“The title of jazz critic Ted Gioia’s new book, “How to Listen to Jazz,” has some strange implications. The phrase not only suggests that there is a correct way to listen to jazz, it also assumes that this skill can be acquired by reading a book. These claims may not be blatantly absurd, but there are good reasons to be skeptical.
Didn’t jazz do just fine before jazz critics came along? Didn’t those first benighted listeners manage to enjoy the music without the wisdom dispensed by a self-appointed priesthood of expert connoisseurs? And don’t critics have a professional incentive to mystify their subjects in order to justify the necessity of their explanations?
It’s possible to answer yes to all of these questions and still believe that critics — whether of jazz, books or visual arts — still serve a valuable function. Art forms do flourish without critics, who, as a group, often exaggerate their importance. (The New York Times’ A.O. Scott recently wrote a book called “Better Living Through Criticism.”)
But even if critics do not play such an exalted or essential role, they can plausibly aspire to the more modest ambition of deepening the pleasure and understanding of nonexperts in some artistic domain.“