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Penguin Guide To Jazz, Seventh Edition

“I remember Charles Mingus was going to take a critic to task not only mentally but physically; he was very serious about it. He said: ‘What you wrote about me is affecting my taking care of my family and paying my rent.’ And he was correct. A critic is taking his life in his own hands. Suppose he doesn’t like the guy, but the guy has given everything God has given him to do the job and he says it’s nothing. He’s giving that man license to kill him.”—Max Roach, 1970 (in Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews)

The relationship between jazz musicians and jazz critics (or the jazz critical establishment, as some have labeled it) has long been a complicated one. Operating on the thresholds of economics, race relations, capitalism, politics, and art, jazz criticism has long functioned as the arbiter of taste, even when it ran entirely counter to where the music was going. While the moldy figs may have morphed into the “anti-jazz” critics (or the anti-eai contingency now rearing its head), musicians on either side of any stylistic debate have long benefited from and, in a very real sense, suffered at the hands of jazz critics. A symbiotic relationship more than a parasitic one, though, both critics and musicians cannot survive without each other. For in some sense, criticism is little more than advertisement (when positive) and given the marginalized world of jazz, any amount of public notice can only help those trying to make a living playing the music they so much love.

From the critical side, standards have been set, and “responsibilities” to the listening audience have been spelled out, even as that audience can sometimes be created directly by the words of the critics themselves. At its best, jazz criticism can rise to the level of the music, waxing profound under the guise of objectivity, staking a claim for one’s own artistic credibility. Without the Hentoffs, Gleasons, Spellmans, and Barakas of the world, many of us would never have stumbled onto this music we now cannot live without.

What drove those critics to the height of their profession was not only their ability to write powerfully about the music (oftentimes in their own idiosyncratic ways) but also their ability to contextualize the music within the tenor of the times. While Baraka’s criticism is most obviously routed in what was then called “extra-musical” considerations, all great jazz critics have understood that, as the saying goes, no sound is innocent. In reality, and at this late stage of the game, perhaps we can all finally agree that no music exists on purely aesthetic grounds, that nothing can ever escape the web of life in which we always and forever remain ensnared.

And yet, very little contemporary jazz criticism strives towards understanding and articulating this larger context, oftentimes appearing to retrench into the world of “pure art”. What makes this critical reticence so interesting is that the same issues affecting the world of the musician also affect the world of the jazz critic. The music business, capitalism, and the economic reality of devoting one’s life to understanding jazz (whether as a musician or as a writer) makes the world of creative improvised music a perpetually embattled arena, providing financial sustenance to only a few. Further separation between artists and critics and a lack of shared values and community will only further exacerbate this reality. Instead of forging understandings across the world of improvisation, the model of musicians creating and critics evaluating can do nothing but recapitulate the status quo. Perhaps it is time to do something to turn things around.

With this context in mind, ongoing debates about the merits and values of the “Core Collection” published in the seventh edition to the Penguin Guide To Jazz seem little more than escapist minutia. Whether Braxton’s Eugene or For Alto is designated as his indispensable recording is rather trivial given Braxton’s commitment to the long run, demanding more from fans and critics than inclusion in any “master list” will ever merit. Once the denizen of trenchant yet humorous analysis, with an obvious nod to authorial idiosyncrasies through the “Crown” designation, bestowed on the likes of Peter Kowald’s Was Da Ist and George Lewis’ Homage to Charles Parker, the seventh edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz, with the inclusion of the “Core Collection”, has gone down the path of refined consumption, catering to the consumerism inherent in any jazz guide.

But the “Core Collection” is not the real problem with the newest Penguin Guide, which still measures heads and toes above any similar undertaking due to the catholic tastes and immense musical understanding of Richard Cook and Brian Morton. The true failure of the Guide, and a further indication that it is more committed to “collecting” (read: commoditization) than musical enumeration is the deletion of the appendix. If jazz is, as many of us would like to believe, a group music unlike any other, than the deletion of a useful appendix is cause for concern. Doing so essentially obliterates the contributions of countless non-leaders who have always been the backbone of the music. No longer can a reader sit down and peruse the (in print) recorded output of Billy Higgins, for example. This inability, which translates over to the inability to see the overall connections and intermingling of the music throughout history, significantly simplifies the story of jazz, a simplification with significant connotations.

Critical guides to jazz certainly have their place in the continued vitality of the music and it is not the fact that the guide exists that is of concern: Being a faithful reader of past volumes of the Penguin Guide and having learned of many artists through careful perusal, it would be contradictory of me to suggest that the Guide lacks value. It is, instead, that the guide has moved away from a commitment to expanding understandings of jazz and positioned itself, instead, as little more than a list of “must haves” that is of concern. Let us hope that, in the future, a better balance can be found.