JJA Buzz Podcast Notes

Rick Mitchell asked me to participate in a podcast for the Jazz Journalists Association. The topic was to be jazz polls. Of late, I've been running the Francis Davis Jazz Poll, and I vote in a couple others (DownBeat, El Intruso). The original idea was to pair me with Frank Alkyer (DownBeat editor). After a no-show, Geoffrey Himes agreed to join in. We talked, and they posted the Jazz Buzz podcast on Monday, May 1. I had never done anything like that, so I was pretty nervous going into it. I nervously asked friends for feedback, and what little I got was generally favorable. (What a relief.)

Going into the podcast, I tried to prepare by writing up some notes on a list of possible questions Mitchell provided. I intially sent them out to Mitchell and Alkyer. What follows is a slightly edited version of my email.


Rick Mitchell's questions are in bold:

Here are some suggested topics for tomorrow.

The brief history of the Downbeat polls. (For Downbeat, we will focus primarily on the critics poll, but we should also reference the readers poll . . . )

I figured this was Alkyer's question, so didn't try to answer at the time, but briefly: DownBeat was founded in 1934, and increased its circulation to 80,000 by 1939, making it the most prominent jazz publication in America. I think it peaked at about 100,000, but was down to 70,000 in 2009 (the latest figure I've been able to find). Their Readers Poll dates back to 1936 (2022 was their 87th), and their Critics Poll to 1953 (2022 was their 70th). (Wikipedia has later dates -- 1952 and 1961 -- but those were based on when the polls started voting for their Hall of Fame.)

Their 2022 Critics Poll compiled ballots from 114 voters. I've never seen numbers on how many readers vote, but my guess is that it's in the range of 2,000 to 3,000. (Category winners typically top out a bit over 5,000, but that's probably points, where each ballot gets to distribute 10 points per category, usually 5-3-2. If you add up all the published points in a category, you get in the 10-12,000 range, so there are at least 1,200 voters, and there are several reasons to fudge that number up.)

Both polls include several album categories (new jazz, historical, blues, "beyond"), plus many categories for individuals (by instrument or function), groups, and in one case labels. The Critics Poll adds a second tier to most categories for "Rising Star" (formerly the more descriptive "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition").

The brief history of the NPR/Francis Davis poll.

Please don't call it the NPR poll. They had nothing to do with creating it, and dropped their association two years ago. Even during their years of sponsoring the poll, they had very little control over it. It started at the Village Voice, then moved to Rhapsody, NPR, and ArtsFuse (2021-22). But it wasn't the creation of any of those publishers. It was wholly designed and until last year managed by Francis Davis.

Francis Davis started the poll in 2006, when he was covering jazz for the Village Voice. He polled 30 writers, basically as input to his year-end piece. I was writing a Jazz Consumer Guide column in the Voice back then, so I wrote my own year-end lists at the same time, but I had nothing to do with the poll until a couple years later, when the Voice editor (Rob Harvilla) asked me to take the job of publishing the individual ballots off their hands. By then, Davis had gone nationwide with the poll, inviting more than 100 critics and journalists to participate.

Around 2010, Francis and I found it impossible to continue writing for the Voice, but he decided that the poll was worth continuing, and found a new sponsor at Rhapsody (where Harvilla had landed). I tried to help out where I could, and managed to make myself invaluable by writing some software to count and format ballots. When Francis ran into health problems in 2021, we tried to co-manage the poll, and in 2022 I pretty much ran it. But it was, and still remains, very much his poll. I'm more of a caretaker.

I wrote this history up here.

What makes each distinguished from other jazz polls (including the JJA poll) and who participates?

I'm not familiar with the JJA poll. Perhaps I made a mistake when I was invited to join, but I didn't particularly think of myself as a jazz specialist, nor as a journalist, at the time. (Probably not now either, although at least I can pass for the former).

Nearly all the polls that I'm familiar with are sponsored by publications, with two basic thoughts in mind: one is to generate content (DownBeat runs two polls per year, which gives them two cover stories); the other is brand management, so the poll results (whether of critics or readers) defines and binds with their audience. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but the pictures are always partial.

The Francis Davis poll is different, in that it isn't selling anything. Sure, we've had sponsors, who have paid us for what little prestige and traffic the poll brings, but they have essentially no control over who votes and what the results are. And that, by the way, was true even in the beginning, back at the Village Voice.

We've been getting about 150 ballots per year recently. I sent out almost 200 invites, so we got about 75% participation. This makes it one of the largest and most diverse polls anywhere. We've never asked for demographic data, and I've never tried to suss that out on my own, so I can't give you a very good breakdown of who votes, but you can look at the critics list with their affiliations:

We have close to half of the freelance writers working for the major American jazz publications, and a fair number of independent bloggers and jazz specialists at other music publications. We also have a substantial number of jazz radio programmers. We have a few Europeans, but not very many -- I've always seen this as the poll's most glaring weakness, but Francis has been reluctant to go there, and I haven't pushed it. We have enough free jazz specialists to make their presence felt, but not enough to tilt the results. We have a few Latin jazz specialists, but again not a large number. We generally avoid working musicians and business types, but we have a few (and have a rule against voting on their own work, which also applies to writers of liner notes). We don't have anyone into smooth jazz (or, as I've sometimes called it, anti-jazz, although the term I usually use is pop jazz). I don't even know who we're missing there -- it's really just a different scene. We also don't have trad jazz fans, which I'd love to remedy (if only for my personal curiosity -- my personal term for "trad" is "real jazz").

We're looking for critics who know a lot, who listen to a lot, and who can articulate what's good and bad about the jazz they hear. It's probably natural for invite critics who like things we like, but that's not a conscious requirement.

One more difference between our poll and DownBeat's is that we're only interested in records, so we don't have any categories for musicians, groups, functions, or labels. As such, we're less concerned with creating and trading on celebrities. I vote in DownBeat's poll, and I don't enjoy filling out that part of the poll, although I will admit a certain curiosity about what other people are thinking. For me, the real value of polls isn't the winners, but the raw data they produce, and the individual tastes and experiences revealed in that data..

What do you think is the key to the enduring popularity of such polls?

For most people, they're basically just clickbait. Some of us, as I mentioned, are into the data, but my guess is that's a small crowd. Still, I think one thing our poll does is help bind a critical community together. If it weren't for the poll, I doubt I'd be aware of more than 20% of the voters, but thanks to the poll, I recognize their names everywhere, and I'm often awed by their work. And vice versa: without the poll, I'd probably just be some weird guy with a blog.

How can polls impact the careers of individual artists?

I doubt there is any, at least for our poll. (DownBeat probably has ten times our reach, or more.) Sure, winners are pleased. Losers move on, most without even noticing. There's no money involved.

What's more likely to happen is that artists build their reputation elsewhere, and that gets reflected in our poll. Mary Halvorson won her MacArthur before she won our poll. Maybe top-ten places over the last fifteen years helped, but we hardly discovered her.

What are some current or recent trends you've noticed?

About the only one I can think of is that we're seeing a bit of a British invasion, with groups like Sons of Kemet. Jazz never became totally unpopular in the UK, like it did in the US, so there are still artists there trying to straddle jazz and pop without falling into smooth. I'd like to think there's more crossover potential for jazz now than there's been any time since the 1970s, and the London bands are out in front of that. Of course, there's a lot more interesting stuff coming out of Europe, but aside from the London scene hardly any of it registers here, even in our poll.

Historically. jazz polls, particularly the readers polls, have favored white artists. Is this still true?

I'm not aware of this. We've had one white male winner in 17 polls (Steve Lehman; white women have done better, with Maria Schneider 2 or 3 times, Kris Davis, and Mary Halvorson). If you go down to top-ten, -twenty, or so, you'll find more, but not many.

Sometimes when I look at DownBeat's readers polls I think we should "elect a new people," but I don't recall race being the reason. It's mostly that the readers seem to be in a rut, so they don't hear many new things. That may, of course, be a reflection on DownBeat, but it's also the audience DownBeat caters to.

I know there's still a lot of racism in America, but it's hard to think of any knowledgeable jazz fans who haven't gotten over that. If we had more jazz fans, we'd have less racism, and the world would be a better place.

PS: When I asked Rick Mitchell for examples of pro-white bias in polls, he mentioned Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton in the 1950s. That's a long time ago, really a different world. (I half-expected him to complain about Mildred Bailey regularly beating Billie Holiday in the 1940s.) He also seemed to feel that the bias was more pronounced in readers polls than in critics polls. I'm not sure race was much of a factor even then -- Brubeck and Kenton had a certain highbrow flair going on, which counted among people who were brought up to believe that only classical music is serious, and Bailey was simply a lot more popular than Holiday was, at least until the 1950s when Bailey faded and Holiday grew ever more mythic.

But even in the 1950s -- when it was still possible to find dumb generalizations about race written by serious critics like Leonard Feather and Martin Williams -- it was hard to be a jazz fan and not be awed by dozens of major black musicians. Sure, the DownBeat Readers Poll picked Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton as the second and third Hall of Fame members (and Benny Goodman as sixth, in 1957), but from Louis Armstrong in 1952 to Charles Mingus in 1971, every other winner was black (17 in all; between 1961-71 the critics were, if anything, slightly more likely to pick whites: Bix Beiderbecke, Pee Wee Russell & Jack Teagarden, Django Reinhardt).

Since 2010, the Readers Poll HOF voting has favored blacks 8-3, while the Critics have whites up 6-5. I'm reluctant to read anything into such a split, but it certainly doesn't argue that readers polls are more biased toward whites than critics polls.

How do you think artists -- both winners and those who may feel overlooked -- regard the polls?

Winners like the results. The rest seem to pay them little mind. I've always been conscious of how PR affects the results, and I doubt many musicians are less conscious of that. If they want to finish higher, they need better PR representation, especially in getting their records into the hands of voters. Some publicists and some labels are better at that than others. Of course, it also takes a really good album. But to take one example, Jason Moran won a poll back when he was on Blue Note, but when he left, and started his own label, and did very little publicity, he fell off the edge of the earth. I wrote a bit about this in 2021, which mostly pissed people off, like I was doing some kind of expose.

Who do you think are the favorites this year for artist of the year, album of the year, and other major categories?

I have no idea, and rarely do before the year is done. Part of this is that I'm not a very reliable consensus voter. (There is a metric called "centrism" which measure how much in common one has with the final standings. I usually land in the 10-20 percentile range, which is to say that my picks aren't totally esoteric, but are rather peculiar, with 2-4 minority interests but rarely more than one top-10 record.)

When I do make predictions, it's usually based on: conspicuous praise for a record; general reputation for the artist; and sense that the record is being widely promoted. Mary Halvorson last year, and Maria Schneider a couple years before, seemed pretty obvious winners on those points, even though I didn't particularly like either record. I may have underrated James Brandon Lewis' chances with The Jesup Family because I liked the record a lot, and have liked him since his debut, but his reputation had been growing for over a decade, and he hit the other two criteria. Kris Davis was a bigger surprise: I've been a big fan since early on, but I just didn't hear her winning album.

James Brandon Lewis has another good new album out, which should make it a favorite, but it's on a rock label (Anti-), and it's not clear how well it will be promoted to our voters. (It is the first in a long time I wasn't serviced on.) Beyond that, Christian McBride's Prime should get a lot of consideration, and maybe Lakecia Benjamin's Phoenix (smaller label, never got many votes). Of course, it's more likely to be something not on my A-list, but nothing I'd care to speculate on.

By the way, I especially hate the "jazz artist of the year" category, which strikes me as even more nebulous and incomprehensible than the trumpet, trombone, etc. categories. As for the individual categories, there are so many great jazz musicians (except for flute and the electric variants of piano and bass) and they're so hard to compare that all you can do is throw some names up against the wall. When I started voting in the DownBeat poll, I spent a lot of time quarreling with the given ballot, because they missed a lot of worthy people, and misfiled more than a few. But lately I just make quick picks from the ballot, and add disclaimers to my notes. I've rarely seen write-ins show up on later ballots, although the compilers should be studying and learning every year.

How do you feel when you are counting the votes? Do you find yourself pulling for the underdogs or personal favorites?

No, I generally don't have favorites, or care much where they rank. Of course, it is gratifying to see when another critic agrees with one of my more obscure picks, and that motivates me to look more closely at theirs. That's a big part of the value of the poll, and I get to see it first.

Earlier Note

Before I got the likely questions email, I jotted this down based on questions gleaned from a previous, less formal one. This, in turn, fed into the notes above:

about your particular polls: Francis Davis started his poll at the Village Voice in 2006. The Voice had a history of running critic polls on films and pop music, so he decided to do one with 30 or so critics centered on New York. I had nothing to do with it, other than being invited to vote -- I wasn't in New York, but wrote a "Jazz Consumer Guide" column for the Voice, so that qualified me. I got more involved later, when I took over publishing the ballots, even before we both left the Voice. When he moved to poll first to Rhapsody, then to NPR, and in 2021 to ArtsFuse, I continued to help out, until last year when I wound up running it.

why polls in general have endured through jazz history: Francis's original idea was to collect input for his year-end essay, but he soon found that it felt like a community, and he wanted to grow that and give the voters more visibility and respect, and I think he's done that -- that's why the poll, regardless of how it is branded, continues to garner support. Aside from participation of our critics, it's hard for me to quantify how much interest or impact our poll has. I suppose that's because we're not trying to sell a product (like a magazine) with it.Most other polls are basically in-house surveys that reinforce their brand and audience (examples include JazzTimes, Cadence, and Free Jazz Collective). DownBeat's polls are different in that they focus on musicians rather than on albums, and also in that they invite more outside critics (at least they invite me, and I've never written for them).

how they may have impacted the careers of individual artists (ie cecile): I have no idea. Most of our winners were already well-established (Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter since the late 1950s; they've won 5 times, out of 17 polls). Most younger musicians have a decade or more of placing high in the poll before winning, the closest to an exception being Maria Schneider in 2007 (of course, we don't know how her earlier albums would have placed, but there weren't many of them). Steve Lehman and Kris Davis weren't especially famous when they won, but both had a decade-plus of superb records before they won. Same for James Brandon Lewis, who has a new record out on Anti-, which is potentially a much bigger deal than TAO Forms or Intakt. Same and then some for Halvorson, who got on the bigger label (Nonesuch) and then won. I don't know anything about CÚcile McLorin Salvant, other than that she's swept the vocals category with every record. I don't even know why does her PR, since I never get any. I've written about the influence of PR on polls, because I usually have a good sense of that, but her case is an exception.

recent trends you've noticed (women artists): Three of our last four winners have been women, so that could be a trend, but Maria Schneider won in the second poll (2007). I don't doubt that there is a longer-term trend toward more major women artists with more durable careers, stretching back into the 1990s, but three out of the last four could just as well be random, like three heads in four coin tosses.

historical trends favoring white artists: Well, in 17 polls, we've only had one white male winner (Steve Lehman in 2014, and barely at that). That's probably less than random, but I'm not inclined to read anything into that. It should cast doubt on the notion that whites get preferential treatment, although if you look down to top-ten, -twenty, etc., you'd find a more representative sampling of whites males (Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, etc.). White women have won more (Schneider, Davis, Halvorson), but again, no big deal.

for downbeat, do results affect coverage and what to make of with readers poll vs. critics poll: Not my question, but every poll results in features on the poll winners. Beyond that it would be surprising not to find a correlation.

with both polls who participates: I sent out 200 invites last year, and got 150 ballots back (plus or minus). I haven't compared my list to DownBeat's critics list (but probably should, if only to find a few names I should have invited). We've never requested any demographics data, so I'd rather not guess about that stuff -- other than the obvious points that our voters are mostly American (probably close to 90%), and mostly male (more like 75%). Our voter lists intersect heavily with most of the US jazz pubs (DownBeat, JazzTimes, NYC Jazz Record, All About Jazz; we have more than 50% of the JazzTimes voters). Broadcast (radio) journalists make up something like 25-30% of our voters. I know virtually nothing about that world. I've invited a few more critics from Free Jazz Collective and El Intruso (a Spanish site that runs its own critics poll; about half of their invitees are American). But I got a late start last year, and wanted to maintain continuity with previous polls.

how do the artists themselves, both winners and those who may feel always overlooked relate the polls: The winners are happy, but I rarely hear anything from anyone else. I doubt there's a lot of money riding on the results.