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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Judgement! Competitions, Critics and the Jazz Meritocracy

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There’s been a lot of judging or discussions of judging in the online jazz world recently.

Ethan Iverson started one of the balls rolling with his questioning of the value and artistic merit of jazz competitions. This was prompted by the announcement of the impending Thelonious Monk competition, which this year focused on drums. The competition was subsequently won by Jamison Ross . People weighed in with varied opinions which ranged from outright support to outright opposition.

Then in another dust-up, the very strange jazz critic Brent Black launched an attack on George Colligan, ludicrously dismissing him as ‘second rate’. Needless to say this triggered an outpouring of scorn for Black’s opinion, and Black did himself no favours with a bitter, mean-spirited and puzzling tirade directed at Colligan’s gracious response.

And finally the Canadian pianist  Andrew Boniwell responded to Peter Hum’s review of his new recording with what might be best described as icy fury.

All of which made me think about this whole issue of our being judged by others, and indeed judging others ourselves. To what extent does the judgment of critics have an effect on musicians? What effect does winning a competition have? Or what effect does losing a competition have?

Seventeen years ago I was a  competition winner myself - the 1996 Julius Hemphill Composition Competition for this piece:



I must say I didn’t benefit immediately from winning, though it has to be said that competition was very small compared to the Monk Competition. Nor was it a stressful event for me, since there was no performance element involved, and no jury to look at out of the corner of my eye as I played. What winning did do for me was to give me a lot of confidence as a composer, and there’s no doubt that this kind of public approval of your work can have a very positive effect on you. On the other hand, If I hadn’t won it I don’t think I’d have been discouraged – I didn’t expect to win, and no-one was more surprised than me when I did.

But Ethan’s main point was whether such a competition would encourage individuality, or whether it would have the opposite effect, rewarding whoever was closest to the mainstream. The question is sometimes asked whether Monk could have even got into the final of the competition named after him? There's no doubt that if you have a panel of six judges, the winner will have to not only impress as many of them as possible, but also do whatever he or she can to alienate as few of them as possible. The more personal and idiosyncratic a performer is, the more likely they are to polarize the jury. There have been many famous cases of this in the classical world, the most celebrated of these being the Chopin competition of 1980 where Ivo Pogorelich, (a performer for whom the word idiosyncratic could have been coined), was eliminated in the third round, despite Martha Argerich calling him a genius. I have a feeling that a performer like Monk - a guy whose playing very much flew in the face of the prevailing pianistic orthodoxy of the day - would have had an equally polarizing effect on a jazz piano jury......



There's no doubt that in these difficult days for jazz musicians, anything that can help you to raise your profile is welcome, and winning something like the Monk competition is about as high-profile as it gets for jazz competitions. No doubt winning this competition will help Jamison Ross, but looking at his profile and bio, it's clear that he was already on his way - as were the 2nd and 3rd prizewinners, which confirms for me what I've believed for a long time - jazz is a meritocracy and always has been.

It's also a marathon rather than a sprint, and though something like winning a competition or getting a gig with a famous bandleader will definitely help, in the end it's the work you produce over a long period of time that will ultimately decide whether you succeed or fail. There are many examples of players who got a lot of press and attention at one time, maybe even a major record deal, and yet are hardly remembered these days. And I believe that this is because they ultimately didn't have something that could be sustained over a long period of time. They undoubtedly had some aspect of their music that was attractive for a while, (at least to the jazz media), but in the final shake-up it wasn't sustainable and didn't develop, and their star waned as a consequence of that. Jazz is quite Darwinistic in this sense and I think this is a good thing.

Jazz musicians have to deal with a lot of unfairness - the dice is loaded against them in so many ways - but within the jazz community I think, over a period of time, musicians achieve the status they deserve. I believe that if  you are a really great player, and you have something original and personal to offer, then sooner or later you will get recognition for that. 

Often you hear a story about this or that guy being a great player but never getting recognition, but as a general rule I don't buy it. If there's a truly great player who's not working, there's usually a reason for it - they're alcoholics, or junkies, or socially impossible, or difficult to deal with, or completely flaky, or recluses, or cripplingly shy, or something along those lines. I've yet to meet a truly great player who takes care of business but who's sitting at home forlornly waiting for the phone to ring........ 


Maybe New York is an exception to that rule, in that there are just too many musicians there, so someone can indeed be a great player but struggle to get recognition among the jostling crowds of other great players. But NY is different - a once a year gig at Small's under your own name and a 'tour' of Europe consisting of 6 gigs counts as being a success for a lot of people there.

But even in NY you can make a career for yourself if you're talented enough and have something to offer over the long term. In this way jazz hasn't changed - ultimately what's going to decide your status is your own playing. If you're a great player, you're immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous critics like Brent Black. His attack on George Colligan is toothless because Colligan's career demonstrates more than words ever can, the stupidity of Black's opinions. Someone who has played with a who's-who of contemporary jazz, including being a current band member of Jack DeJohnette's band has the ultimate imprimatur of the jazz world. His work and success is the the proof of his quality - this is the final arbiter of his quality and nothing that Brent Black can say can alter that. 

And jazz has always been like that and even though the jam sessions, that for many years were the proving grounds of aspirant jazz musicians, have ceded their Gladiatorial position as arbiters of musical ability, it's still true to say that the opinion of your peers is the one that is most important. Play well and you will eventually get the attention of established players, play with them and you will get the attention of the public and the media. I've lost count of how many times I first heard hitherto unknown (at least to me), great players when I went to see a band led by someone of real status - Mulgrew Miller with Woody Shaw, Terence Blanchard with Art Blakey, Gabriele Mirabassi with Rabih-Abou Khalil etc.

Yes it's nice to get a good review, yes it would be useful to be on the cover of Downbeat, yes it would be very helpful to win a major jazz competition. But ultimately what a jazz musician needs in order to succeed over the long term is the approval and admiration of his or her peers. Jazz has always been a meritocracy and it still is one. Competitions and critics may come and go, and you (or media admirers of yours) may talk a good game, but eventually you're going to have to shut up and show everyone the music. And thank heavens for that.

3 comments:

  1. what about somebody like Herbie Nichols?

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  2. Hi Ronan. Such an interesting blog. Maybe the same can be said for all genres of music? However, some of your points in the second half of the blog made me think that perhaps jazz can also be just as capitalistic as other forms of music. For example, there are a few great jazz musicians I know, who have become reluctant to become the next Louis Stewart (speaking from a guitarist's perspective :)) in favor of practicing and writing pieces which more people are likely to enjoy and pay them for. I agree with you on the whole, but sometimes, unfortunately, money talks... and jazz suffers - at least for those who can't afford to invest as much time in it. I'm not a great guitarist (yet... ?) but there's two elements to what I practice everyday - the stuff that I can get paid for playing in local pubs (Blues/Rock/Pop etc.) and the jazz stuff, which challenges me personally (which is about when my housemates, mother etc. start to figure out why I've suddenly started playing insane lines/chords, LOL). However, better musicians than I have distanced themselves from certain jazz forms because they just cannot afford to make that kind of investment anymore, which is to the detriment to anyone who loves jazz.

    James

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