Larry Blumenfeld vs. The Jazz Media Crisis

By Estefanía Romero

His intelligence, critical view and deep knowledge are some of the aspects that build the figure of Larry Blumenfeld, as someone that today belongs to the jazz world, from where he extracts different explanations that can only be formulated through the written word. This is how he offers to his readers a distinct understanding of what occurs with music when it is sounding; these in an immediate sense, the literal one; and in other that we could call timeless if we build today’s reality as the result of everything that already passed. Is this symbiosis between the intellectual, the music observer, and the music, which has made jazz transcend as an object of cultural, historical, musicological and even metaphysical studies, since the time when jazz critic started to be considered as an inherent fragment of the culture of jazz.

Larry is one of the jazz critics who has survived the killing circumstances of the cultural universe, in this immense void that has been unchained since the supposed democratization of the media and the viralization of stupidity. Fortunately, Larry writes today for the Wall Street Journal, for the magazine Jazz Is, and he sporadically collaborates with different websites. He talks about… wait! You better get to know him through his own words…

Why is critic important for jazz?

“You are asking this question at a very interesting moment in my country and, I think, in the world. Because we could talk about whatever jazz is and whatever you might mean by jazz. There is roughly a century of history.

If you are really well educated about it you know that there is more than a century ago that contributed to what jazz is, most people would consider jazz recording about 100 years ago, and most people would trace the history of about a century. But there is a much much longer history of criticism, of art criticism and cultural criticism and cultural reporting and journalism about the arts and those things. And a very important history of criticism, that could be criticism of classical music or visual arts. But the critic for at least of several hundred years, if not longer, has occupied a certain place in the society and culture. People can argue over whether that’s a western and European creation or not. But there is this longer celebration of that. And then there is a longer celebration to journalism. And I think this is when I’m getting to your question, because it’s something very deep to me right now.

There are so many changes going on in the United States right now in terms of publishing, newspapers, magazines, the digital world and in terms of our society and what culture needs these days. They are radically changing on how people get their music and where anyone is writing or talking about that music fits anymore. And I think that’s also true to a certain extent around the world. The internet, Facebook and the fact that everyone shares everything all the time, has radically changed. For instance, a long time ago, 40 years ago if you write in the US and you wanted to find about jazz you might pick up a copy of DownBeat. Or if you are in a city you might go to that city’s newspaper and look at the listings and see if there was a jazz critic or a critic there. If you’d went to France you would go find one of the many jazz publications that were published through the 20th Century in France, and see what that person was writing and what they said.

Now everyone shares everything globally all the time, and on the one hand is very interesting, and in the other hand it sort of has devalued the interest on these things.”

The Crisis of Jazz Criticism

“In the US the opportunities of read about jazz and to write about jazz have been diminished grately in the past decades, and grately in the past few years. I think there is a major shift going on in terms of criticism and cultural coverage in the US, and jazz is suffering a lot in that bargain. So I am very fortunate, I write on an going basis on a major journal, the Wall Street Journal, I write on angoing basis on a national magazine Jazz Is, which is one if the three magazine of jazz here, which I used to edit; and I write every now and then for various websites, where I am writing about jazz but maybe not straight criticism. But the opportunities of read about it are far less than they used to be. The major New York newspapers have drastically cut their coverage of jazz, there are far fewer jazz critics or people reporting on jazz in the country. Newspapers in the US are suffering and dying and changing, and they made the decision, I think, that several areas of cultural coverage are not important anymore. The readers have told them. If you’d came to New York 20 years ago you’d find far more coverage of jazz in New York in all the media today than you would find today, and I consider that a crisis.”

The Culture of Jazz: Musicians and the Community of Ideas

“Now, that is a long answer, I don’t want you to confuse that. There are people who would tell you “oh, jazz is dying”, or “people don’t play enough attention to jazz and we need to promote jazz and recandle the fire for jazz”, I don’t necessarily agree with all those people because there was a period in time when jazz was a very popular music, when many American households would be playing jazz, when you could have a hit on the radio with jazz, and you could top the charts with jazz, that was decades and decades ago, that’s not the case anymore and I don’t think it would ever be the case. But it’s a really important culture and it remains vital and there are musicians doing vital and original work in what I would call jazz and it remains a very important, not just musical product, but a very important community, an intellectual community, a community of ideas, that has to do with many things, and that is what I write about.

To me, if a jazz reporting could sell a 100 thousand copies in a certain point of time, and now a recording like that could sell 100 copies, well, that means the musician and the record company can’t make as much money of it, and that means is not going to be an important news to the masses for me to write about. But it is still very important to what I am committed to writing about and to what I am interested in, so I think musically there is a great deal of interesting and important stuff going on, and there is a great body of ideas and community around that music that makes for great stories. All that has a great deal to do with identity, whatever identity we could place within the US. But it also, more and more, has to do with the growing understanding that’s beyond the borders of US.

So, I think that story of jazz itself has changed and it’s changing. If 40 years ago someone would say “this is what jazz is, and it’s the American only art form”, now that truth is complicated, and I like to write about those complicated truths. Something that I try to communicate to the Americans and is important for everybody to understand is that we are in the middle of a crisis in terms of people really appreciating the role of the critic, and the role of criticism and the idea of culture.”

About the Bluff: Even if rich people don’t know a thing about jazz, they just go because they want to be looked at, they go like “I went to this place because I am a very cultured person”, even if they are not…

“That actually happens here too, and it’s not an unusual thing to happen to an art form. Like when Shakespeare’s time, Shakespeare’s plays were presented not only for wealthy theater’s goers and somehow, hundreds of years later it becomes a thing that is not for the people. The classical music certainly became something for the elite classes, and that’s because of the price. Jazz, a long time ago was much more accessible in US, for people who didn’t have much money or for people that didn’t feel like an elite. And more and more, once it became accepted as an ??? art 16:15 form, if you come to New York and you want to hear the best jazz, you would probably have to expend a good deal of money, and that’s one issue and there are a few people doing things about it.”

To Write Professionaly About Jazz

“When you are writing about jazz, and really, about any art form that you believe in, it is important to write as deeply as you can about context for it and connect it to ideas. You can take someone’s recording and just simply write “here is what the recording sounds like and I Iike it or I don’t”, or “why I think this person is a good pianist or a bad pianist”, there is nothing wrong with that but it’s not terribly rich, and you could write a profile of a musician who is playing in your town, and just get a little history and ask him a few questions and write something “here is what they think…”. But it’s is much more interesting to create some depth and that only comes from investing in it. Then you can give people something more rich.”

The Identity of Jazz

“There is this very interesting thing that’s happening on in jazz, and I am writing a lot about it, which is that: what do we mean by jazz, and what’s it actual history and heritage and identity, and so there is no question that whatever we call jazz was sort of came to fruition in the US, and there is this long list of musicians and business, and audience that developed. But there is no question that there is a long history in the western atmosphere that includes your country, where there was European colonization, European conquest, there were native populations that maybe figured in or didn’t. Many places where African brought through slaves trade. Any intelligent understanding of the history of jazz or what is jazz today, has to acknowledge any African identity that arrived by slave trade. And anyone would have to acknowledge the connection between African and European and other forms.

If you look historically, you said something about stuff going on in the 20’s (in Mexico)… what  happened in the very beginning of the XX Century in Brazil, in Cuba, in Panama, in the Caribbean, there is a deep connection and there are a lot of parallels. It is important to understand jazz as American, it’s also important to understand jazz as this impulse that happened through all the atmosphere. I know the pianist Danilo Perez has educated me a lot about what happened in Panama and what are their influences. I had to spend a lot of time in New Orleans, which most  Americans consider jazz was born and that has a lot to do with the African slaves presence there. It has to do with the presence of Asians that came at a certain point in the XIX Century.

So, it’s actually a moment when we can start to understand how does jazz registered in all these places today, and what is the history that we all share. But then there is this other side too, which is a more modern phenomena: with the globalization, people can move around so much that now there is a lot of jazz inventions, and a lot of jazz listening going all around the world.

A lot of it has to do with Cuba, Cubans influence, some people like to call that Latin Jazz, but it is really part of the story. I don’t like the idea of telling people that they should be interested of jazz or try to create a jazz culture where doesn’t exist, but I like the idea of seeing where jazz actually exist, where jazz is being made and try to write about that. Now in the US there are a lot of programs for musicians to study jazz, 40 years ago that wasn’t the case. Now you were 19 years old and you wanted to go to College and study jazz with great teachers there were places to go and get a degree on that. Now, does that mean that you are going to have a lot of money when you graduate? Does that mean there is a jazz culture? I am not so sure, but that is one thing and it’s interesting to me.”

Why writing about jazz?

“What is it that has a value and what does it mean to you? The same way as I might ask you where do your parents come from and what identity is that for your life? Or, what religion are you? Or, what does that mean in your life? It means something, but it might mean something different for the next person.

What I consider jazz now comes from a wide range of stylistic jazz forms of identities. People doing things that I would call jazz, that might sounds like chamber music but it swings and it has improvisation, or they might do something that sounds like Afroamerican but it add jazz to it. And at certain point the artists and the audience and the critic have to define what do they think about jazz. But I am sure that when you thought “I am going to write about jazz”, I am sure that wasn’t about getting a lot of money, you are responding to something, whatever that impulse is. Might had a neighbor who said “hey, let’s hear some jazz”, what do they mean about that? There must be some kind of a culture there.

There is the music itself, and if the music isn’t of a high quality, and if the music isn’t someway related to that history of jazz then, what are we talking about to begin with? But then there’s a whole new level, what is the story here? Why am I interested in this.

If you ask me about anyone I have written about in the past years, part of it is that I responded to their music, but there is a whole another part, when there is this richness. And the truth is that in the most great art, most artist had add richness to their character, and there is richness to their story so.

Even though I started out with this talking about this crises, there I think there is far less space and attention for jazz coverage or serious criticism in general, I do think there is a jazz history of people talking intelligently about jazz, there is a quite number of people doing it today: Gary Giddins, that is a very important author, I don’t agree with everything he was written in his career but he wrote some very important stuff.”

*Thank you very much for sharing all your knowledge to me and all the Mexican audience that belongs to that jazz culture, dear Larry!