The Uh Uh Uhs

Commentaries on Current Music Criticism
Bill Shoemaker


So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiederschen, Goodbye

Christopher Porter’s stint as the editor of JazzTimes came to an end with the April issue. Porter had been putting out the word of his impending departure for a few months, citing burnout. In just six years, Porter wrote in a gracious, breezy farewell “JT Notes” column, he aged almost 60.

In assessing Porter’s tenure, it is important to remember when and how he got the job. The economy had been booming for several years when Porter came on board in 1999, and this was reflected in the growth of the magazine, both in terms of the number of pages per issue and the widening of its advertising base beyond the usual suspects. The new economic paradigm also envisioned a new horizon for publications online.

During these years, JazzTimes’ editorial currency spiked as fast as the NASDAQ. This was primarily due to the teambuilding abilities of Porter’s predecessor, Mike Joyce, who deftly deployed a deep bench of role players each issue. But, Joyce, who also writes for The Washington Post, worked only part-time for JT. To make the Great Leap Forward, JazzTimes needed not only a fulltime editor, but one who could establish the magazine’s presence on the Net, as well.

So, one fine morning after putting an issue to bed, Joyce came to work and was rewarded for giving JT unprecedented credibility with a severance check and given the rest of the day to clear his office. The axing unavoidably tainted Porter’s installment among contributors, but Porter quickly reached out to writers, acknowledging Joyce’s accomplishments and promising to basically stay the course. And, he made good on his proffers.

However, Porter’s accomplishments as editor were not limited to maintaining assets he inherited. He championed major articles and feature packages that went far beyond the jazz flavor of the month, and took on real issues like race, sexuality and mental health in a way that produced more light than heat. Though not all of them survive to the present, Porter also stewarded substantive regular features like the issues-oriented “Solo” and the aptly titled and much-needed “Overdue Ovations.”

Most importantly, Porter repeatedly nudged the center point of the spectrum of music covered in JT towards the new, whether it manifested in ecstatic jazz, jazztronica or remixes. This is where Porter’s relative youth and his interest in pop music served the reader well.

Still, Porter’s tenure was not unblemished. For many, he will be remembered as the guy who sacked columnist Stanley Crouch after the April 2003 publication of “Putting The White Man In Charge,” a stinging rebuke of the US jazz establishment. The firing, conveyed by a Porter email, ignited the ugliest, racially charged episode in jazz journalism since Leonard Feather’s infamous Crow Jim remarks in the mid 1960s.

The stated cause for Crouch’s dismissal was that he was chronically late with copy; reportedly, his last-minute submissions were also usually riddled with rookie typos and errors in grammar and usage. Porter told The Village Voice, which ran a thorough investigative piece on the imbroglio, that Crouch’s columns “were becoming tedious, alternating between vitriolic rants and celebrations of his buddies.”

Crouch counterattacked ferociously and effectively first by circulating Porter’s strangely airy email and then by firing salvos when approached by reporters like the Voice’s Daniel King, who is/was, ironically, a self-described “close friend” of Porter. On his own, Crouch could not sway the few people left on the planet who already like him or loathe him. But, two facts surfaced in King’s “Hanging the Judge” (May 14 - 20, 2003) that gave the column in question credence, and put JT in an even more damning light.

The first was a quote from an email sent to Crouch after the firing by, according to Crouch, “the magazine president saying that ‘industry folks … felt you were over the top in your editorials.’” (The italicized phrase originally appeared in interior quotes) This pretty much made Crouch’s argument for him.

King’s piece also revealed that Amiri Baraka, who had written occasional CD reviews during Joyce’s tenure, had been commissioned in 2000 to update his famous 1961 essay, “Jazz and the White Critic,” which was not published. When Baraka inquired about the piece’s status, “(t)hey told me, ‘It doesn’t cover the things we want it to cover; it doesn’t say the thing was want it to say.” King then quoted “JazzTimes”: Baraka’s case “was a combination of him turning in late copy and handing in pieces or reviews that didn’t fulfill the assignment.”

The presidential email and the quote attributed to the magazine rather than Porter himself, who is quoted several times in the piece, suggests that Porter was just the messenger, if not the patsy in the Crouch affair.

Therefore, the only bad decision that can be laid at Porter’s feet primarily, if not exclusively, was the removal of performance reviews from the magazine late in 2000. True, their relegation to the Web site meant more extensive and timely coverage for concerts and festivals, but it was still a sad signal event.

Porter’s replacement is JT publisher Lee Mergner, who is widely seen as an industry insider. Once the Porter-assigned content is published, it will be interesting to see what, if any change in editorial direction “America’s Jazz Magazine” takes. Porter has returned to writing fulltime.

20 March

Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum

The most significant development in experimental music over the last decade is how musicians and audiences have opened their ears “to the world and embraced its sounds as both a musical resource and as music itself.” This is the bold thesis of critic Brian Marley and improviser Mark Wastell, editors of Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum (Sound 323; London). An impressively designed hardcover book + DVD anthology of artist narratives, essays and video clips, Blocks of Consciousness may well set durable terms for articulating early 21st Century music.

The historical grounding for Marley and Wastell’s position is John Cage’s “4’33”,” the subject of Marley’s leadoff essay. Marley challenges the conventional wisdom that this is Cage’s definitive statement about silence. Instead, Marley essentially suggests that the piece provides a context for indeterminacy, in which any sound is appropriate, be it generated by the performer, the audience or the air handling system. It is a carefully detailed chronology of the changes the piece underwent, and how Cage’s intentions and non-intentions developed in its making.

Additionally, Marley’s essay sets the tone for the book’s other eight lengthy essays, and the artist narratives collected by improviser Rhodri Davies, which address, if not always answer the question, What are you doing with your music? Penned by knowledgeable critics, mostly Marley colleagues at The Wire (including David Toop and Dan Warburton, noteworthy improvisers in their own right), each of the other essays have real merits. However, it is the artist narratives that are the essential raw documents of these times.

Thee artist narratives range from short koan-like statements (Onkyo icon Otomo Yoshihide: “Listen to the non-existent things that may exist in the future) to 15-page tomes (Lee Patterson’s has such intriguing section titles as “Listening to breakfast cooking,” “Transmuting the quotidian,” and “The inversion of noise.”). The narratives detail a rich variety of methods and practices, which leads one to believe that there are a multitude of schools of one in the current experimental music scene. However, there is a theme that runs through almost all of the narratives that links back to Cage and “4’33””: The twin issues of control and non-control.

While essayists like Andy Hamilton and Will Montgomery give expert guidance on these issues as they pertain to their respective subjects, The Necks and Richard Chartier, the narratives of musicians like Matt Davis really cut to the chase:

What am I doing with my music? To say my music seems wrong … I am creating a context for things to exist, and everything in the space, including the space itself, is interdependent … The music is my chance to lose things, to be in a place I wish to experience. A chance for things just to be as they are. That’s why it was important for me to start playing electronics and field recordings – seeking a more obvious contact with the physical world, exploring sounds not produced by myself.

In one way or another, the aesthetics of most of the musicians in Davies’ survey, as well as those discussed in the essays, touch upon this issue of interdependency. If the activities documented in Blocks of Consciousness constitute a movement – and perhaps the best argument that it does is self-evident; they’re all in this collection – then the distance this movement has traveled beyond Cage could well be measured by the differences between indeterminacy and interdependency.

The DVD of performances shot by David Reid creates a different arc, front-loading first-generation British improvisers like Lol Coxhill, caught larking about with Birdyak, Evan Parker and Keith Rowe, both of whom perform solo. Of the 17 performers, only John Tilbury, who is a leading interpreter of Cage’s and Morton Feldman’s piano works in addition to being a renowned improviser, has any substantial connection with the New York School. But, the DVD is just not a rehashing of the London narrative. The intergenerational duo of Eddie Prévost and Anton Lukoszavieze pivots the focus onto a fairly even mix of musicians from the US, Europe and Japan. Though London is well represented by John Butcher and Broken Consort (Davies, Davis and Wastell), the presence of Jérôme Noetinger, Tetuzi Akiyoma, and Nmperign (Greg Kelley and Bhob Rainey) makes the case for the international scope of this activity.

The reverberation between the historical arcs of the New York School and improvised music is contained in the anthology’s title. “Blocks of Consciousness” is a reference to Feldman’s music, while “Unbroken Continuum” was extracted from a Derek Bailey quote. The documentary methods and ecumenical tone of Marley and Wastell’s presentation of this reverberation makes Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum a milestone.

5 April

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