The Village Vanguard at night, 1976 (Flickr/Tom Marcello)

Welcome to the Jazzless Age: Change in New York Times coverage spells trouble for a scene

What changes in music coverage at The New York Times mean for jazz


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Max Cea
February 24, 2017 4:59AM (UTC)

Given the typical adversarial rendering of critics by artists — pedantic, sadistic and envious of their victims — you might expect two New York Times music critics leaving the paper in the span of six months to be cause for celebration among the musicians they covered. But when Nate Chinen left his post as a New York Times contributing jazz and pop critic in January, just half a year after former fellow jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff left the paper, the jazz community did not rejoice. It grew worried.

For two decades, some combination of Ratliff, who was hired in 1996, and Chinen, who began writing for the paper in 2005, had provided much of the paper’s jazz coverage. Starting last year the Times’ coverage began to look different. In June the paper began employing fewer reviews of shows and records. And by December, the number of once ample weekly New York jazz listings were condensed to the single digits and lumped in with the paper’s pop and rock listings. (The editorial changes were not the reason Ratliff and Chinen left, but they contributed to their respective decisions.)

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The combination of the departures and the change in coverage signaled an emerging vacuum and raised a fundamental question: Had the Times relegated jazz coverage in the interest of reallocating resources to subjects that attract more web traffic?

Fearing as much, Fully Altered Media's Matt Merewitz spearheaded a letter-writing campaign in December, aimed at salvaging the paper’s commitment to jazz coverage. There was a lot of initial enthusiasm for the cause. And a handful of people wrote letters, including SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline, trumpet player Amir ElSaffar and composers Darcy James Argue and Joel Harrison. But the campaign was ultimately not as successful as Merewitz would have liked; in his opinion, it fizzled due to the multitude of other letter-writing campaigns.

Though the letters were few in number, the sentiment they expressed was prevalent within the jazz world. In January my friend the trumpet player Steven Bernstein, who is the band leader for Sex Mob as well Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9, called me and said this about the changes: “For someone like me who relied on this stuff, this is horrible because I used to get reviews and previews from the Times, which would lead people who weren't just jazz fans to come to my gigs.”

For almost every jazz musician not named Kamasi Washington, Times coverage has a similar utility. “Over time, I began to feel that I could recognize a New York Times crowd,” said pianist Vijay Iyer, referring to the tendency for a Times listing to yield a larger crowd that was also older and whiter.

Trombonist Brian Drye told me the first Times review he received served as validation and led to the highest album sales of his career to date, but Times coverage did not always correlate with larger crowds. Rather, the daily coverage of the scene had a cumulative effect. “Over time it makes a difference. It provides credibility and tangibility.”

Part of the reason for that is that the Times coverage of jazz — more so than of other types of music — would guide the field. “If one of the Times guys decided that I was worth writing about then it might catch the attention of someone like Howard Reich in Chicago or someone in San Francisco or D.C. or Boston,” Iyer said.

If the Times were to scale back its jazz coverage, it would surely make life more difficult for a lot of artists and might have resounding impact on the genre’s vitality. But were the changes in the Times’s jazz coverage as dramatic as they seemed?

The reality of the situation was a bit more complicated than the narrative that the Times was simply downgrading its jazz criticism — or in Ben Ratliff’s framing, it was “a little more complicated or less complicated.” What Ratliff meant is that the mandate that music critics received was not to write less about jazz, but rather to write about music differently, and that this mandate would disproportionately affect jazz.

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The turning point in the Times’ music coverage came last summer. “The Times decided that it needed to grow its readership in a serious way and then it was really time to look at the analytics and talk about them,” Ratliff told me in a phone interview.

Previously, the Times had been a media outlier, embracing its “paper of record” status, with a hesitancy to let analytics guide editorial. “Prioritizing web traffic is a really radical notion for The New York Times,” Chinen said. “For many years, it was sort of institutionally understood that it matters because it’s in the Times. But I think that that philosophy really outlived its purpose.”

Though the Times had not been making many editorial decisions based on analytics prior to last summer, it had been actively collecting data for about five years, according to Ratliff. One of the conclusions the Times drew from the data it collected was that reviews did not perform well.

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“We heard that for years, that we should not do so many live reviews,” Ratliff said. “Because ‘Hey, something happened and it’s over, and it’s not going to happen again. Why should a reader care about that?’” Ratliff and Chinen were sympathetic to that position. But they saw value in writing reviews that could not be quantified through analytics.

“We often responded to it with ‘Well, yeah, but it’s cultural news and we’re saying that it’s important that this thing happened,'" Ratliff said. "Finally [the Times] got serious and said, ‘No, no, no. We really can’t have so many reviews in the paper,’ and then gradually we had almost none. And the same thing happened with covering records.”

In place of writing reviews, music critics at the Times were encouraged to write pieces that made a broader argument. On its face, the policy makes sense; the Times was trying to appeal to a wider readership, offer broader insights and engage with music in a modern way. “I don’t believe that a review of a live event in New York is always useful for our readers, who are in large part outside of the New York area, all over the U.S. and around the world,” Caryn Ganz, who joined the Times as its pop and jazz editor last August, wrote in an email.

“Similarly, running several short album reviews each week didn’t seem to be making an impact of any kind," Ganz added. "In 2017, the album is by and large not the way most listeners engage with music — it’s the song (though obviously there are exceptions).” The Times adjusted by covering 10 to 15 songs a week in a collaborative column called the Playlist, and by reviewing one album each week framed as the Album of the Week.

Ostensibly, the changes should have affected all types of music in the same way. But in practice, the policy hurt jazz coverage and especially coverage of the local jazz scene, disproportionately. “Jazz is affected more by a policy like that because it’s a music that really lives and dies with performance, especially in New York City,” Chinen said.

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The Times would probably disagree with that assessment. “Live events are still a vital part of performing arts coverage, and important to our readers and to us,” Ganz stressed in an email. “There’s still plenty of room in the Times’ pop coverage for small scenes and artists; I wouldn’t characterize our coverage as more ‘general interest’ — it just so happens that a lot of pop’s biggest artists made a lot of the most impactful music in the past 12 months. We’ll have to see what happens as 2017 progresses; but jazz will remain an important part of our coverage.”

As far as the Times’s jazz coverage goes, the most pressing question in 2017 is who will fill the void left by Ratliff and Chinen. The Times’s spokespeople have pointed to Giovanni Russonello, who is currently contributing to the Times regularly and who has also written for The Washington Post and is the founder of CapitalBop, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving, promoting and presenting jazz in Washington, D.C.”

Russonello came recommended by both Ratliff and Chinen. But in addition to writing about music for the Times, he has written about late-night television, so it is still uncertain what his role at the Times will encompass — what the focus of his coverage will be, how often he will write for the paper, etc. (Russonello declined to comment for this article.)

Maybe, as Ganz alluded to, the Times is merely going through a transition period in its jazz coverage. Maybe substituting reviews for previews will actually help drive jazz artists’ ticket sales. And maybe local jazz musicians, even the ones who haven’t made a name for themselves, have nothing to fear. 

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But don’t blame the jazz world for being skeptical. Since the dawn of the millennium, the number of mainstream outlets committed to regular jazz coverage, like the number of outlets committed to regular local coverage, has dwindled.

Early in his career, Ratliff could see publications’ attitudes towards jazz changing. “There was a general understanding, at least in New York circles, that jazz was important enough to cover and that if you lived in New York and were plugged into the cultural scene, the jazz scene was really something to be proud of,” Ratliff said.

“When I started my job in '96, I could reliably go to a jazz show — and not a super special concert, but just a fairly routine opening night jazz show at a club — and I might be one of three or four critics from local dailies or weeklies. Within five years or so, generally I was the only one," he added.

It’s hard to say why jazz coverage would have been scaled back at that particular moment — a time before digital coverage was prioritized and analytics evidenced what was intuitive — that a lot more people are interested in reading about Mary J. Blige than Mary Halvorson. Most likely, the reduced coverage had to do with shrinking budgets and the desire to attract a younger readership.

Today most publications, including the Times, face those same issues. And the current political situation makes devoting significant resources to increasingly esoteric arts coverage seem inessential.

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For Merewitz, that reality means that maybe jazz “needs to be given the kind of special status that classical music is given.” (The Times has several classical music critics.) But, he said, “the bigger issue is, how does the world find out about what’s going on in New York [jazz] if we only have six to seven listings a week and the occasional feature on a single musician who’s breaking down barriers?”

The source of the greatest optimism is that where the internet taketh away, the internet also giveth. “Someone entering the scene now has something we didn't have when I came up which is a very vibrant online system of communicating,” Iyer said. But there’s a catch. “It's hard to just start from scratch and say, ‘Look I'm active on social media, give me a gig,’ and you can't really start from scratch when you haven't had those kinds of footholds,’” Iyer said.

But as publications expand their operations beyond the page, the internet provides opportunities to bring in-depth, ear-to-the-ground jazz coverage to mainstream audiences in new ways, too. “Maybe jazz will lose traffic [from the Times] for a while and then something else will come along to take its place,” Ratliff said. “I don’t know what form it will take. It could be mailing list; it could be a weirdly influential podcast. I really don’t know.”

Recently, the Times has incorporated "Tiny Desk"-style performance videos into its arts section. On the other hand, perhaps that something is being developed right now, by Ratliff’s former colleague. When Chinen left the Times, he was joining WBGO, Newark’s public radio station. WBGO is one of the pre-eminent jazz stations in America. Of course, radio is not a new medium. But WBGO has begun investing in the digital side of its operation. Chinen is working to help bolster the station’s online presence and, in his words, make it “the trusted source for jazz coverage in the New York area and beyond.”

Added Chinen: “We’re bringing all of the robust coverage and the intellectual depth and the engagement, in the same editorial sensibility as the Times, to this new outlet. It’s only been a month now, but I think musicians will begin to look at what we’re doing as a really beneficial thing.”

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Chinen has his work ahead of him. Though jazz is by most accounts experiencing a creative renaissance, getting readers to click on anything that does not have “Trump” in the headline, or at least "Beyoncé,” has become a Herculean task. If Chinen can pull it off though, if he can sustainably deliver dispatches from the scene to mainstream audiences, not only will the jazz world thank him, it will be instructive for the rest of the media world: New York jazz is one of many local scenes — and not just in music or the arts — that faces the threat of being engulfed by what performs best through web traffic.


Max Cea

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