Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The 65th Annual Critics Poll: An Objective Perspective

 Yesterday the results of the 65th Annual Critics Poll for Downbeat Magazine were publicly announced. I'd first like to congratulate all of the talented musicians who placed in their respective categories--especially those who attained the number one spots. Jazz is a highly competitive and over-saturated musical genre, so I take my hat off to anyone who was able to successfully make their way to the top of the heap.

The Downbeat critic's polls are often greeted with mixed feelings and reactions. For some, it's a time for rejoicing and hope. For many, it's a time for resentment and despair. My message to all: Don't take any of this stuff too seriously. If you're knocking it out of the park, it doesn't mean that you are a genius and that you will redefine jazz as we know it. And if you're perpetually ignored it doesn't mean that you and your music are insignificant. Some of my favorite musicians rarely get recognized in these polls. This is often the result of a multitude of variables, that can change at any time.

When I first moved to New York, people were convinced that you had to be young and black to have a career. This was not completely without merit. Today, this is hardly the case. Now the narrative is that you have to be white and experimental,  or a 70 plus black cat. There was even a period when people thought you had to be South East Asian to get noticed--which really makes me laugh. As you can see, trends can change pretty drastically. So my point is that you should not be concerned about these things and should be mainly focused on developing your music and presenting it to the world.

The pendulum of jazz-world preference will swing in many directions during our careers. So the best thing we can do is be ready for when our number does come up. And even if it doesn't, that's ok too.  At least we'll be prepared.

Many musicians are pretty tough on the critics who vote in these polls, often labeling them as tone deaf and clueless. In rare instances, this might be true, but typically it's not. Jazz writers are usually pretty knowledgeable people. Some can't hear all of the fine nuances of the music like a professional musician, but this is not always necessary. Then again, many trained professionals can't write.

And besides, the life of a jazz writer is not glamorous.  They often receive low pay, little recognition, and they certainly don't get the girls. So if they're in this business, most likely it's because they have a deep love and passion for the music. They're not all frustrated musicians with a personal vendetta to make sure that "you don't get to have a career." Jazz writers tend to be too busy trying to drum up work to get so personal.

Because I enjoy writing, I actually like reading a professional writer's perspective on my music. It's a learning experience for me. I don't harbor the kind of animosity towards jazz writers that I've seen in some musicians. This was not always the case, mind you. Now, I can respect the craft, even if some of the things expressed are incorrect. This is the chance we take when working in the subjective realm. Some may not understand or get what I do, so in many ways, I feel it's my job to explain it to them--something I don't mind doing. In fact, having to articulate my vision helps to crystallize it in my mind. It's funny because sometimes it works against me. Some of my more recent reviews have ended up being my liner notes copied and pasted. But at least they had their facts correct.

Regarding the polls: check them out, learn from them,  maybe even congratulate some of the winners. But ultimately it doesn't change anything. At the end of the day, whether you placed at number one or we're totally ignored, you still have to practice, play, compose and continue to win fans over one by one, gig by gig. So again, congrats to all who won, all who placed, and to all who have made a commitment to this music. We are all winners.

And congratulation to Jane Ira Bloom for securing the number one spot in the Soprano Saxophone category. Not an easy feat. 

Please check out my book Life Lessons from the Horn and my new CD, Sopranoville.

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  1. I didn't even know some of those people played Soprano!

  2. Hi Erik - I have not heard Ted Nash and Christine Jensen play the soprano, but certainly the others.

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  4. Not all jazz writers are males. There are female writers who are also writing about jazz!

    1. This is true. To be honest, I'm not in contact with many female jazz writers, I'm ashamed to say, which is probably why I was focused on men. Jazz journalism, for the most part, seems to be a white male dominated field. And thanks for making your point.

  5. I see Joe McPhee and Joe Giardullo's picture up but not in the running. Not cool!

  6. I hear you. The soprano category is tricky. If an alto or tenor player with a more high profile name puts out a CD and plays a couple tunes on soprano, her or she typically outrank people who play it all the time. It's unfortunate.


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