Remember when part of experiencing a recording for the first time meant reading the credits and liner notes? That was fun reading and so meaningful to me when I was a kid, trying to understand jazz music. There was so much for me to learn and try to make sense of at that time. In my quest to sort out the order of things in the universe of jazz—the seminal figures, their supporting casts, the various groups of players—in other words, the roots and branches of jazz’s family tree, I looked to the back covers of records as my elementary aid in understanding the music.
I could refer to the writer’s description of the various “cuts” (as we used to call them) and see if I could hear and identify the qualities or occurrences being described. I could find out who-was-who and what-was-what. Who were the players on the album? Where did they come from and what were their relationships to one another? How was the record conceived? What was the impetus for the writing and /or performing of the various tunes? What was the “standards” repertoire in jazz? (If I saw a tune appear on two or more records, I would have to investigate further to see if I should learn it!) During the early periods of my development, the writers of these liner notes were able to impart knowledge about the inner workings and common practices in jazz music, as well as direction in perceiving and communicating about the music with others.
As a musician who wishes to pay a debt of gratitude for having gained so much information from liner notes, it saddens me to see the effort, passion and insight of so many being relegated to virtual obscurity by the digital music download services. Probably the most popular among these, iTunes, most often gives no indication of who (other than the principal or very well known musicians) is appearing on a jazz recording. Furthermore, minimal effort is made in description in support of the music, the musicians and their work, other than two or three paragraphs of, often times, opinionated ‘review’. iTunes gets these reviews from All Music Guide, an Internet database or reference center which contains information about a variety of styles of music. Though All Music Guide is extensive in its scope and info about artists, recordings, etc., it can also be slanted in its views, prone to favoritism and careless with its information about jazz music and its musicians. The description on its jazz section’s introductory web page states: “At the outset, jazz was dance music, performed by swinging big bands. Soon, the dance elements faded into the background and improvisation became the key element of the music.” Does this writer mean that “the outset” of jazz began with the big band era? Oops. And I’d thought all along that Louis Armstrong was a jazz musician, my bad. This kind of shoddy dissemination of information does not help jazz, a relatively young and troubled music genre with a history of social stigmas. There is simply no way to casually or reasonably explain this blatant omission of such a crucial period, even in a brief descriptive overview of the history of jazz. Had it not been for the creativity, wherewithal and validity of jazz’s musicians (several of whom are celebrated figures in jazz history) active during the twenty to thirty years before 1930, there would be no big band or swing era.
Because of the socio-political ramifications of jazz, it has always needed scholars and other genuine arts supporters to champion its cause and its musicians, and to help elevate these to their rightful place among the great musical and cultural contributions of the world. French jazz enthusiasts, Hugh Panassieâ and Charles Delaunay were serious supporters who spoke for jazz and helped pave the way for writers such as Albert Murray and Amiri Baraka; musician and scholar, Gunther Schuller; and jazz critics, Rudi Blesh, Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, and others. More recent jazz thinkers, like Scott DeVeaux (The Birth of Bebop, University of California Press), Doug Ramsey (www.artsjournal.com/rifftides/) and Joe Moore (www.jazzportraits.blogspot.com), continue to keep up with jazz as art, rather than ordering it according to what is marginal and popular, or worse yet, providing misinformation.
Rather than pre-determining for the downloader, the consumer, or the potential music listener what is good or bad, or great or not, why not borrow a page from history and make liner notes accessible via the Internet? How difficult could it possibly be to include the existing liner notes and album or CD credits? By placing them on line there would be the added advantage of having the ability to zoom in and scroll to aid viewing. Do we really need the opinion of a third party, in the form of a synopsis or review, when previewing music for download? Isn’t that what we have sound clips and friends for? To omit the interesting and useful original liner notes and replace them with what is currently available is negligent at best. At worst, it influences the music lover’s ability to choose by suggesting a recording’s worthiness, sometimes subliminally, often overtly.
If it is the purpose of these reviews to inform the reader about a recording, shouldn’t the writer be knowledgeable, perceptive and creative in their attempts to discuss and describe jazz music? Shouldn’t these writers be held more accountable for the equity and accuracy of their work? Rather than the seemingly self-appointed authority to pass judgment, shouldn’t there be some requisite skill and/or accomplishments necessary to a music critic’s involvement in the realm of the arts?
Of course, critics have a right to their opinions, but what gives them the authority to professionally offer commentary regarding someone else’s art or, worse yet, rewrite or misrepresent history? Rilke says it best in Letters To a Young Poet: “[aesthetic critiques] are either prejudiced views that have become petrified and senseless in their hardened lifeless state, or they are clever word games. Their views gain approval today but not tomorrow. Works of art can be described as having an essence of eternal solitude and understanding is attainable least of all by critique. Only love can grasp and hold them and can judge them fairly.”
Once upon a time, liner notes were included, along with the music, as a part of the total package, and as a way of enhancing the music experience for the listener. They were written by jazz lovers, who intermingled and fraternized with their subjects, and who in varying levels and ways respected, identified with and understood what was special about the jazz musician’s form of expression. Of course, not all liner notes were accurate, informative works of art, but there existed a proper and fundamental understanding of hierarchy, of authority in the relationships between artist, consumer and critic. The means of conveying that understanding, liner notes, is sorely missed by this music lover.
© Bobby Broom, 2006