What changed is that I got a package in the mail from DownBeat, the world’s preeminent jazz and blues magazine. It contained a sharp B&W t-shirt commemorating the venerable music publication’s 80th—eightieth—birthday, sent to me as a gift as acknowledgement for participating in their annual critics poll. As the Senior Editor and a frequent contributor for the widely read jazz and blues publication (actually, the world’s largest) All About Jazz, I’m one of the 150+ critics on planet Earth who slog through the 18-20 pages of ballot and vote for the world’s best jazz and blues musicians. Each summer DownBeat publishes the final results in the DownBeat Critics Poll. As Joe Biden once said, it’s a big fucking deal.
Well, at least to the fans it is. The musicians who find themselves ranked at or near the top of each category (Best Arranger, Best Composer, Best Saxophonist) in DownBeat’s highly anticipated annual poll can, of course, feel professionally gratified and fantastically loved. But for the musicians who don’t win, place or show, several possible descriptions of the poll might apply: it is 1) stupid; 2) pointless; 3) out of touch; 4) sexist and chauvinist; 5) a beauty/popularity contest; 6) dismissive of anything not recorded in New York; 7) the product of a narrow-minded, mean-spirited old boys club; 8) without value, $1.85 short of the cost of a grande cup of undressed Pike Place Blend.
But it isn’t really any of those. An honestly administered poll, plain and simple, it is merely a slice of the big democratic pie, a valid representative sampling of music writers, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the results. Public opinion is a bitch. Like any poll, this one has everything wrong with it that is wrong with a democracy. Meaning that, for there to be winners, there necessarily have to be losers and the potential of de Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority," especially when the industry chooses to only shine the bright light of mass marketing on those few artists who are sure things who can yield adequate profits in the tiny jazz marketplace. For every Diana Krall or Michael Bublé, there are dozens and dozens of brilliant professionals who go unrecognized, people who are not “losers” in any sense of the word.
So I thought I try to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Since the annual poll allows for write-in votes, for the last few years I’ve been doing write-ins for the people I know who deserve recognition (DownBeat publishes a Readers Poll every fall, too, where everyone can do likewise online). Nora Germain is an example of someone I’ve written in for a couple years, and this year she suddenly appeared on the ballot! Nora is a hard-swinging violinist from Los Angeles who graduated from the USC jazz program a few months ago. Just her appearance on the ballot has raised her profile with the critics who participated.
In the grand scheme of things, jazz may not rate that high on your list of concerns. But for me it is an avenue, a place to make a change and improve conditions. When I see a venue full of people walk out of a performance humming and dancing and chatting excitedly about the show they just witnessed, I know that those people up on stage have made a big contribution to their world. We are all having a rough year. Some are having a much rougher one than you or I will ever face. The difficulty can be in not knowing what to do to effectively help.
But I would suggest that you can start anywhere you like, beginning with treating the bagger at the grocery with respect, or calming down in traffic and not being a rude asshole. If you want to do something effective, do something for somebody else, or do lots of something for lots of somebody else, and be as creative as you like. Act. Speak up. Communicate. Vote. Participate. Contribute. And whatever you pursue, do it well. Take John Lennon’s advice and “join the human race.”
If you like listening to jazz or blues, don’t just watch/listen to some low-fi crap on YouTube. Instead, buy a CD and support the artist who spent a year of his/her life creating it. Save your change and drop a little coin on a live performance some Saturday night. And if you like writing about music, you can review the guy’s CD. Do it well enough, and it might get published and REALLY make some motion in the ocean. My contact information is on All About Jazz (allaboutjazz.com). Write well enough and you might be writing in your favorite artists on a ballot soon.