heating system, it was even colder inside, thanks to two of the biggest blizzards of the century which buried New York City under more than two feet of snow.   That was until the downbeat of "The Peanut Vendor".   

With this work and the subsequent 11 pieces rehearsed on that freezing February afternoon, the temperature and excitement coming out of Paquito and the 14-piece band, (dressed as Eskimos to combat the arctic conditions), rose to fever pitch. While Bob Katz and his sound crew were setting up in double time to insure the perfection of the recording, Producer David Chesky was closely supervising every aspect of the production, including authentic Cuban cuisine every day for the musicians and crew.  

The next afternoon, after 3 takes of "La Bella Cubana", the session was launched with the panache of a maiden voyage.   There were smiles amongst the band members and Paquito - the music had taken over.   David Chesky said, "Sounds great - it's a take". Paquito smiled at Carlos and replied, "That's it". Carlos chimed in, "OK, guys, 11 more to go".”

I was so taken with Pacquito D’Rivera’s 1996 recording of Portraits of Cuba with arrangements by Carlos Franzetti who also conducts the orchestra, that I wrote David and Norman Chesky a “fan letter” for their role in producing it for their label [Chesky JD145].

In return, I received a nice letter of appreciation from David along with the artwork from the CD jewel cover and tray plate arrayed as a poster which I later had framed.

Imagine that!

Here I was sharing with him how admiring I was for what could only have been an expensive and time-consuming labor of love and here was the person who incurred the expense of the money and time involved thanking me!

But then, it seems, such self-effacement [let alone, self-sacrifice] has always been there for those involved in producing Jazz recordings for as Michael Cuscuna, who has had a long association as the keeper of the flame for Blue Note Records and who is the current proprietor of Mosaic Records has explained:

“The hardest thing about having a jazz label,' says Michael Cuscuna, "is that you never have enough money to pay yourself and you don't have the reserves to grow the business. You take every cent that comes in and put it into pressing-plant money or making new records. There's no time to sit down and think, or put money aside for anything.” [Richard Cook, Blue Note Records: The Biography, p. 186].

Portraits of Cuba has thirteen [13] tracks that feature Paquito on soprano sax, alto sax or clarinet in arrangements that are beautifully fashioned by Carlos Franzetti in such a way as to evoke reminiscences of Gil Evans’ collaborations with Miles Davis.

Fortunately, the background of and context for the music on Portraits of Cuba is well-documented thanks to an interview with Paquito as conducted by Allison Brewster Franzetti, the wife of the composer-arranger whose lush arrangements beautifully frame D’Rivera “intensely hot, firecracker phrases that do so much to enliven the date.” [Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.]

Here is that interview which forms the sleeve notes to the CD.

© Allison Brewster Franzetti/Chesky Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


The following took place at Carlos' and my home on February 21, 1996.

ABF: How was this project completely new for you?

Paquito: I suspected that it would be - Carlos Franzetti is an arranger whose imagination has no end. I remember that there once was a compatriot of Carlos', a pianist, and a conductor and arranger, too, and he said, "Here's Carlos again - he invented another chord!" Carlos is a person who invents chords. I don't know another person who invents chords. He does some new voicing or something, and the same thing happens when he arranges a whole work. We're talking about one chord, but when he reinvents it, I think he really reinvents it! This CD has nothing to do with pure Cuban music - it's a jazz tribute to the Cuban tradition. That's what it is - that's my idea. That is how I see this project.

ABF: I know that you and Carlos have worked together for many years, both live and in various recordings. How did this project come about?

Paquito: That was absolutely Carlos' idea. He called me and said, "You remember Sketches of Spain ?" I think that was the origin of this record - not to copy it, but the idea of Sketches of Spain, which is not a Spanish-music project at all. If you play Sketches of Spain to somebody from Galicia, he'll say that it isn't Spanish music, it's a jazz tribute to Spanish music. It's the same thing that Carlos has done here with Cuban music - it's a jazz point of view, it's a jazz tribute to Cuban music, using elements of Cuban music.

ABF: You're the one who actually chose the material that he was arranging.....

Paquito: Well, some of them. For example, la habanera Tu - I chose that because that was the first tune that I ever played live, with my father.

ABF: Your father was your teacher, am I right?

Paquito: Yes, my father was my teacher. He was a classical saxophone player and a very clever pedagogue. He taught me solfeggio and how to read by playing some ingenious educational games with me. He used to repeat like an evangelic (the gospel) -"Solfeggio is the base of all musical instruction". He was the person who introduced the French school of classical saxophone to Cuba. Tito (my father) represented a world famous instrument maker in Havana, and he had a little shop, where I met some of the most outstanding Cuban musicians, Chico O'Farrill and Jorge Bolet included. It was in that shop where I first heard recordings of Benny Goodman live at Carnegie Hall, and right then and there I decided to be a jazz musician in New York. Anyway, the first time I played live was a at a graduation party at the end of the year at the school "Emilia Azcarate" - and they have a party and a wonderful dinner. I played with my father and a saxophone quintet which was accompanying me, and the first thing I played was la habanera Tu by Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes. I performed frequently with my father after that, playing on radio and television and in theatres. I was known as "Paquito D'Rivera - The Smallest Saxophone Player in the World!" [Paquito stops to look at the list of music on this CD] Well, then No Te Imports Saber -Carlos did such wonderful work here. I explained to him why I wanted to do this. This is a person I admire very much, Rene Touzet (the composer of No Te Importe Saber), a monster musician. He's a great piano player, a classical piano player, too. This is a more well-known piece. And I asked Carlos to write something very pianistic to honor this man.

ABF: Surprise! (What I am referring to here is that Carlos wrote an intricate virtuosic opening and closing for me to play.)

Paquito: Yes! And you sounded incredible. I didn't think it was going to be so heavy, that! I think that

this is the best tribute to this great Cuban musician. Mariana was written by Carlos Franzetti in the Cuban jazz style, and it's a coincidence that the name of this little lady (pointing to Carlos' and my daughter, for whom this work is named) is the same name of the mother of one of our most dearest father-founders, Antonio Maceo (1845-1896). Her name was Mariana. Quite a coincidence, huh? Carlos has a lot to do with Cubans - poor man! Even the name of one of his children has to do with one of the dearest of Cuban women! That woman is the representation, the symbol of Cuban women - Mariana, the mother of Antonio Maceo. Isn't that wonderful?

ABF: Oh yes! And whose idea was it to record Echale Salsita?

Paquito:  Carlos and I had the idea to do Echale Salsita. This is where Gershwin took his idea from, his main theme for his Cuban Overture.

ABF: Gershwin's Cuban Overture was performed on August 19, 1932, is that right?

Paquito: Well, I don't remember exactly, but I think so. In early 1932, Gershwin made one of his visits to Cuba. Upon hearing Ignacio Pineiro's Echale Salsita, and Cuban music at large, Gershwin used the first 4 bars of Pineiro's Echale Salsita for his Cuban Overture, which he composed in July, 1932. Cuban Overture was performed in an all-Gershwin program on August 19. As Gershwin had developed Pineiro's material into his own overture, Carlos thought about paraphrasing Gershwin in his arrangement of Echale Salsita with quotes from Rhapsody in Blue. And then Carlos and I listened to Ignacio Pineiro's work, and to the part of the tune that goes "G-C-B-A-G-C-B-A-G-C-B-A-G", and Carlos used the overture here. I asked him to do that, and he did it marvelously. Song to My Son is an arrangement by Carlos of my piece.

ABF: You wrote that for your son, Franco, didn't you?

Paquito: I wrote that for Franco, yes.

ABF: When did you write that?

Paquito: I believe it was before I came to this country. In fact, I wrote that when he was born, and when I went to see him I felt a very strange feeling of happiness. I was so impressed, and I was a little sad, too, for some reason. It was a combination of both things. And then I wrote that song. I think it's a little nostalgic mainly because my mother wasn't there and my father wasn't there. They were not able to assist, to be present, to attend that happy event. That is why that song is a little nostalgic. I remember that.

ABF: Portraits of Cuba was written when?

Paquito: Portraits of Cuba is one of the themes of my wind quintet called, Aires Tropicales. I wrote that for the Aspen Wind Quintet. I was commissioned by the Aspen Wind Quintet to write a piece for them, an extended piece which is called Aires Tropicales, and this is the opening movement. I call it Portraits of Cuba because it's a portrait of my land.

ABF: And when Carlos arranged it, he took the beginning of the Aires Tropicales, which you orchestrated, and put it at the end of Portraits of Cuba exactly as you wrote it.

Paquito: Yes, he did. He likes to change the order! He did the same thing with No Te Importe Saber. The verse is in the middle of the introduction - you call that the verse, right?

ABF: That's right.

Paquito: And then he put the introduction in the middle of the song, like a bridge. He likes to move things around. So, basically, we chose this repertoire very democratically between us. Drume Negrita - that was something that came to our minds immediately, in unison. This is a favorite lullaby. Cuban musicians like this song very much - there is a preference for this piece of music amongst musicians, from classical musicians to jazz musicians and popular musicians.

ABF: It's universal, then.

Paquito: Yes, it's universal.  The Peanut Vendor, El Manisero, well, it's The Peanut Vendor....

ABF: Everybody knows The Peanut Vendor. I learned it in school, we ALL learned it in whatever music program we were in. I'm talking about public school, not music school.

Paquito: Yes, everybody knows The Peanut Vendor. And of course it's dedicated to Jimmy Carter (we laughed)! Tu Mi Delirio was an idea of Carlos'. This bolero is probably the third or the fourth piece by the great Cesar Portillo de la Luz. That man is a favorite of all time. I previously recorded another arrangement of Carlos' of one of his wonderful pieces called, Contigo En La Distancia for one of my records, and I have also recorded a couple of other works by him, including Noche Cubana What else?

ABF: La Bella Cubana....

Paquito: Ah, La Bella Cubana. I think this was an idea of Carlos Franzetti. Carlos wanted to do La Bella Cubana for some reason, I don't know why.

ABF: I know why … We heard La Bella Cubana used in the movie based on the Graham Greene book, "Our Man in Havana", and this music evoked such
nostalgia and emotion, like most Cuban music.....

Paquito: You're right about that.

ABF:  .......Anyway, Carlos thought that La Bella Cubana would be a great addition to this collection.

Paquito:  You know that Jose White, who wrote La Bella Cubana, wrote a beautiful violin concerto, too?

ABF: Oh yes, I have heard it - the Brooklyn Philharmonic performed it several years ago.

Paquito: I read that he was an amenable person. You know that he was black, and for a black soloist at that time life was difficult. He was the founder of the Royal Conservatory of Rio de Janeiro, and he was a teacher at the Paris Conservatory, being a Black Cuban in the 19th Century. He was a remarkable man. We are very proud of this man.

ABF:   We haven't yet discussed   Como Arrullo de Palmas.

Paquito: This is our tribute to the most universal Cuban musician, Ernesto Lecuona.

ABF: I remember when you called Carlos, and you spoke with me, saying "We can't do Portraits of Cuba without Lecuona".

Paquito: Lecuona is Cuba. Lecuona is the most representative Cuban composer. He also plays an important part in the history of Spanish zarzuela and Spanish music in general. Malaguena and the Andalusian Suite - these are part of the Spanish music repertoire. Some Spanish people don't want to call Lecuona Cuban - they consider him to be a Spanish composer. But this isn't true.

ABF: Whose idea was it to do I Love Lucy which was priceless?

Paquito: Incredible! You can't talk about the history of Cuba without talking about the history of Cubans outside of Cuba, especially the Cubans in jazz music and in American culture. I Love Lucy was the creation of Desi Arnaz, and this television program represented a Cubano so much in this part of the world. That theme is part of the Cuban music story, and both Carlos and I agreed about that.

ABF: Does Portraits of Cuba represent your roots as a Cuban?

Paquito: It's an ideal framework to express myself as a jazz musician born in Cuba. I have always been combining Cuban elements in my music, but this was written especially for me, accompanied by a wonderful big band, expressing in a jazz way my Cuban music. It's amazing what Carlos Franzetti has done here. I was very pleased and very honored to record with people I admire so much, people like Dick Oatts, for example. Dick is a jazz musician I admire a lot, a great saxophone player. And Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, John Clark, Roger Rosenberg, Lew Soloff, Gustavo, Bobby, Tom, you, and all of the people who work with me in my band - Carlos used to be one of my pianists, and Dario Eskenazi is now. Andres Boiarsky, Mark, Diego Urcola and Pernell all work with me frequently. Dave Finck is a monster bass player. Another reed player that I admire very much is Lawrence Feldman, a doubler - I wonder how he can play all of those instruments so perfectly!

ABF: I feel the same way about you. It was amazing to watch you switch back-and-forth between instruments so comfortably. I know that you're thinking about what you're doing all the time, but to anybody who doesn't know, it looks like you just pick up any instrument and there you's an amazing gift that you have.

Paquito: I have an opinion about that. I wrote a book about the saxophone, soon to be published, and in the liner notes I say, "Great artists make very difficult passages sound very easy". I think you have to make difficult things sound very simple, like Heifetz. It's an art.

ABF: How do you prepare for a project like this? I know that you had some of the charts in advance and a synthesizer tape that Carlos gave you of his arrangements.

Paquito: First of all, Carlos has a feature in his favor. He's a great arranger, but he doesn't write things to be difficult. It's not necessary to write things that are difficult. In general, Carlos writes things very simply -everything is there for you. I didn't suffer too much  - I had to study some things, but generally, Carlos writes music that is simple to read and is wonderful. Complications don't make good music.

ABF: What he also does is to write his arrangements exactly as he wants them to be played, including all of the voicings in his harmonies. When he has something very specific in mind, it's down on paper. Now, please tell me more about your early studies. Brenda (Feliciano, Paquito's wife) was telling me at the recording sessions for this CD about your studies with your father - how you perfected those incredible high saxophone notes that you play which influenced so many saxophonists in their own ranges.

Paquito: When I switched from soprano to alto saxophone, the range was too short for me. I didn't know what to do - I was desperate. And then my father taught me how to play the high notes with a book written by someone who happened to be one of Charlie Parker's favorite saxophone players, Jimmy Dorsey.

ABF: Brenda was also saying that you and Carlos have always been ahead of your time. Would you like to comment on that?

Paquito: Some people didn't believe in what we stood for in that period. For example, when I was talking about the roots of Latin American music, I remember thinking, "They're going to pay attention to us - there are a lot of Latin people here". And you see now what has happened - now everybody wants to be Latin, even Ronald Reagan's grandmother was Latin (we laughed)!

ABF: How would you describe your overall experience in working on this project? Paquito: We worked on this with so much love, and I trusted Carlos Franzetti completely. When he came to me with this idea, I said, "I don't know what you're going to do, but I don't care, really. I trust you to do this." This really was Carlos' idea and he should take full credit for this project.

To my ears, the most exciting piece of music on Portraits of Cuba is the title tune.

See what you think as it forms the audio track on the following video montage made up of images of Paquito and the CD cover artwork, Cuban travel poster from the 1940s and 1950s and historic postcard views of the island nation which antedate both.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Bill Evans: Time Remembered

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Time Remembered is an original composition by pianist Bill Evans, but in the context of the title of this feature it has an old and new connotation to it.

First the “old” which has three primary meanings for me: [1] I remember spending many nights listening to pianist Bill Evans while he was in residence at Shelly Manne Hole in Hollywood, CA for most of May, 1963; [2] I remember listening to my drum teacher Larry Bunker work his first night as a member of Bill’s trio along with bassist Chuck Israels during Evans’ stint at Shelly’s; [3] I remember Bill’s original Time Remember being performed for the first time while this version of Bill’s trio played the May, 1963 engagement.

In Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings [Yale University Press] Peter Pettinger’s seminal biography of Bill, he describes the context for the evolution of Bill’s original Time Remembered this way:

“During the late 1940’s, when pianist Bill Evans was a student in Louisiana, many young English jazz musicians worked the ocean liners to and from New York, drawn like moths to the beacon of bebop. One such musician was a tenor saxophonist named Ronnie Scott, who, bowled over by the proliferation of New York clubs, determined to start up one of his own in London. It took a while, but in 1959 Ronnie Scott's, destined to become one of the great jazz clubs of the world, began life humbly in a Soho basement. During the first year, West Coast drummer Shelly Manne dropped in, and Scott maintained that Manne opened his own club in Hollywood soon after as a direct response to the atmosphere at "Ronnie's."

That club was Shelly's Manne Hole, and Bill Evans spent all of May 1963 there, beginning in a duo with his old bass-playing friend Red Mitchell. Chuck Israels was on tour with "The Midgets of Jazz"  — [drummer] Ben Riley's name for the Paul Winter group —  but was able to wind it up in Denver and replace Mitchell for the last two weeks at the Manne Hole. Shelly Manne himself sat in from time to time — after all, it was his club. Israels said:

‘After a few nights I got to talking with many of the Hollywood musicians who were corning in to hear us and I paid particular attention to the pianist, Clare Fischer, who kept insisting that the dapper, elegantly bearded man, whom I had seen listening intently to Bill's piano playing, was the most sensitive possible drummer for us to have and that I should persuade Bill to invite him to sit in. To say that that first experience of playing with Larry Bunker was a revelation would only be half the story.... I smiled and Bill grinned broadly and dug in to play all the more and Larry was hired on the spot to finish out the job with us. The following week, Wally Heider came in to record the group for Riverside.’

Thus was fulfilled the one remaining project on the Evans-Riverside books. Both the pianist and his producer of almost seven years, Orrin Keepnews, wanted their final collaboration to be a live recording with the working trio, a logical follow-up to the 1961 Village Vanguard dates with LaFaro and Motian. But when the time came, Keepnews was disbanding his ailing company in New York and was unable to get out to Hollywood. The sessions, issued as Bill Evans Trio at Shelly's Manne Hole and Time Remembered, were supervised by Los Angeles-based Richard Bock.

We have Israels's word for it that the events of those two evenings are accurately represented on the records. ‘You can hear Larry's hands through the wires on the brushes," he said, "feel the exact weight of his foot on the Bass drum and identify the timbre of each cymbal and tom-tom. The sound of the bass, too, is faithfully preserved. That was just before jazz bassists almost universally switched over to the metal strings most symphony players had used for years.’

The empathy between Israels and Evans was evident in these fine performances. Together with Larry Bunker they reveled in creative interplay and were obviously at home in the congenial surroundings of this intimate club, to date the pianist's second-favorite to the Village Vanguard. Israels was more relaxed than on the studio sessions of a year ago, swinging notably on his own Blues in F, and Bunker was clearly relishing a break from his habitual studio round, contributing a continuous web of sympathy and propulsion. There was the feeling that the trio was among friends, unpressurized to strive against any odds — for the odds were, indeed, stacked in their favor. Evans had at his disposal a baby grand, which, though thin and wiry on top, was capable in his hands of a pellucid middle-range tone.

Evans had brought new material, and his colleagues were thrown in at the deep end and left to surface as best they might, always to be the pianist's way of working. Another surprise was his harmonic rethinking of Lover Man, the middle eight of which was reconstructed outright. The pianist's motivation was sound, the usual chords being vapid at ballad tempo. He felt a need for a more densely changing (and deeper) key exploration by way of central contrast. His solution satisfied in a formal sense, as well as providing a firmer, yet more variegated foundation for fantasy.

Time Remembered, the only Evans original issued from these evenings, received its first trio exposition on disc. The piece's harmonic structure is notable for studiously avoiding the dominant seventh. As a result, a modal feeling permeates the timeless progression of its predominantly minor sevenths. In this performance the floating chords at the end of the piano solo spilled gently and seamlessly over the beginning of the bass solo, the overlapping another feature of the chamber approach, the desire to get away from a "blowing list." That three-way discourse, highly developed in the First Trio, was now operating more naturally, less self-consciously, the result arguably a more convincing vindication of the Evans ‘creed of interplay.’

The traditional night off was Monday, but Shelly asked Bill to take Tuesdays off instead so that the local musicians could hear him. Israels told me: "I saw most every California musician that I had heard of in the club during that engagement, some of them (like [pianist] Terry Trotter and [drummer] Bill Goodwin) almost every night." Goodwin himself recalled Evans's condition: ‘He wasn't in very good shape, physically. That was when I first met him, and he was beautiful — a wonderful guy. It was really incongruous that he could be so messed up and yet be such a normal, regular person.’

Like Dave Jones before him, the engineer Wally Heider captured the trio, and the ambience of the club, to perfection. (Ironically, the club was eventually forced to move, as the sound of the heavier electric bands began spilling through into the echo chamber of Heider's own recording studio next door.) These recordings formed a fitting farewell for Evans and Orrin Keepnews at Riverside, one of the great recording partnerships in jazz. Though they bid adieu professionally, Orrin continued to follow Bill's career avidly, and they remained friends until the end.

Evans later reflected on the value of small record companies at the start of an artist's career; ‘You need those companies; actually jazz needs those companies because, until you establish yourself, [they] offer an entranceway. ...To sign a standard union contract for scale, with Riverside, for two records, was to me the biggest thrill that could happen at that time. ... I never got a royalty statement, not even as by law every three months — never saw one, never expected one— didn't care really, because at that point you want to get your records out there. So it works for both.’

Late in 1963, Bill Grauer, in charge of business at Riverside, died of a heart attack. Evans had had little to do with him but had always found him rather a rough character. The pianist's sense of black humor prompted him to observe: ‘I figure he must have died in self-defense.’  The company had been sliding steadily toward bankruptcy, and finally folded in mid-1964.”

The “new” Time Remembered that prompted this retrospective involves the recent issue of the film Bill Evans: Time Remembered by Bruce Siegel.

For the last 25 years, Bruce Spiegel has been a producer/editor at CBS News/48 Hours. During that time, he’s also produced, edited and directed a number of films and documentaries. In 2002 he co-produced the award winning TV documentary “9-11” which won both an Emmy (2002) and Peabody Award (2003). In 2012, alongside Wynton Marsalis (jazz musician and artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center) and Hugh Masakela (South African music legend), Spiegel co-produced a CBS News/48 Hours TV documentary titled “Nelson Mandela: Father of a Nation”. The documentary explored the South African music that was used for Nelson Mandela’s eulogy, and won The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Excellence Award in 2014.

In Bill Evans: Time Remembered Bruce Spiegel has produced a complete documentary giving you insights into Bill Evans; not just the musician, but also the person. The film moves chronologically starting with Bill's childhood in New Jersey and culminating with details about his death.

As Bruce recounts: "The film Bill Evans, Time Remembered took me 8 years to make. Eight years of tracking down anybody who knew Bill and who played with him, to try and find out as much as I could about the elusive and not easy to understand Bill Evans. I feel very honored to have had the chance to interview and get to know good guys that spent a lot of time with Bill: Billy Taylor, Gene Lees, Tony Bennett, Jack DeJohnette, Jon Hendricks, Jim Hall, Bobby Brookmeyer, Chuck Israels, Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, Joe LaBarbera. It was a once in a life time experience talking to these gifted talented guys about their time in jazz music, about their “Time Remembered“ with Bill Evans."

"The film was a bull's eye at capturing as much as one can capture of someone's music, pain, and life story. My family is forever grateful to your outstanding work." - Debby Evans (Waltz for Debby)"

"The film is musically intriguing and sensitively crafted. Not soppy with just the right amount of honesty regarding his personal life." - Nenette Evans

The film is available for preview, rental or purchase at the following website -

If you are a Bill Evans fan, the film is a must view.

Oh, and if you haven’t heard them, you might also want to pick up copies of Bill Evans Trio at Shelly's Manne Hole and Time Remembered which are both available as Original Jazz Classics CDs.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Criticism" - by Martin Williams

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Read anything of Williams you can lay your hands on.. . . His knowledge of jazz is all but unmatched."            
- Washington Review

"Martin Williams persistently gets at essences, and that is why he has contributed so much to the very small body of authentic jazz criticism."                               
- Nat Hentoff

"The most knowledgeable, open-minded, and perceptive American jazz critic today."               - The Washington Post

Back when the world was young, I had a university professor who railed at us to include the “Who, what, when, where, why and significance.” for each answer that we entered into our essay examination booklets.

In this way, we would be “set on a course to” explain the importance of the event, person or problem that was the focus of the examination question.

“Think critically; describe and discern; look for multiple causes; come at the thing from a number of perspectives,” he would say.

Little did I know at the time, that this was the perfect formula for training as a Jazz critic, for as the late, distinguished Jazz critic Martin Williams asserts “ … it is the critic’s business to be as perceptive and knowledgeable as he/she can. And critical perception (however much training it needs) is ultimately either there or not there.”

Of course, I understand rationally what Martin is saying, but experientially I rarely put myself in the position of becoming a Jazz critic.

As you may have noticed, I describe and annotate recordings, films and books about Jazz on these pages, but I rarely critically evaluate them in the way that Martin describes as the functional basis for Jazz criticism.

Maybe it’s because I know how hard it is to play this stuff and I don’t want to put down other musician’s efforts and attempts. Or perhaps it is because of a lack of training and/or practice in Jazz criticism

Perhaps, too, my reluctance is the result of not having a clear and complete understanding of exactly what is it that a critic does.

Enter Martin Williams who provides this explanation of “Criticism” in an essay which can be found in his compilation - Jazz In Its Time [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989].

To put the piece in perspective, it was written in 1958, at the height of the modern form of Jazz’s popularity in the USA.


“A musician is supposed to have said recently that the criticism of jazz is a kind of joke and that there are no jazz critics. Without agreeing with him entirely, I am very sympathetic to his statement. But I say this to indicate that to me the words critic and criticism are rather special ones. A man who makes comments or reports on jazz records (or books, or plays, or movies) is not necessarily worthy of the title of critic.

The criticism of jazz is, like the criticism of any other art, "popular" or "fine," a kind of criticism. It is not a branch of publicity, nor a sideline of journalism. And a critical ability is not a natural consequence of an enthusiasm for jazz or of a knowledge of jazz, although it needs both of these things.

Philosophers would have us believe that criticism is a branch of philosophy, and some artists that it is a branch of creativity. But criticism has its own muse, and however much enlightenment he constantly gets from both the philosopher and the artist, the critic needs a distinct, innate critical talent, a special sensibility and way of looking at things. His task is of an order much lower than that of either philosopher or artist, of course, but the ability he needs for his job is unique and uncommon, and a man either has it or doesn't have it. If the philosopher or artist (or journalist or historian) also has this critical ability, so much the better.

I think that the state of criticism of jazz in America is low, but I also think that the criticism of movies, plays, music in general, and painting is also low. Literature is lucky — it has a top level of criticism which is an excellent counter to the average American book review.

The innate critical ability is not enough in itself. It needs to be trained, explored, disciplined, and tested like any other talent.

If I recommended that this training should begin with Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius and end with Eliot, Tovey, and Jung, I would not be saying something academic or pretentious but merely stating the most ordinary commonplace of Western civilization as it exists. And the critic should also know as much as he can of the best criticism being written around him in all fields.

But it is also the critic's business to be as perceptive and knowledgeable as he can. And critical perception (however much training it needs) is ultimately either there or not there.

The critic's questions are "How?" and "Why?" not merely "What?"

The points which follow come, with some changes, from Matthew Arnold. I present them not because I am especially interested in promoting Arnold's attitudes nor in promoting any "system," but because they seem to me to have something to say at this moment to the jazz writer and his reader.

1.  The critic's first question is what is the work trying to do? Notice that this does not say, what do you think the artist ought to be trying to do. It also has little to do with a clairvoyant view inside the artist's head. And it assumes that the critic has observed the form of the piece and that he absorbed it with his feelings as well.

2.  The second is, how well does it do it, and how and why so?

3.  The third is, is it worth doing? Notice that this is the last question and not the first.

4.  The critic should compare everything with the best that he knows whenever the comparison seems just and enlightening.

The questions are not easy, but no one ever said that criticism was easy, and even the very best critics can and will fail on at least some of them.

Ultimately, the critic makes a judgment, an evaluation. Value is based, in the final analysis, on feeling, not reason. But by feeling I mean a rational, conscious, individual function. I do not mean emotion which is irrational, impersonal, and can be irresponsible.

We have all heard it said that the criticism of jazz was once left to amateurs. That is not entirely true, nor is there any lack of amateurs today. But we do have now several writing about jazz who, although they really know what criticism is, don't know enough about music. On the other hand, there are some who know music, but don't know what criticism is. In jazz, of course, there is danger in knowing music since we are apt to apply the categories and standards of Western music rigidly and wrongly thereby. And there is also danger in knowing jazz: we may reject truly creative things because our knowledge of the past makes us think we know what a man ought to be doing — but that is true in any art.

The man who reviews jazz records has a terrible task: he can never, like his "classical" brother, judge an interpretation or performance against a norm because every jazz record is, in effect, a new work. Also, as George Orwell said of the hack book reviewer, day after day he must report on performances to which he has had little or no reaction worth committing to print — and that is true of the best critics and is neither a reflection on them nor necessarily on the music.

On the other hand, there could not possibly be as much true creativity in jazz as we are constantly told that there is, even though the medium is very much alive. How many novels, plays, poems, symphonies, paintings done in a year are really excellent?

And I wonder how many promising careers—and lives—have been wrecked because of indiscriminate over-praise. I know of a few personally. Even if a musician is wise enough to discount what passes for criticism in jazz, he would have to be inhuman not to be somehow affected by it.

There is one job in jazz criticism that is neglected and which needs to be done, I think. It is also one which, since jazz is music and music the most abstract of the arts, is very difficult.

It is a better job on content and meaning. I am not opposed to technical analysis. We need more of that, too, and it can also help us with meaning, of course.
But especially now that jazz is so sophisticated, we need to talk frankly and honestly about what it is saying.

By an examination of content, I do not mean a kind of enthusiastic impressionism. Nor do I mean the kind of clever, chi-chi adjective-mongering we are all too familiar with. The critic's duty is accuracy and he should not sacrifice it for cleverness.

Of course, such an examination cannot be made with prejudice or prejudgment. The first question is, what does this music express, not whether or not it should be expressing it.

The thing that separates listeners and commentators into "schools," I am convinced by the way, is not musical devices — passing chords, diminished ninths or sixteenth notes, or the lack of them —
but the content that such devices enable a given style to handle. I think that jazz should be able to express as much as it can possibly learn to express in its own way.

Of course, the artistic and musical expression of emotion is not the same as its communication. A snarl, a sigh, a scream — these things communicate emotion, but they are not art, only a part of the raw material of art which the artist transforms.

I recommend this first, because greater consciousness is a part of growth in an art as well as in an individual.

I also recommend it because the appeal of jazz is still so very irrational, and I do not think it should be so much so any longer. (Of course, the appeal of all art is ultimately irrational, by definition, because it is art. But to many who like jazz, its appeal is almost entirely so.) It is the critic's business to make it less so, and unless he does, both he and jazz may be trapped. And dealing with content is the only way to give a good answer to that third question: is it worth doing?

As it is, we assure ourselves that jazz is an "art" and often proceed to talk about it as if it were a sporting event, an excuse for us to be verbally clever, a branch of big-time show biz, or an emotional outburst that affected us in a way we are not quite sure of. Perhaps we can at least do our best to create the kind of climate in which a jazz critic could function and which an art deserves.” (1958)