Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

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July 23, 2020

[Q] You've probably answered this question already, elsewhere on your site, but here goes: can you clarify your rating system, particularly the asterisks after the grades? Are they just a finer grading system than the letters? -- Jeff Golick, NYC [2020-07-21]

[A] I can't find the reference, but I think my first note on my grades was that they "follow contemporary academic standards." I was referring to Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide, which I had read since its inception in 1969 -- those earliest columns were transcribed from copies in my ancestral attic -- and had internalized like a second language. Sometime in the 1990s I created a file of albums I owned and assigned them grades as best I could recall, and that file eventually turned into my ratings database. Christgau has several explanations of his system (e.g., from his 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s books, his 2008 User's Guide to the Consumer Guide, and 2019's introduction to his newsletter, It's a Start. His original use of letter grades ran from A to E (not F), with plus/minus for shadings. In 1990, he resolved not only seek superior albums and not to bother with B or lower grades. When he collected his 1990s reviews, he decided to sort his Honorable Mentions into three tiers, represented by *, **, and *** (the more the better). He confused things by continuing to use B+ for longer reviews, and sometimes argued that B+ ranked above ***, but my interpretation was that that the stars denoted subdivisions of B+, and the literal grade just meant a record worth writing more about than the single-line HMs.

I didn't automatically start using his stars, but in 2005, after I started writing Jazz Consumer Guide, I found myself in a quandry, where I had way more B+ records than I could fit into my HM section. However, his three-tier system fit my needs nicely. The top records I wound up with as HMs could be graded B+(***), B+(**) were candidates I might still consider but probably couldn't fit in, and B+(*) were good records I needn't give any further thought to. Soon I was using this scheme for all records. When I've attempted to plot grades on a curve, I've been fairly pleased.

On the other hand, if I had it to do all over again, I'd probably use a numerical scale, like { 0 . . 10 }. As I've collected my reviews into book files, I've been converting the grades to a numerican scale: A and A+ (a distinction I hardly ever make these days) to 10, A- to 9, B+ to 6-8, B to 5, B- to 4, C+ to 3, C to 2, C- to 1, D+ or lower to 0 (another distinction I haven't made in a long time). This dispenses with the school association, is more intuitive (at least compared to the stars), and simplifies the math.

Finally, I should note that what the grades mean is personal -- as I put it in the Introduction, "the grades probably say more about me than about the music" -- and provisional: they are based on as much listening as I have done, which is often just one play, and sometimes a distracted one. They don't signify anything objectively; just how much I enjoyed the record, how interesting I found it, and maybe how distinctive (to the extent that matters). Your view may, and probably does, vary, and I don't mean to dissuade you from it. But I do believe I've applied my taste pretty consistently over a large number of albums (currently 33,650), and hope you may find that data useful.

I've created a file called A Note on Grades to answer this question in the future. At some point I'll take what I wrote here and try to make it a bit clearer.

[Q] Americans are banned from Europe, tourists are excluded from visiting the European Union, just as Russians they are condemned to the penalty box. The position of the US in playing a leading role in international politics was untouchable for a long time, but the countries in Europe seem to focus more and more on their own strength now. Of course the election of a crazy president is much to blame, and all this has accelerated due to Covid 19. I wondered how you look at Europe, have you ever been there and what do you think of our music? Just Celtic longing, phony Englishness and exotic accents? In the 70's Dutch bands as the Golden Earring, Shocking Blue and Focus were popular in the States. In the 80's the obscure Boulevard of Broken Dreams was mentioned by Robert Christgau, just as some African compilations, music from that continent was very popular in Holland despite the fact that we did not have colonies there (well, Cape Colony perhaps). In the 90's we had Bettie Serveert (all B plusses for you), they were more popular abroad that in their own country. Just like the Ex or Gruppo Sportivo. Pop bands over the years have began to sing more in Dutch, rap music did not help in that respect. It makes me feel very proud that you always admired the Dutch jazz and improvisation musicians like Han Bennink and the Instant Composers Pool. I like to think they convey the true Dutch spirit of independency, but in fact I fear we are more a traders nation, always keeping a sharp eye on other peoples cultural trends and make use of them. -- Ziggy Schouws, Amsterdam [2020-07-17]

[A] To start with the easy part, I did some work in France and the UK in the mid-1990s -- a couple weeks in Paris, 5-6 months in England. I worked for a computer prepress company, and designed, built, and integrated the user interface internationalization, plus I helped the UK office with all sorts of technical problems. I've never been as a tourist, but I managed to get around England, and spent a lot of weekends in London or Oxford. There is something nice in working with locals and absorbing a country at that pace. (Also nice was the expense account, and the car in the UK.) Would like to have gone further and done more, but it didn't work out.

I can't think of anyone I grew up with who's even done that much -- discounting military assignments (lots of those). On the other hand, I lost my American exceptionalism (and chauvinism) pretty young. I was a huge geography buff as a child. I studied French, German, and Italian -- can't claim to speak worth a damn, but I'm not helpless either. Eventually I met and befriended many Europeans, Asians and other world travelers, so I'm comfortable with many parts of the world. I can also cook a fairly decent meal in a couple dozen cuisines.

What I know about music is more haphazard and scattered, but I'll follow a good beat anywhere. I got most of my jazz tips from The Penguin Guide, where Cook and Morton pay a lot of attention not just to the UK but to the rest of Europe. When I started JCG, I went out of my way to court European labels. For a while, Toondist sent me regular packages of Dutch avant-obscurities, so I'm one of the few critics who know anything about Albert van Veenendaal or De Nazaten. I know far less about European rock or pop, especially non-English, which hardly ever gets any notice here. Some of my EOY aggregates draw heavily on European lists, and I've occasionally checked out the odd German or French hit, but can't claim much insight there. Access is invaluable to critics, and hard to come by across oceans (or even Trump's wall).

It's also hard to say how I look at Europe politically. On one hand, the continuing remnants of the social democratic safety net have become an inspiration for left/liberals in the US. On the other hand, the threat of far right parties in Europe disturbs many of us. I'm personally more bothered by the continued legitimacy of center and center-right parties, especially as they continue to be swayed by Washington's surrender of public goods to the directives of now globalized capital -- especially as capitalists have become ever more predatory and corrupt (I'd have to go back to the British East India Company to cite a comparable example).

Trump's innovation in foreign policy has been to mask America's declining capability and competency with nationalist jingoism, influence peddling, and callous indifference. Biden may imagine he can turn back the clock, but I think that ship has sailed. After WWII, Europe faced two critical tasks: to rebuild their domestic economies, and to continue their exploitation of their colonies without the expense of maintaining their subjugation. The US offered answers that weren't terribly difficult for Europe to swallow -- loans and trade integration, and a global ofensive against Communism that kept western corporations in control of Third World resources -- and ever since European politicians have happily let the US run their foreign policy. (For a sense of how bizarre this still is, look at the list of countries the US got to recognize Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, etc., including the Netherlands.) However, US foreign policy went off the rails with the neocon plot to dominate a unipolar world, turning the US (even before Trump) into a rogue state, built on a hollowed-out economy, endless fruitless wars, and total contempt for international law and institutions. Given how reluctant Europe's current political leaders are to plot a course independent of America, even with Trump so haphazardly in charge, I don't see how this will change. Only that it must.