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Associating with Jazz

Matthew Kassel
Staff Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

Originally published on Cold Jazz June 12th, 2011

When I'm critical of jazz, I'm very careful about it. That only makes sense: I don't want to misrepresent or misinterpret anything. So far, all the jazz concert and CD reviews I've written have been well received. By that I mean no one has challenged them. That's really what I fear (and why I'm so careful): that someone will try to make a fool of me, will disagree with what I've written and take it personally. This fear springs from my sense of legitimacy as writer and a thinker. No one has yet hired me to write about jazz, or much else, really. That is, I make no money doing it.

Few do. I guess that's one reason why there are so many jazz blogs. There is a lot of good writing on jazz, though. And yesterday, at the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards, I met many of the people who produce it.

A couple of weeks ago Alex W. Rodriguez, of the jazz blog Lubricity, asked me if I was interested in managing the Association's Twitter account throughout the Jazz Awards ceremony: tweeting the winners as they were announced on stage at the City Winery in New York. I'm no longer in Montreal, have returned home to New Jersey for the summer, and was close enough to volunteer.

It was a very easy job. I got there an hour early, figured out everything I would have to do, and sat back waiting for the journalists to come pouring in. I was sitting in the back with all the tech and managerial people, including JoAnn Kawell (who probably worked harder behind the scenes at this event than anyone else), so I had a good view of the venue.

The nominations for the ceremony included some big deal jazz musicians--Jason Moran, Joe Lovano, Kurt Elling, many more--and I wondered if they would come. I wondered how cordial the relationship between the journalist and the musician can be.

In her probing and controversial book, "The Journalist and the Murderer," Janet Malcolm wrote, in the first sentence: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." "The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject," she continued in the second paragraph of the book. That idea is harsh, but to apply it to criticism, I was certain that some of the journalists at the award ceremony had, at one time or another, written in unfavorable ways about the jazz musicians nominated for awards.

In an article for JazzTimes in Novermber 2008, New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen (who was at the awards ceremony) wrote:

"To be a critic, of course, is to face a perpetual crisis of impartiality. And with no way to prove it, I’d suggest that this is especially true in jazz, where the scene is small, the cause is noble and the struggle is often great. There are some jazz critics who would flee a room to avoid social interaction with a musician, and there are many others (too many) who routinely allow that interaction to flourish past the point of prudence. Good relationships are an asset in this profession, but cozy ones are a liability, and it’s not always easy to discern the middle."

In that article, he was writing about Facebook, and why he felt uncomfortable, as a critic, using it. Of course, all this ethical stuff is what you get over if you want to be a journalist. It's a job, and you do what you have to do with respect and honesty--or I hope that's the way it works. But as I was sitting in the back, watching people file in, I couldn't help thinking of that frustrating and embarrassing altercation between Mtume and Stanley Crouch. Mtume and Stanley Crouch were supposed to be here (neither of them showed, to my knowledge).

Then I looked to my left and saw Candido, the great Cuban conguero, sitting casually at a table in the corner, his three congas resting beside him in a stand. Candido? I thought. He seemed quite civil, happy even. It made me more comfortable. I scanned the crowd, and caught sight of Larry Grenadier, Henry Threadgill, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Darcy James Argue. I hadn't expected all these great musicians to be here. But perhaps I just don't know how things work yet.

During a lull, when I could take a break from tweeting, I decided to go down to the bar and rub elbows--or try to, at least--with the jazz glitterati, the journalists and bloggers and broadcasters whose work I am so familiar with. That sounds like an oxymoron: jazz glitterati. Jazz exists on the margins: if there was any glitter, it would probably be too dark to see. But to me, they are a big deal, so I felt pretty timid and nervous when I walked over.

I saw Patrick Jarenwattananon, who runs the the godfather of the jazz blogs, A Blog Supreme. I had been in contact with him by e-mail before, but I'd never met him, so I went over and shook his hand. We talked for a couple of minutes about jazz, and Montreal, where I have lived for the last four years. When I ran out of things to say, I commented sarcastically on how I was probably the youngest person in attendance. Which was probably true, but I kicked myself inside. Talking about your age at a jazz event is, to me, as lame as talking about the weather with an acquaintance you've run into on the street. Still, he took my comment seriously, engaged it, pointed out the twenty-somethings in the room. Nice of him. My cue to get back to tweeting.

The event continued (it was four hours) and I continued to tweet and circulate through the room. JoAnn told me to get a beer from the bar if I wanted one. Of course I did. I went down again to the elbow rubbing area and asked for a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale. Took a sip. Tasty, I thought. Strong, but tasty. I had really only eaten breakfast (barring a few hors d'oeuvres going around at the Winery) and at this point in the event it was about three, so the beer hit me pretty quickly.

I looked at the alcohol content: 9.4%. Jesus, I thought, this is like two beers in one. I just graduated from McGill University, in Montreal, and I drank a lot of beer there. Not often such strong beer, though. It would be easy to get glassy-eyed off two bottles of this stuff, I thought. I kept my cool, drank it slowly.

Finished it. Was feeling good. The event almost over, and tweeting responsibilities fulfilled, Alex led me around the event, introducing me to journalists and publicists. A woman walked up to us as we stood near the bar. Alex introduced me to her. I asked who she was. Terri Hinte, she said: Sonny Rollins's publicist. She gave me her card. I gave her mine. (The first card I've ever given. I was surprised I even had a card.) Wow, I thought. That was easy.

Terri walked away, and we walked up to Matt Merewitz, who runs Fully Altered Media. Alex mentioned my blog. Matt said he knows it, it's on his RSS feed. Go figure, I thought. People actually read it. I gave him my card. (Who knew I had another one?) Feeling better. I grab another beer from the bar.

We continued on to David Adler, a journalist who also teaches jazz history at Queens College. I told him I had read some of his articles and complimented his writing. Then he gave me his card and I gave him mine. We moved on to Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, with whom I've been in contact through e-mail. We didn't say much. He was very busy that day. We exchanged cards, though. Then Michael Jackson, a regular writer for Downbeat, boisterously walked up. "Who the hell is this?" he said half-jokingly in his thick English accent, looking at me.

Maybe it was the beers talking, but..."I'm a person," I said softly. "I exist." He quite liked it. Hugged me, even. I complimented an article he wrote on Fred Hersch for Downbeat. He thanked me and asked for my card. I gave it to him (last one). Then I asked for his. Cards exchanged, I walked on. By now, the ceremony had ended, and the staff of the City Winery was asking everyone to leave. So I did: grabbed my bag and walked out. As I was walking down Varrick, I pulled out from my pocket the nice little stack of business cards I had accrued. I looked through them, happily noting that they were, indeed, real, legitimate.

I've been thinking a lot about legitimacy these days. About how much my ideas matter. If what I think makes any difference to anyone--to me, even. At the Jazz Awards, I was very careful not to make a fool of myself--in front of journalists or musicians. I don't know how I would have, but I still feared doing it.

When I got home from the city last night, feeling lethargic from the beer I'd had, I took out my acquired business cards and placed them in a little pile on my dresser. I went on the computer, looking up the people I had met that day, perusing their websites, seeing what they had written and accomplished. Then I joined the Jazz Journalists Association.

Matthew Kassel just graduated from McGill University. He often writes about music, but also likes to write about himself. Find his jazz blog at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/