Music critics weigh in on jazz

November 9, 2007

Today’s Slate included an unedited transcript of a live chat that music critics Ben Ratliff (The New York Times) and Alex Ross (The New Yorker) participated in with readers. The possibility of a live chat shows another way, in my opinion, in which newspapers can flourish in the future.

Readers who logged on both praised and criticized Ratliff’s and Ross’s work, and asked for their expertise in the state of today’s music.

I was naturally drawn to the questions and dilemmas I’ve encountered this fall while taking to New York’s musicians: whether the internet is helping jazz, whether audiences in other countries are more drawn to jazz, and whether the elitist position of jazz its limiting its own growth. Both critics addressed these questions to the best of their ability, but made it all the more obvious that if a clear answer existed, jazz would already have repaired itself.

“You purport to be discussing “how can we attract more people to the cutting edge of music?” but you don’t really want that. If too many people discover a particular avant-garde form, it by definition becomes mainstream. The whole point of being on the cutting edge is to exclude others and hold oneself apart,” one fan declared.

“I do think it’s great and helpful for people to listen to what’s new, in jazz or classical or anything else. But cliquishness will always exist and will always reinvent itself in some new way. In particular when you mention shock and frisson, that’s more an indie-rock argument—there’s not too much of it in jazz. Used to be in jazz, but now jazz has different fish to fry,” Ratliff replied.

A reader asked Ratliff:

Could you explain why jazz in America has been considered simply entertainment, background music while eating and clinking glasses, while in Europe it is a highly respected art form?”

“I just don’t believe that the audience issue—Americans are boors, Europeans are respectful consumers of culture—reduces this easily,” Ratliff replied and went on to say that the phrase of “no man being a prophet of his own land” is only partially true.

When Ratliff was asked about the possibilities that internet mediums hold for jazz musicians, he articulated what I too have begun to believe in the past two months:

Using the internet to get one’s music out there is pretty much the only hope for jazz, and I think we’re going to see this more and more clearly. Record companies and radio are not the paradigms that musicians are looking at anymore to help them,” Ratliff replied. “I think the issue, for jazz, is how to get all the internet-related musical taste-broadening to translate to actually going out to the clubs.”

(Ben Ratliff: link from


-Full transcript on (

-Ben Ratliff’s articles in the New York Times (

-Alex Ross’s blog (


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