The January issue of Jazz Journal contained an article called “How To Write About Jazz, written by John Robert Brown. (I would have copied some of it here, but there is a pompous note on his website forbidding any reproduction. I had half a mind to paste some of his inanity here just to piss him off.)
Anyhow, Brown’s article created a bit of a stushie, because he was trying to be funny, and completely missed the mark.
I like writing about jazz, but I don’t feel comfortable writing about jazz. One reason I like to write about jazz is to accompany the many photos I take at jazz gigs; but also, I like to record the gigs I have been too.
The thing is, I find it hard to describe music without resorting to clichés – which form a kind of shorthand, a quick way of explaining something. This extends beyond writing, though: it is hard to talk about music and adequately explain. The other day before I headed off to see Vijay Iyer at the Vortex [neither are my reviews – though I did stand next to John Fordham at the gig!], my partner asked what kind of music he’d be playing. “Modern improvised piano” was my unimaginative response. It was true – that is exactly what Iyer, whom I have seen play many times, plays in a variety of formats. But as she pointed out, it doesn’t really convey much information – not enough to decide whether to go to the gig.
When I got back, she asked again, “what did he play?” This time I replied, “Modern improvised piano… in duet with an alto saxophonist with an indo-twist!”. A bit more meaning perhaps, but not a huge amount.
It is the same when writing about jazz. It is really hard to convey what music sounds like. I resort to comparisons – trumpeters in relation to Miles Davis, saxophonists in relation to Coltrane, pianists in relation to Monk or Bill Evans… It doesn’t really work unless you know the compass points; if you do know the reference points, you can probably work it out for yourself.
It may be allegorical, but Elvis Costello allegedly once said
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture… it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
Maybe he had a point!