Writing to know - Music criticism and journalism in Italy


Writing about jazz is certainly not an easy exercise, one must constantly keep up with an art form in the making by relating to the difficulty of putting on "paper" today what could be outdated tomorrow. Not surprisingly, jazz has never been inclined to follow fashions, giving life, if anything, to styles well rooted in the eras in which they took shape. We can deduce a continuous push forward of the jazz artist, projected towards new conceptions of musical material and for this reason reluctant to remain entangled in a specific historically and socially "determined" way of hearing and playing. As a consequence of this, the journalist and music critic should act as an interpretative and cognitive medium between the musician and the public, avoiding making judgments dictated by extremist positions dictated by the desire to crystallize a form capable of absorbing and translating the "thought" into sound conscious”, reflected in the evolution of human behavior. Too often in jazz criticism this assumption has been disregarded in favor of too belatedly rethought and corrected criticisms, of factions for or against certain advocates of new ideas and musical genres or as a consequence of that excess of xenophilia on the part of a certain local press reluctant to recognition of the value to be paid to Italian jazz musicians, in several cases, in terms of technical and expressive level, clearly superior to their overseas colleagues.

On the other hand, the advent of be-bop in the 1940s had also given rise to a rift within music criticism: the Parisians Charles Delaunay and Hugues Panassiè, founders in 1935 of the historic and prestigious magazine Jazz Hot, after the war they will take opposite paths due to dichotomous views on what was happening within the jazz panorama: the first champion of tradition, the second promoter of Charlie Parker's be-bop, Miles Davis and associates, supported by other young critics, among including the Englishman Leonard Feather and the American Ira Gitler. A few decades later, in the 1970s, the advent of jazz-rock would provoke strong protests from a large number of international music critics; in Italy the well-known critic Arrigo Chicken – which we will talk about shortly – will describe in certainly not flattering terms the musical proposal of the jazz-rock group “Il Perigeo”, indicating it as “smashing and rigged rock, in which almost everyone is shipwrecked”. In the following years there will be a reflective revaluation of the recording works of the Italian formation and of other exponents of that short but intense musical season as, moreover, had happened years earlier with the "electric" turn of Miles Davis and with the "bupper”, demonstrating an atavistic myopia of an aesthetic nature on the part of music critics with regard to the "new", conditioned by somewhat personal presumptions. This does not detract from the fundamental contribution of musicological literature, promoted by publishing and the press, to the diffusion of jazz in the United States and in Europe: apart from the aforementioned French magazine “Jazz Hot“, we find in the category of magazines dedicated to jazz, the English “Melody Maker”, among whose collaborators stood out the young pianist and critic Leonard Feather (before emigrating, with the advent of Nazism in Germany, to the United States because of Jewish origins), “Down Beat” nata a Chicago (directed from 1967 to 1973 by the Austrian-born critic Dan Morgenstern, also a Jewish refugee in the United States), “Metronome“, about which Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov wrote.

In Italy in 1945 the journalist and lyricist Gian Carlo Testoni founded the magazine "Jazz music” (in the first two years of activity it will be called "Music and Jazz"), which counts among its collaborators Arrigo Polillo, in the role of editor-in-chief, the critic Livio Cerri, the arranger and conductor of RAI Pippo Barzizza, the drummer Gilberto Cuppini and other. In 1965, following the death of Gian Carlo Testoni, the direction of the magazine will pass to Arrigo Polillo until his death in 1984. In addition to being a writer, essayist (his insightful articles will appear in the sections dedicated to jazz on the pages of the periodicals "Epoca", "Panorama" and "Il Giorno") and authoritative music critic, Arrigo Polillo, from the 1950s onwards, would be an indefatigable organizer of jazz events and shows - starting with the "Sanremo International Jazz Festival" - capable of establishing a dense network of meetings with important producers and organizers (the most emblematic remains the one with the Californian Norman Granz) musicians and agents. In 1975 he published what is considered among the most complete and authoritative works of non-fiction dedicated to Jazz, the monumental "Jazz: the story and the protagonists of African-American music". But on the other hand, Italian music criticism has always been ahead of its time in terms of research, study and dissemination of jazz historiography, starting with the famous "Jazz Encyclopedia” (edited by Gian Carlo Testoni, Arrigo Polillo and Giuseppe Barazzetta) published in 1954 (a year earlier the first version of the volume "Das Jazzbuch" (The Book of Jazz) by the German musicologist Joachim-Ernst Berendt had been published, the most widespread text on jazz in the world, and in 1957 the first edition of "The New Encyclopedia of Jazz" by Leonard Feather, with the collaboration of Ira Gitler).

The mass of essays, biographies, volumes but also of articles and editorials that appeared in the following years in the main Italian newspapers (La Repubblica, Il Messaggero, L'Avanti, L'Unita, Il Giornale and others) draw attention to how much jazz has characterized the entire spectrum of the performing arts and, at the same time, of the public's free time, acting in a decisive way on the "everyday life" of listening enjoyed at home through radio and television afterwards and, outside the home sphere, in theaters as music for ballets and shows of various kinds, in film soundtracks, but also as a simple didactic background in meeting places, ending up at concerts. Musicology, through publishing and the press, has turned its attention to these interests, needs and habits internalized by the Italian public, covering an informative as well as pedagogical function destined to arouse in the individual a greater awareness of choice and listening derived from a broader knowledge of the anthropological and cultural undergrowth related to the origins and evolution of African-American music. An example of this is the initiative of the publishing house in the 1970s “Fabbri Editori” to publish, for sale on newsstands, the history of jazz in installments, complete with attached vinyl. Furthermore, the alternative scene promoted by the new generation of Italian jazz musicians found unexpected visibility in periodicals at the same time era" and "Panorama“, as well as in the pages of music magazines dedicated to the youth culture of the time, such as “Hello2001" and "Muzak“, the latter born in circles close to the extra-parliamentary left. Thus a musical counter-information is taking shape which includes, between rock-progressive and folk, less orthodox forms of jazz, flanked by forms of protest and political commitment and sections dedicated to fashion, cinema, experimental theatre, painting, books and even psychology.

With a corollary of skills and experience acquired in the field, the journalist-music critic was a privileged witness of the events of those years, giving us back, as far as possible, an authentic fresco of the Italian cultural and social climate, beyond the controversies and positions times "barricadier". Today, that publishing and printed media are hit by an unprecedented crisis and the outline seems to have assumed greater weight than the contents, perhaps writing about jazz has become an even more difficult exercise, but no less exciting.

Paolo Marra

Fonti bibliografiche: “Franco D’Andrea – Un ritratto” di Flavio Caprera, “Arrigo Polillo – Un maestro internazionale della critica Jazz” a cura di Luca Cerchiari e Roberto Polillo, “Il Libro del Jazz” di Joachim Ernst Berendt e Gunther Huesmann.


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