By March 12, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Overrated? Underrated? Experts have spoken.


(left to right) Ornette Coleman, Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett.

While scanning the web-o-verse for jazz comments and opinion, we kept running across phrases like “Coltrane never really impressed me”, “Miles is way overrated” and “Ornette simply couldn’t play”. While most comments like these were anonymous ones in forums or comment sections, there are a few slightly more serious blogs and websites that profess to know enough about jazz to warn people about what critics and historians have apparently been missing all these years: that some or all of our sacred jazz cows are overrated.

We’re certainly no strangers to unabashed opinion, of course. That goes with the music blog territory, and we reserve the right to yell loudly when we feel that hacks are at work. We do have a few ground rules about panning something, however. First, we always try to consider intent. In other words, did the artist intend a particular piece as a purely creative exercise, or were there commercial, egotistical or any other self-indulgent motives at work? Second, we try to consider the music’s place in the general diaspora. If it’s repertory music, how does it fit, and what does it add? If it’s not, what new approaches and positive elements does it bring to the table? It’s not a perfect system of criticism, of course, but it allows us to cut some slack where it’s due, and to call out shams and scams when we hear them. We treat historical music with the same jaundiced eye as new stuff, but we do add points for influence and an established place in the evolutionary process. Finally, we typically give true amateurs and students a free pass, although we wish every 10th grader with a new horn didn’t put videos of themselves playing “Giant Steps” on YouTube.

This preponderance of opinion got us to wondering if there were any scholarly pieces about the music and artists that some of our more prominent jazz critics and musicologists might find overrated. It turns out that individual critics have taken on this task more than once, but we have to go back to 1997 to find an exercise as snotty and mean-spirited as the one that Jazz Times put together, wherein they asked thirteen reviewers for their choices of the most underrated and most overrated jazz musicians in history. Aside from the venom that this sort of thing thrives on, there were some interesting—and occasionally instructive—responses from these “experts”. Included in the panel were an old-time dance band critic, Stanley Dance, the bebop era writer Ira Gitler, and an array of then-contemporary writers. They were each allowed to elaborate on their choices for a paragraph or so.

We would have taken some gleeful satisfaction had some of the names contained therein showed up on both the overrated and underrated lists, but since that didn’t happen, we’ll give this exercise at least a modicum of respect. As for the lists themselves, Keith Jarrett shows up quite a bit as overrated, as do Stanley Clarke and Betty Carter. In the case of Jarrett and Carter, their often grating personalities may have colored the opinions of many interviewers, but the arguments against their music are less compelling than we would have liked. We interviewed Jarrett thirty-five years ago, and he was a horrible little man even then, but his playing was neither fragile self-indulgence or anything short of dandy. Go figure.

Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman both show up quite a bit as overrated, which is never surprising for influential figures who also manifest unconventional and polarizing musical styles. Miles was also a prick to almost every writer he met, of course, so we suppose that most critics old enough to hold a grudge did just that. Ornette has unconventional chops, at best—and lousy ones at worst—depending on the value one puts on a player’s technical skills. The late Jack Sohmer, who put Coleman in his “overrated” list, blatantly contradicted himself when he then put Pee Wee Russell on his “underrated” list. We hold both of them to be unique visionaries, and we acknowledge their technical anomalies, but you can’t criticize one and praise the other for virtually the same reasons without sounding like a hypocrite. Then again, Sohmer dismissed John Coltrane as overrated by stating that “self-admitted confusion is not divine prophecy”. Rest in peace, Jack.

Not surprisingly, Kenny G and Diana Krall not only made the “overrated” lists of many of the Jazz Times critics, they seem to hold similar honors all over the internet. Kenny G is a jazz musician only because radio programmers and music retailers can’t figure out where else to put him, although we suppose that’s not his fault. He plays utterly vapid and shallow music, of course, but to call him an overrated jazz musician is sort of a pointless exercise, akin to calling Norman Rockwell a lousy abstract expressionist.

Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson show up as overrated a few times, which is about par for their reputations among historians. Fans of altissimo trumpet and 70-something white guys who had crushes on June Christie will disagree, but we think both of them committed enough sins of musical excess to deserve a place on more than one musical thumbs-down list. Arguing with a trumpet player about Maynard is like arguing with a drummer about Neil Peart or Buddy Rich. They either get it or they don’t.

John Zorn, interestingly, shows up more than once as overrated, too. We didn’t think he was well-known enough to have pissed anyone off, but we’ll let them have their fun. Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley show up on the “underrated” ledger quite a bit, and deservedly so, but interesting names like Little Benny Harris, Jane Ira Bloom and Leon Parker are all players who we think should be explored by those who aren’t familiar with their work, and we agree with their inclusions as underrated.

Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain, while fairly harmless at worst and certainly not undeserving of some notice, surprised us by showing up on Doug Ramsey’s “underrated” list, wherein it was suggested that we would all appreciate him more if Fountain played more challenging material, and worked with a hypothetical rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Victor Lewis. Ignoring for a moment the fact that bassist Carter shows up on several “overrated” lists here, we suppose that a similar argument could be made for almost every musician deemed too conventional. Heck, Tom Scott would have sounded swell in Mingus‘ band, and I’m sure Herb Alpert would have really stretched out if only he’d had a chance to play with Sun Ra. Right. We’re still waiting for the Myron Floren meets Yngwie Malmsteen project to be unearthed.

What’s the point of all this? Mostly that opinions are like assholes, and that every critic—including those here at Dead Like Jazz—has one. The upside of exercises like this is that they do expose some sacred cows, like Kenton, and cause us to at least question some other musicians’ place in the pantheon, like Chet Baker and Oliver Nelson. They also allow a novice to perhaps be exposed to players like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Henry Threadgill, Kenny Davern and Joseph Jarman, players who would never show up on any “top ten” lists, but who are wholly worthwhile discoveries, nonetheless. What infuriates one about this whole mess are the mean-spirited, wrong-headed and simply weird attacks on brilliantly gifted and sincerely motivated players. One supposes it’s a way to elevate one’s self to the status of “expert”, and it’s something that we hope to have the vigilance to avoid here. Oops. Too late.

Posted in: Jazz, Rants

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