Today’s interview guest is Charles Waring, a British music journalist who is co-founder of the website Soul & Jazz & Funk and freelance writer for a host of magazines including MOJO & Record Collector.
Over the last 2 decades he’s written liner notes on more than 350 albums, interviewed musicians including Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Dave Brubeck and put together compilations featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joao Gilberto, Keith Jarrett and many more.
All that to say: he knows a thing or two about writing about jazz (amongst any other genres!) and has some great insight to share on topics including:
- What separates the great jazz albums that get reviewed from the ones that don’t?
- If an artist had to choose, what would help their career more: a review or an interview?
- His favourite jazz festival experience of recent years
- Why Duke Ellington had it right when talking of categorising music
As a freelance journalist, how do reviews usually work? You pitch to an editor or vice versa?
Sometimes an editor will ask me if I’m interested in reviewing a particular album that has been sent to them, but in most cases, I do the pitching. I usually email the editor with a short blurb about the album I’d like to review, highlighting its worthiness, significance and explaining why it warrants a review.
The editors I work under know what my areas of interest and supposed expertise are and usually trust my judgement if I pitch an album to them.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything I flag up for review gets accepted. Far from it. Sometimes an album that seems tailor-made and a dead-cert for a particular magazine will inexplicably get sidelined or be ignored.
That may be because the timing of its release might not be in sync with the magazine’s deadline dates or that the editor wants to maintain a sense of balance and not have too many albums of the same type featured.
Sometimes a pitch might be turned down simply because another writer has beaten you and already successfully pitched an album to the editor. So there are lots of variables that can affect an album getting reviewed.
Presumably, you’re receiving an enormous amount of great music for a limited amount of space. What factors – aside from the music – separate the ones that get coverage from the ones that don’t?
That isn’t easy to answer. I want the music to speak to me first and won’t choose to review an album solely based on someone’s image or presentation – and especially not on the accompanying, usually hyperbole-driven press blurb.
There has to be some substance behind the visuals. Having said that, I think more jazz acts could be more creative in their presentation.
Most PR photos in the jazz field lack imagination. Rock and pop acts tend to be visually more creative. Jazz musicians can learn from that.
Since 2004 I’ve written a monthly jazz column for a well-known UK music magazine and the biggest problem is finding a decent photo each week for the new artists. Most jazz groups seem to opt for boring, predictable photos where they stand in front of a wall like they’re about to face a firing squad.
If you were a relatively unknown jazz musician with a new album, would a review or an interview be more beneficial to you?
I suppose it depends on the type of publication, its audience and circulation.
In some UK rock-oriented publications that have substantial readerships and give coverage to a small amount of jazz, just a short review (if favourable) could do wonders for a new jazz musician’s career.
Having said that, I think an interview offers a better way for the public to understand an artist and get more insight into the person behind the music. But that’s very difficult for a new jazz artist to get, especially in a rock-slanted mag.
Getting coverage in a specialist jazz publication – or a website – would be a better bet at gaining valuable publicity.
Best jazz festival experience in the last few years (and why)?
Hands down it has to be Rotterdam’s humongous indoor extravaganza, the North Sea Jazz Festival, just because of the scale of it and the exceptional quality of the acts involved.
I was sent there a couple of years ago to review it for a well-known UK music magazine. Initially, I was supposed to review one gig but ended up covering the whole festival.
I saw I seem to recall, twenty-one different performers over the weekend: ranging from Kamasi Washington and Esperanza Spalding to Charles Lloyd, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, and Buddy Guy.
It was exhausting, but an incredibly euphoric experience and I was lucky enough to stay in the same hotel as some of the performers. Going down to breakfast and bumping into Pharoah Sanders and Lonnie Smith is a memory that will remain with me forever.
I have to say I also love the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which is local to me and smaller, but always serves up an array of diverse musicians. I like festivals that are all on one site, unlike the London Jazz Festival, which feels a bit fragmented.
Over the years you’ve written various jazz columns for non-jazz-specific publications. How important (and possible) is it for a musician to reach audiences who don’t traditionally consider themselves jazz fans?
People are too preoccupied with categories, not just in relation to music but everything else in life.
I realise that pigeonholing music is convenient for reference and identification purposes, but ultimately, it limits or even prevents our understanding of what that music is.
I side with the great Duke Ellington, who famously said there were only two types of music – good and bad.
I’m sometimes miffed that I’m typecast as a jazz critic because I’m passionate about many different kinds of music. There are times when I think I’d like to write for jazz-oriented publications but the truth is I prefer being part of a broader church and enjoy my role in potentially exposing people who are drawn to rock – another nebulous category – or pop, or country, or whatever, to the best that jazz has to offer.
So to answer your question, finally, I think it’s crucial for jazz musicians to try and reach new audiences and cross the divide between different genres and reach listeners whose usual musical preferences are perhaps alien to them.
That doesn’t mean they have to bridge the divide by changing their music to appeal to a different audience but they should attempt to reach new listeners by performing with other types of acts, perhaps, at venues and festivals where a diverse range of musicians can perform together.
That would be a way of breaking down people’s preconceptions about jazz and what they think it is. It’s all about exposure – of them to you, and you to them.
You’ve curated many compilations over the years. What do you think modern-day jazz musicians can learn from the way the legend like Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett managed long careers?
I don’t think Miles and Keith Jarrett had any inkling or awareness at the dawn of their professional lives that they would go on to enjoy such long and storied careers.
I think every musician can learn from the fact that both those musicians stayed true to themselves musically and rarely compromised. In their art and self-expression, they were always honest. Of course, it helped that they were both prodigious, exceptional talents.
What makes an email ‘pitch’ from a musician stand out to you?
I have to be honest: I don’t like pitches coming directly from musicians themselves – especially new artists and those I’m not familiar with – because it can affect my objectivity when it comes to writing a review.
Engaging in correspondence with them begins a relationship of sorts and therefore, I feel that my critical faculties can be compromised, which prevents me from being totally candid (especially if it’s an album that I’m not favourably disposed towards).
I prefer pitches coming via a PR agency, a management source or third party. That way, I feel I can express my thoughts freely and not have to be diplomatic.
So, how does a pitch stand out? Well, the music is the most important thing. With the prevalence of downloads and Soundcloud links embedded in emails these days, I don’t have to wait for CDs to arrive in the post so I can check out the music instantly (though I have to say I prefer the CD format to downloads).
The quality of the music is the most critical selling point for me though I believe that presentation is essential because I receive so many albums to listen to. So if a CD or band/artist stands out visually, then I am more likely to give it a spin.
Also, if the musician has an interesting back-story or a clear and unique sonic vision, I’m more likely to give their music a listen. Ideally, I’d like to give everything I receive a spin, but I simply don’t have the time to do that.
By the way, I try not to review an album that grates on me on because I don’t want to heap negativity on someone’s work. After all, it’s my opinion alone, and critics often get it wrong.
You’ve written hundreds of liner notes over the years. What key things should a DIY musician keep in mind when putting this together themselves?
That there is no magic formula. There’s an awful lot of luck and hard work involved in getting your name out there – and being in the right place at the right time also helps, but you don’t really have any control of that.
Musicians should also be mindful that the business is more competitive than ever. No one needs to book a big studio to record music any more and can buy software and equipment to record cheaply at home or even in a hotel room.
This development, while liberating in some ways, has opened the floodgates, which means it’s much harder to get noticed if you’re a musician with an album to plug.
Where do you discover new music these days?
From various sources. Tip-offs from PR friends and music industry people who service me with new music, or recommendations from other friends, journalist colleagues, and sometimes from clicking on a random playlist on Spotify.
Also from reading online blogs or magazine articles and hearing something intriguingly unfamiliar on a movie soundtrack. There are many conduits.
What’s your best vinyl tip for a jazz fan who wants to get into the world of buying vintage records?
By vintage records, do you mean original first pressings of old albums, like Blue Note LPs, which can be very costly? If so, you need to have an understanding bank manager or a large credit card limit. It’s an expensive game, and if you buy from the USA, shipping costs are exorbitant now.
But then, new vinyl is also costly. For example, a vinyl LP in the Blue Note Tone Poet series or an audiophile release on the Music Matters label is very expensive – it might be better to get a cheaper repress if budget is a concern. But you don’t need to spend a lot of money to enjoy collecting old vinyl. It just depends what your area of interest is.
Big thanks to Charles for taking the time to answer these questions and share some valuable insight. I’d highly recommend heading over to his website – Soul & Jazz & Funk – to see more of his writing. If you have follow up questions, feel free to use the comments section here.
More about Charles Waring
When his attempts to become a New Romantic pop god were thwarted, Charles Waring gave up playing music and began writing about it instead. A regular contributor to MOJO, Record Collector, and udiscovermusic.com, he has written over 350 album liner notes and recently co-authored funk singer Marva Whitney’s autobiography, God, The Devil & James Brown.
He is also co-founder of the music website soulandjazzandfunk.com. When he’s not writing, he can be found cruising seedy backstreets looking for record shops to satisfy his vinyl fetish.