Long bare arms and the long tail

The Gazette always covers the Jazz Festival pretty hard. This year, as they have for the past few, they send a bunch of people (some professional music critics, others who just like jazz) to various shows and have them blog their impressions on the Words and Music blog. It’s averaging between eight and 13 posts a day, which is a lot for any blog.

This week Jeff Heinrich, who just recently left the city department and moved into features (a.k.a. arts and life) wrote a not-so-nice review of Maria Schneider. The post has been “burning up the web” (and Twitter), leading to a staggering 56 103 comments so far, every single one of them insulting.

I’m left wondering: is it really that bad? Is Heinrich’s descriptions of “irritatingly stiff body-language” or “middle-aged women in the audience” really sexist and ill-informed? Or are these commenters (most of whom, to their credit, use what appear to be their full names) just a bunch of people who disagree with a bad review (and never saw the long feature piece previewing the show, because they’re Maria Schneider fans who were pointed to the post, not Gazette readers who came across it on their own)?

And do you need a degree in musicology to review a jazz show?


UPDATE: As more and more bloggers are linking to the post, and more hate-filled comments come in accusing Heinrich of not being nice (including one apparently from Maria Schneider herself), the author responds in a comment, in which he explains that he’s not a music critic and it wasn’t a review:

Yesterday I started reading the dozens and dozens of comments on my post about Maria Schneider’s concert. Now that the artist herself has weighed in – calling it “the sickest review I’ve ever read” – it’s time I joined in. The list of accusations by the 80-odd readers so far is just too long to ignore: sexism, misogyny, obscenity, ageism, ignorance, distortion, incompetence, childishness, pettiness, arrogance, flippancy, inaccuracy, lack of respect, mindlessness, opportunism.

Let’s get a few things straight.

1) I’m not a jazz critic. I’m not even covering this festival. I got a ticket at the last minute to see someone I’d never seen before, ended up not liking the show, and wrote 350 words about what bugged me. It was not a review. It was a short post about how I felt coming out of a concert.

2) If it had been a review, I’d have done what reviewers usually do: prepare for the show by listening to some of the artist’s CDs, take notes about what I saw and heard, write about what was played and by whom, maybe put it all in its historical context, discuss the high and the low points of the concert. More about the music, less about the scene.

3) Posts on The Gazette’s Words & Music blog are usually short and to the point. Usually they’re reviews but not always. In this case, I was a male audience member struck by a female artist’s body language and underwhelmed by her musical language. That’s it – not criticism, just an impression – my own subjective impression.

4) By the virulence of people’s response, and the attacks on me personally, it seems that based on this one short post a lot of you think you know who I am, that the unflattering way I described someone you care about somehow reveals something sordid about me.

5) How could it? All you learn about me from my post is that I once played clarinet in high school and have seen a Bertolucci movie I liked. That’s called an anecdotal, first-person lead; it informs my opinion, that’s all. If you want to connect the dots from there and try to armchair-psychoanalyse, go ahead, but the material you’re working with is a bit thin, no?

6) I know what a jazz orchestra is. I’ve heard a few; some big (Artie Shaw’s blasting out of my suitcase Victrola), some small (Gerry Mulligan giving birth and rebirth to the cool on CD), some unforgettable (Wynton Marsalis leading a bebop tutorial with the jazz orchestra live at Lincoln Center). But none of that means I have to like Maria Schneider, at least not the show she gave the other night at Place des Arts.

7) Blogs are dangerous ground, I know. You riff on something directly to the Web and it gets an immediate response. No filter, no editor, no backstop, no taste police. It’s risky.

8) But the risk is the point, isn’t it? Getting into an immediate back-and-forth with readers wasn’t something that was possible in print journalism before, and that’s a good and bad thing.

9) Good, because it makes journalists more accountable, more engaged with their readers, more approachable. Bad, because it sets up a relationship that can be very time-consuming – even more labour-intensive than gathering the news itself. More scurrilous, too, as I’ve learned this week.

10) Maybe non-specialists should be kept away from covering something as technical as jazz. It could make for better-informed journalism. On the other hand, iit could just make for more hermetic journalism, and that wouldn’t be accomplishing much.

One final note, this one to Maria Schneider: I admire the fact you admit your show here last week wasn’t the greatest, and I admire the fact you say you “can’t begin to know” why I wrote about you the way I did.  That’s more honest than a lot of people who think they do know, people whose idea of rebuttal is to be even more offensive than the thing they’re criticizing. I suppose I asked for it, was naïve to think it wouldn’t matter, didn’t expect the backlash. Was I “sick” when I wrote my post? Not really – just not in the mood. Maybe next time.

– Jeff Heinrich

Not that I’m defending the review, but I always admire anyone who can generate so much irrational anger and hypocritical insult-filled hate from people simply by saying he disliked something.

12 thoughts on “Long bare arms and the long tail

  1. Michael

    Geez, yeah it is that bad and it’s pretty self-evidently bad. First clue: not a single detailed mention of the music. In other words, not a ‘review’ at all.

    Most importantly though it seems like Heinrich missed the orientation session in which the real music writers reminded the non-pros that writing ‘reviews’ of musical performances does not make one a music reporter, and that humility and humour were essential tools in the absence of the real critical tools of a professional music writer.

  2. Vincent Stephen-Ong

    I can only presume that you’re purposely playing devil’s advocate here, because this has got to be one of the worst “concert reviews” I have ever read. I don’t know if you read my comment on the original article, but the crux of the matter, to me, is that someone with absolutely no knowledge of a particular subject should not be sent to report on that subject.

    No, you don’t require a degree in musicology to review a jazz show, but somehow I think that Heinrich is either not even a jazz listener or not a listener of modern jazz, and certainly had never heard Maria Schneider perform before. And for the record, listening to a little Michael Bublé or Kenny G does not qualify one as a “jazz listener”. That’s like saying that someone who prefers Burger King over McDonald’s is a “burger connaisseur”. To give a little context here, Schneider has won two Grammy awards and her band is filled with the cream of the crop of the NY jazz scene- arguably the strongest jazz city in the world. There’s no question that she is considered to be among the top-tier of living jazz artists, and she is well-respected by other musicians and composers within the jazz idiom.

    The Gazette has for years been sending woefully out-of-their-element reviewers to cover material they know nothing or have no appreciation for (e.g.: Arthur Kaptainis reviewing modern or avant-garde jazz concerts) but this review is so juvenile it’s unbelievable. You could dismiss all this and simply say that reviews are merely published opinions of experiences, and that’s fair, but I think it’s safe to presume that we expect movie reviewers to have seen lots of films, preferably in the style and language of the films they will be reviewing.

    All of this said, I’m actually not that huge a fan of Maria’s work, but I can appreciate it, so I’m not just some rabid fan flocking to her defense. This review is so bad that many thought at first that it might be a joke. Sigh. Nope, just the Gazette giving more reasons why traditional print news media is quickly going out the door. Assigning uninformed and unrelated reporters to subjects they know nothing about is a recipe for failure.

  3. princess iveylocks

    Lazy opining based on purely visual cues – it’s a music concert; maybe descibe the sound? Anyone could stroll into a venue, look around for two minutes, write that piece, and leave. I think that’s the problem.

    Cut the wordy, self-aggrandizing intro, insert setlist (or pertinent musical observation) and it’s fine. He didn’t like the show. Whatever. That’s acceptable. Disliking it for non-musical reasons is fine too. But the argumentation is still slack and the writing reads like it was phoned in over a staticky cell connection.

    If you get paid to write, try to write well. Problem solved.

  4. Christopher Smith

    Every single one of the comments insulting? I think not! Every single one of the comments was critical of the ARTICLE, not the writer, and even many of those critical of the writer were not insulting, just critical. Some of them were insulting to Heinrich, it’s true, but please get a little straight thinking in gear and separate criticism of a person’s work from criticism of the person, and be able to separate criticism from insult.

    We jazz fans (and jazz musicians) know that our preferred music is marginalised; we knew it going in and we still know it. Not everyone is going to get it. Not everyone is going to like it. But to substitute such misogynistic and ill-informed commentary for proper analysis in Heinrich’s case is the mark of a Philistine. There, THAT was an insult!

  5. Teresa Marie

    I agree wholeheartedly with Christopher Smith, above: You’ve got it wrong, the criticisms of Jeff Heinrich’s review are not “insulting,” the review of the concert itself is insulting! The review reads like it’s written by a grumpy adolescent with no interest or liking for jazz music and a deep-seated hatred towards middle-aged women. It gives no information whatsoever on what Ms. Schneider’s music sounded like, which the last time I checked, is the main purpose of a music review. Shame on you, the Gazette, for publishing this trash and calling it a review!

  6. WKH

    Good Lord. Even YOUR readers can’t figure out the difference between a blog post and an article. And this is why newspapers should GTFO of the blog business. All those yummy bloggers (I heart Andy Riga!) can go get their own websites. Regular web readers are too stupid in general to understand the difference and when one is BLOGGING and when one is writing a journalism article.

    BTW I could have written a similar review about Alanis Morrissette. I feel his pain.

  7. Christopher Smith

    WHK has it. In the last week or so some things have become more clear. The Gazette website is apparently not edited! Not in the sense that the pulp version is edited, in any case. Apparently, according to Heinrich in his own comment on the site, he wasn’t intending to write a review, which entails adhering to some rigourous standards. He was just giving some blog commentary.

    I certainly couldn’t tell that this was merely a blog. Huge “Gazette” masthead, “Gazette” name plastered all over, portions reproduced in the print version of the newspaper with links back to the site, link to an “editor” (who apparently is not an editor in any sense of the word that we have come to understand), and it is surrounded by content that is, by any test you care to apply, reviews, written by paid Gazette journalists. WHK is right, I AM too stupid to figure out that this wasn’t regular content. How was I supposed to know?

    In fact, I reject the contention that this was not regular Gazette content. If Heinrich wants to make off-the-cuff commentary about anything, no matter how stupid his commentary is, he can make it on his own personal blog. If he, as a Gazette writer, makes commentary on a Gazette-sanctioned website, he is held to the same criteria as any other Gazette journalist is.

  8. Christopher Smith

    I don’t think you read the article in question, nor the comments, very closely. In your addendum above you said, “I always admire anyone who can generate so much irrational anger and hypocritical insult-filled hate from people simply by saying he disliked something.”

    First of all, he didn’t simply say he disliked the concert. He attacked her gender, age, and appearance (comparing her attractiveness in a denigrating way to an actress in a film where the character was anally raped – what a image to invoke!) and said he found middle-aged women in the audience “creepy.” He also betrayed a singular ignorance of jazz in general and big band music in particular. While there was a small proportion of the reader commentary that was simply saying, “I disagree; the concert was great”, most of the reader commentary was taking exception to his misguided choice of criteria and his offensive tone.

    The anger the readers felt was not irrational. Even those who disliked Schneider’s music defended her from the attacks on her person. We are artists and we take our art very seriously. In many case we have made great personal sacrifices for very little reward or understanding, and to have one of our colleagues belittled like this was infuriating.

    The parts of the commentary that were personally insulting to Heinrich were, as you point out, hypocritical and in my opinion detract from the main point (rather obviously, since you and Heinrich both seem to have missed any legitimate criticism levied in favour of concentrating on the insults.) However, as I have said before, layman readers writing in with responses are NOT held to the same standards as senior journalists in a major Canadian daily.

    Lastly, the fact that you say you admire someone basically for attracting attention to himself by his bad behaviour does not reflect well on YOUR standards, either. I admire Heinrich much more for his excellent pieces through the years on a variety of sensitive topics where he showed himself to be thoughtful and clear-headed in murky territory, than I do for this terrible piece of dreck that he obviously put little thought into. Glorifying bad behaviour brings credit to noone, and you will quickly lose credibility as well if you adhere to the lowest standards of tabloid journalism.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      To be clear, I’m not defending the blog post. I’m simply saying it’s odd that this piece would create so much angry reaction. I’m not a music critic, so I can’t speak to whether it’s a good review or not.

  9. Christopher Smith

    Yes, you were clear that you weren’t defending the post. But you misread the reaction to it as a reaction to a unfavourable review, and that was most definitely NOT what the reaction was to. You also said you admired him for generating hate toward himself, and I dinged you for that on two counts; admiration for bad behaviour and for STILL characterising the reaction as hate.

    I hope I addressed your confusion on the quantity of the reactions to an ill-conceived review in my last post. There is not a lot of money in jazz (or in music at all, for that matter), nor are the practitioners in positions of political power nor out to save the world, so basically all we have left is an altruistic belief in our music. If someone doesn’t like a concert, fine. If someone attacks one of us (and one of our shining lights, no less!) then we bite back.


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