© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Read anything of Williams you can lay your hands on.. . . His knowledge of jazz is all but unmatched."
- Washington Review
"Martin Williams persistently gets at essences, and that is why he has contributed so much to the very small body of authentic jazz criticism."
- Nat Hentoff
"The most knowledgeable, open-minded, and perceptive American jazz critic today." - The Washington Post
Back when the world was young, I had a university professor who railed at us to include the “Who, what, when, where, why and significance.” for each answer that we entered into our essay examination booklets.
In this way, we would be “set on a course to” explain the importance of the event, person or problem that was the focus of the examination question.
“Think critically; describe and discern; look for multiple causes; come at the thing from a number of perspectives,” he would say.
Little did I know at the time, that this was the perfect formula for training as a Jazz critic, for as the late, distinguished Jazz critic Martin Williams asserts “ … it is the critic’s business to be as perceptive and knowledgeable as he/she can. And critical perception (however much training it needs) is ultimately either there or not there.”
Of course, I understand rationally what Martin is saying, but experientially I rarely put myself in the position of becoming a Jazz critic.
As you may have noticed, I describe and annotate recordings, films and books about Jazz on these pages, but I rarely critically evaluate them in the way that Martin describes as the functional basis for Jazz criticism.
Maybe it’s because I know how hard it is to play this stuff and I don’t want to put down other musician’s efforts and attempts. Or perhaps it is because of a lack of training and/or practice in Jazz criticism
Perhaps, too, my reluctance is the result of not having a clear and complete understanding of exactly what is it that a critic does.
Enter Martin Williams who provides this explanation of “Criticism” in an essay which can be found in his compilation - Jazz In Its Time [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989].
To put the piece in perspective, it was written in 1958, at the height of the modern form of Jazz’s popularity in the USA.
“A musician is supposed to have said recently that the criticism of jazz is a kind of joke and that there are no jazz critics. Without agreeing with him entirely, I am very sympathetic to his statement. But I say this to indicate that to me the words critic and criticism are rather special ones. A man who makes comments or reports on jazz records (or books, or plays, or movies) is not necessarily worthy of the title of critic.
The criticism of jazz is, like the criticism of any other art, "popular" or "fine," a kind of criticism. It is not a branch of publicity, nor a sideline of journalism. And a critical ability is not a natural consequence of an enthusiasm for jazz or of a knowledge of jazz, although it needs both of these things.
Philosophers would have us believe that criticism is a branch of philosophy, and some artists that it is a branch of creativity. But criticism has its own muse, and however much enlightenment he constantly gets from both the philosopher and the artist, the critic needs a distinct, innate critical talent, a special sensibility and way of looking at things. His task is of an order much lower than that of either philosopher or artist, of course, but the ability he needs for his job is unique and uncommon, and a man either has it or doesn't have it. If the philosopher or artist (or journalist or historian) also has this critical ability, so much the better.
I think that the state of criticism of jazz in America is low, but I also think that the criticism of movies, plays, music in general, and painting is also low. Literature is lucky — it has a top level of criticism which is an excellent counter to the average American book review.
The innate critical ability is not enough in itself. It needs to be trained, explored, disciplined, and tested like any other talent.
If I recommended that this training should begin with Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius and end with Eliot, Tovey, and Jung, I would not be saying something academic or pretentious but merely stating the most ordinary commonplace of Western civilization as it exists. And the critic should also know as much as he can of the best criticism being written around him in all fields.
But it is also the critic's business to be as perceptive and knowledgeable as he can. And critical perception (however much training it needs) is ultimately either there or not there.
The critic's questions are "How?" and "Why?" not merely "What?"
The points which follow come, with some changes, from Matthew Arnold. I present them not because I am especially interested in promoting Arnold's attitudes nor in promoting any "system," but because they seem to me to have something to say at this moment to the jazz writer and his reader.
1. The critic's first question is what is the work trying to do? Notice that this does not say, what do you think the artist ought to be trying to do. It also has little to do with a clairvoyant view inside the artist's head. And it assumes that the critic has observed the form of the piece and that he absorbed it with his feelings as well.
2. The second is, how well does it do it, and how and why so?
3. The third is, is it worth doing? Notice that this is the last question and not the first.
4. The critic should compare everything with the best that he knows whenever the comparison seems just and enlightening.
The questions are not easy, but no one ever said that criticism was easy, and even the very best critics can and will fail on at least some of them.
Ultimately, the critic makes a judgment, an evaluation. Value is based, in the final analysis, on feeling, not reason. But by feeling I mean a rational, conscious, individual function. I do not mean emotion which is irrational, impersonal, and can be irresponsible.
We have all heard it said that the criticism of jazz was once left to amateurs. That is not entirely true, nor is there any lack of amateurs today. But we do have now several writing about jazz who, although they really know what criticism is, don't know enough about music. On the other hand, there are some who know music, but don't know what criticism is. In jazz, of course, there is danger in knowing music since we are apt to apply the categories and standards of Western music rigidly and wrongly thereby. And there is also danger in knowing jazz: we may reject truly creative things because our knowledge of the past makes us think we know what a man ought to be doing — but that is true in any art.
The man who reviews jazz records has a terrible task: he can never, like his "classical" brother, judge an interpretation or performance against a norm because every jazz record is, in effect, a new work. Also, as George Orwell said of the hack book reviewer, day after day he must report on performances to which he has had little or no reaction worth committing to print — and that is true of the best critics and is neither a reflection on them nor necessarily on the music.
On the other hand, there could not possibly be as much true creativity in jazz as we are constantly told that there is, even though the medium is very much alive. How many novels, plays, poems, symphonies, paintings done in a year are really excellent?
And I wonder how many promising careers—and lives—have been wrecked because of indiscriminate over-praise. I know of a few personally. Even if a musician is wise enough to discount what passes for criticism in jazz, he would have to be inhuman not to be somehow affected by it.
There is one job in jazz criticism that is neglected and which needs to be done, I think. It is also one which, since jazz is music and music the most abstract of the arts, is very difficult.
It is a better job on content and meaning. I am not opposed to technical analysis. We need more of that, too, and it can also help us with meaning, of course.
But especially now that jazz is so sophisticated, we need to talk frankly and honestly about what it is saying.
By an examination of content, I do not mean a kind of enthusiastic impressionism. Nor do I mean the kind of clever, chi-chi adjective-mongering we are all too familiar with. The critic's duty is accuracy and he should not sacrifice it for cleverness.
Of course, such an examination cannot be made with prejudice or prejudgment. The first question is, what does this music express, not whether or not it should be expressing it.
The thing that separates listeners and commentators into "schools," I am convinced by the way, is not musical devices — passing chords, diminished ninths or sixteenth notes, or the lack of them —
but the content that such devices enable a given style to handle. I think that jazz should be able to express as much as it can possibly learn to express in its own way.
Of course, the artistic and musical expression of emotion is not the same as its communication. A snarl, a sigh, a scream — these things communicate emotion, but they are not art, only a part of the raw material of art which the artist transforms.
I recommend this first, because greater consciousness is a part of growth in an art as well as in an individual.
I also recommend it because the appeal of jazz is still so very irrational, and I do not think it should be so much so any longer. (Of course, the appeal of all art is ultimately irrational, by definition, because it is art. But to many who like jazz, its appeal is almost entirely so.) It is the critic's business to make it less so, and unless he does, both he and jazz may be trapped. And dealing with content is the only way to give a good answer to that third question: is it worth doing?
As it is, we assure ourselves that jazz is an "art" and often proceed to talk about it as if it were a sporting event, an excuse for us to be verbally clever, a branch of big-time show biz, or an emotional outburst that affected us in a way we are not quite sure of. Perhaps we can at least do our best to create the kind of climate in which a jazz critic could function and which an art deserves.” (1958)