Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Downbeat Goes On

Despite the changes in the music business, particularly from a technological point of view, criticism is still relevant. This particular website is dedicated to reviewing the arts by distinguishing itself as an honest broker of artistic endeavors around the world. Downbeat magazine, which has been the best and longest lasting periodical of jazz, has just issued its 59th annual Critics Poll (August 2011).  As a monthly journal that has adapted well to change, its Critic's Poll and Reader's Poll is an important barometer of what's being heard and reviewed in music.

The August 2011 edition of Downbeat features the critic’s picks for the best in jazz of the past 12 months and as a critic who did not participate in the poll, I was happy to see certain musicians getting recognition, namely, American pianist and composer, Jason Moran. His album Ten (Blue Note, 2010) was voted the best of the year. Moran himself was voted as Artist of the Year and he led the poll in the Piano category by getting more points than Keith Jarrett and last year's poll-winner Brad Mehldau. This is fine company, to say the least, and while I'm generally fickle about "best of" lists, I was very happy to see Moran grace the cover of the magazine and win three categories. Ten made my own list of the top records in 2010, and I have to admit that I'm feeling vindicated for trusting my ears and choosing new releases off the beaten path and rarely with a high profile. Nevertheless, with all the great music and musicians vying for our attention, which is bloody difficult in the 21st Century, it’s nice to see the so-called purists at Downbeat support up-and-coming musicians. In fact, that’s been an important part of their mandate since the beginning.

Established in 1934, Downbeat has had the unique history of growing with the music. (This is the single best reason to read it.) It’s a periodical interested in educating the public about the history of the music and the musicians who play it. The only other magazine of comparable quality is CODA, which is struggling now since the death of Founder and Editor John Norris in 2010. CODA started in 1958 in Toronto as a bi-monthly about jazz and improvised music. What makes Downbeat magazine special is the history of its ownership. The current President is Kevin Maher who took over the position from his older brother, John 'Butch' Maher in 1991. John 'Butch' Maher was made publisher of Downbeat in 1989, but died two years later of cancer. Jack Maher, who passed away in 2003, became president of the publication in 1970 after his father, John J. Maher, died. (John J. Maher purchased the publication in 1950.) From 1949 to 1979, Downbeat was published every two weeks. Jack Maher decided to go monthly and the magazine thrives to this day without corporate ownership by a major publishing company, such as Time-Warner.

In the 1950s, when rock & roll was pushing jazz from the mainstream of American culture, Downbeat distinguished itself by embracing the change rather than trying to ignore it. So by the late 1960s, it wasn’t unusual to see The Beatles on the cover with Cannonball Adderley, or a story about new jazz-rock groups such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. They too, were critically evaluated and profiled at length. In 1970 in the 18th Annual Critics poll, the record of the year was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, which was also number one for the readers as well. An issue in February 1971 featured stories about Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz and Captain Beefheart. And just glancing at back issues of the magazine through the years, one sees a pattern of music journalism that can best be described in one word: contemporary.Downbeat continues to talk about the present state of music, but without too much sentimentality for the past. Its motto, "Jazz, Blues & Beyond" could be considered its mission statement. But it wasn't quite like that in the early years.

The written criticism has changed too, as the "hep jive" of the 1940s was taken over by many of history’s best authors about jazz such as Ralph J. Gleason and Marshall Stearns. Stearns adapted many of his essays for Downbeat into an excellent book entitled, The Story of JazzWhat I like most about the review section is the fairness of the music criticism. While I might disagree with some of the assessments of the music, I think the reviewers are respectful of the artists even if their record isn't very good. But when they do like something, it's usually rated on a 5-star system with commentary. Established in 1952, the star system might be of some use to the casual reader, but to me, it’s a shallow measure of what’s good or bad. This rating system in part might also be attractive to record labels who buy ad space. That said, Downbeat continues to issue reviews with the star system. In fact, their issue at the end of 2009 featured all of the albums released in the past 10 years that were given 3 stars or more.

Throughout its history, Downbeat has been very considerate of its readers and subscribers. In fact, the annual "Readers Poll" has been around longer than the "Critics Poll" by some 17 years indicating that the magazine has considered its readers the utmost critics. That said, last year readers voted Pat Metheny's album Orchestrion as the record of the year which I consider one of his least successful. So while it's interesting to get the pulse of Downbeat fans, regardless of taste, the Critics Poll offers some balance. The 2011 Readers Poll results will be published in November.

 John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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