To the editors:

In his commentary “Head Music” [May 6], John Corbett chose to attack an earlier essay of my own to make his points. He didn’t need to, since the central tenet of his article stands on its own. What’s more, Corbett had to take my comments quite out of their context in order to push against them. By itself, that constitutes nothing more than bad journalism. In using this tactic to suggest that I am both a romantic naif and a closet racist, however, Corbett has stepped over a quite different line.

Nothing in my essay precluded Corbett’s argument that free jazz has developed its own quite sophisticated language; I simply didn’t focus on that element in examining a quite different point. Corbett quotes me as saying that free jazz “operates on a primal level.” But that comment did not appear as the blanket assertion Corbett makes it out to be; it represents my theory about why this music still makes people angry, more than three decades after it burst on the scene. My comment quite clearly refers to the effect of this music on its listeners; I did not say the practitioners of free jazz are themselves primal or lacking in intellect, as Corbett suggests I did. I’m quite happy to author comments that spur others’ insights, even when they disagree with my own. But I would expect Corbett to keep those comments in context, or else find some other straw man on which to drape his scholarship.

Neil Tesser

John Corbett responds:

For the record, what Tesser says is that free jazz “operates on such a primal level.” This is ambiguous; it could be about the listener or the musician. However, Tesser adds that it does so by “using elements that predate sophisticated harmonic schemes and exacting rhythms” (emphasis mine). Who is doing the “using” here? Is it not the musicians? I was challenging a widespread notion about free music that–even for people who like and support it–often links it with something “before” (hence “primal”) “sophisticated” music. I do not believe that I took these comments out of context, because I don’t think there’s another context in which they could appear and not mean the same thing.

I’m very sorry that Tesser took my comments as a personal attack. They certainly weren’t meant that way. I never suggested that Tesser is a racist; if I accused him of that then I implicated myself, as well, when I wrote: “I too have been seduced by this unabashedly romantic fantasy.” I assume that racism is insidious and adheres in places we don’t intend it to, especially in our choice of metaphors and tropes, and I think it’s necessary for a journalistic community to be self-critical of those practices. Words like “primal” and “sophisticated” are loaded terms. They should be handled carefully or someone might misread them–just as someone might have misunderstood when a critic dubbed Fred Anderson “the missing link” some years ago. It’s not so easy to rid a word or phrase of its connotations just by being well-intentioned.