Roar of approval

Jazz - Sholto Byrnes exposes a conspiracy of niceness among the critics

What is the collective noun for a group of critics? It ought to be something like a "spike", a word conveying the relish with which the critic should pierce shoddy material and lay bare the reality behind the poster gloss. Alas, I'm not sure that that would be the right word to describe my fellow jazz critics when they descended upon the Cheltenham Jazz Festival at the beginning of this month. Too many of them seem to find it really rather awkward to say anything unpleasant about the artists they review. The disobliging word does not even stick in their throats, let alone spring from their lips like a dart; instead, it remains a sad little thought, quickly displaced by brighter, shinier blandishments.

I first noticed this tendency when I went to review Dave Brubeck's 80th-birthday concert at the Barbican in London. There was nothing wrong with his playing, but two of his sons (all four were on stage with him) left a lot to be desired. There was no getting round it - they were duff musicians. So I said so. For good measure, I also described one of the sons, who kept jiggling around in an irritating manner, as looking like "a sack of potatoes preparing to take off from a diving board".

It wasn't kind, but if his mother hadn't been strict enough to tell him to sit still and stop fidgeting as a child, it was high time someone did now. He should probably cut down on the hamburgers, too.

So it was with some surprise that I later read a review of the same concert in the Daily Telegraph. At first I wondered whether it was really supposed to be a feature, as it seemed to be a resume of Brubeck's career, not a review. Then it became clear: the critic, whose blushes I shall spare, just could not bear to say anything nasty about the concert. He had to write something, so he filled most of the space with background and then said what a jolly time everyone had when Brubeck's old hits were wheeled out.

Unfortunately he is not alone, as the reviews of Cybill Shepherd's recent appearance at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London showed. Critical judgement was entirely lacking from the Guardian's notice, which, ludicrously, gave her four out of five stars, described the half-hearted laughs during her patter as "roars of approval", and failed to notice the disappointment of many of the customers during the weakest performance I have ever seen in that club. One middle-aged critic who gave her an equally forgiving review at least had an excuse: he'd already interviewed Shepherd in her hotel, an encounter that had evidently steamed up his glasses and temporarily impaired his hearing.

This type of thing does no one any favours, certainly not readers, who fondly suppose that the critics put their expertise to its proper use. Before these flatterers start pouring forth their honeyed words they should remember the late Benny Green's injunction: "The only criticism which is readable is the fiercely prejudiced, fiercely subjective criticism by a man who cares enough to show his enthusiasms."

The jazz world is small, and any devotee of the precarious British jazz scene wants to be supportive. But the best way to nurture this fragile plant is not to refrain from pruning it. This relentless positivity renders the yardstick pointless and drains genuine praise of its value. Not all should have prizes, and it is the critic's job to take aside the underachievers and inform them of when they should turn up to detention. Or, if necessary, to produce the cane and tell them to bend over. Tender hearts who shy from this task can always take comfort in using the words "this will hurt me more than it hurts you".

Who knows, they may even find that applying correction can have its own furtive rewards.

Sholto Byrnes is a staff writer for the Independent and the Independent on Sunday