Letters from two living legends

By Earle Hitchner

Most music critics of long standing (actually, long sitting, given how we usually work) receive occasional letters from readers fulminating about a performance or an album they felt was unjustifiably hyped or harmed in print. "You're an idiot" seems to be a popular response of succinct derision. Another, longer retort is "You wouldn't know good music if it came up and bit you on the [a body part found just south of the belt buckle]."

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Literary critic William Logan wrote, "Readers can hurl a terrible book to the floor or throw it cheerfully in the fire, but they can never recover the time wasted reading it." For Logan, part of the critic's task is to steer readers toward what's worth their time and away from what will waste their time. That task means offering an opinion, hopefully informed and insightful, but even then, it can still be wrong. No critic has a perfect batting average in praising or panning.

A literary critic I greatly admire, Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), noted that a real critic "can never forget that all he has to go by, finally, is his own response, the self that makes and is made up of such responses--and yet he must regard that self as no more than the instrument through which the work of art is seen, so that the work of art will seem everything to him and his own self nothing."

More than a decade ago, I received an e-mail from a reader making a blunt point: "You get free CD's to review. I can spend only $20 a week for music. So if I buy an album you recommend and it's disappointing, I'm out $20. You're out nothing. Keep me in mind when you write your reviews."

I do. I know what it's like to blow $20 on an item recommended to me that I hurl to the floor or throw in the fire. I feel bamboozled, and I get angry with myself for allowing myself to be suckered. I, too, fulminate against critics who fail me, especially the very few whose judgments I trust.

But the best critics I know are toughest on themselves. All writing is perfectible, and they can see where their opinion and its expression, after the fact, could have been improved. (Ask Eileen Murphy, my editor at the Irish Echo, how often I send follow-up revisions of my "Ceol" column to her before publication. Eileen has the patience of Job.)

Serious critics want to voice their opinions as effectively as they can. Being funny but slight and being perceptive but dull are not options, and the possibility that criticism might lack musicality in the prose used to describe music is anathema to these writers. The worst critics are incapable of seeing any shortcomings in what they produce. The worst critics waste their readers' time and money. The worst critics forget their real boss: you.

Among my readers are musicians, and some let me know directly in letters what they think of what I thought in print of their performances or albums. I've gotten as I gave, thumbs up and thumbs down, but some musician missives--received in the old-fashioned way, via the postal service--have caught me completely off-guard with their considered, thoughtful, detailed writing. Two of those letters hang in frames on my home office wall. It's not because they are complimentary, although I admit I'm human and can succumb to occasional kudos, but because they are a reminder that words matter--to them and to me.

For a Wall Street Journal preview article on a jazz festival, I interviewed the headliner, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, by phone at his rural home in Columbia County, New York. I was awed by this chance to speak with the greatest jazz saxophonist alive and, in my opinion, one of the three greatest of all time. (The other two are Charlie Parker, who died in 1955 at age 34, and John Coltrane, who died in 1967 at age 40.)

After the article was published and the festival was over, I received Rollins's handwritten letter and one of his albums in the mail. The album was one I already possessed and have played countless times: "Saxophone Colossus," recorded in 1956 with two other jazz greats, pianist Tommy Flanagan and drummer Max Roach. Rollins wrote a brief message on back of the CD insert: "Thanks for making me a good read." His handwritten letter amplified that remark in great detail. I was dumbstruck.

Whenever I watch Jean Bach's 1995 film documentary, "A Great Day in Harlem," about Art Kane's famous 1958 photo of 57 legendary jazz musicians gathered on and around a brownstone stoop on 126th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, I always press "pause" when I see Sonny Rollins, wearing sunglasses and standing near the right foot of the steps. That large group photo, which includes Count Basie sitting on a curb with a dozen children, always makes me misty-eyed, and I often wonder why something similar could not be arranged for the greats in Irish traditional music today.

The other letter hanging on my office wall came from Irish American button accordionist Joe Derrane. It is dated October 21, 2004, and was mailed to me already framed by him. Without trying to be mushy or self-aggrandizing, I'll quote this part only: "What I could not get past was your conviction that I could return to the box and the music if I really wanted to. That became the driving force behind the last ten years. I wanted you to know this."

Both Joe Derrane and Sonny Rollins are now 80 years old. Is "80" the new "60," as all those ads for skin rejuvenation and Botox claim? Hardly. Age "80" is still age "80," despite the fantasies spun by TV, radio, movies, plastic surgeons, retirement villages, and hair-dye manufacturers. (When asked if he thought Ronald Reagan dyed his hair, Gerald Ford replied, "No, he's just turning prematurely orange.")

What I know for certain is this: the music made by Joe Derrane on his new album "Grove Lane" (due Oct. 26 from Compass Records, it features the jaw-dropping original tunes "Tango Derrane" and "Waltzing with Anne") and by Sonny Rollins in his own recording career defies all stereotypes and assumptions about age.

"Around the throne of God, where all angels read perfectly, there are no critics--there is no need for them," Randall Jarrell wrote. If you replace "read" with "hear," Jarrell's quote applies with equal force to Joe Derrane and Sonny Rollins.

Their brilliance is critic-proof.