In April of 1970 Miles Davis released one of the truly unique, original and influential albums of all time. Bitches Brew took listeners places no one even knew existed until Davis showed the way. Unlike the “cool” Miles Davis of Kind of Blue or Birth of the Cool, this Miles was in your face, aggressive and highly experimental. It was as if Davis heard Coltrane in a new way via Jimi Hendrix and something inside him needed release. Now!
Bitches Brew stood Jazz on its head because it was more like Rock and R&B of the time, but was none-of-the-above. It was truly unique, these were sounds that had never been produced before. This wasn’t the first time that Miles had led the charge into new territory, but previously he’d stayed within the acceptable lines of the Jazz world. This time he went so much further. It wasn’t so much that he crossed lines, he ignored them and made them irrelevant.
As a result Bitches Brew went gold and influenced generations of Rock, Jazz and Funk musicians. It seems to appear on “best of” critics list in nearly every genre except Country, Opera and Appalachian Techno Yodelling. But for all of its success, Bitches Brew infuriated and alienated many fans and critics. Stanley Crouch, the excellent writer and social critic, is still pissing and moaning about it to anyone who asks. Jazz’s greatest musician of the time took the biggest risk of his career and Jazz’s greatest critic called him a “sell-out.” This did little to enhance Crouch’s reputation or to slow sales, but it did signal the beginning of the “blame Miles” era.
Even today Miles Davis and Bitches Brew are villianised as the progenitors of Jazz Fusion and all the associated excess, which then led to the abomination known as Light or Smooth Jazz. The thinking goes that if Miles hadn’t released this album and had so much influence then no one would have ever been subjected to Kenny G. George Carlin used to pointedly skewer drug “education” in this country by claiming that mothers milk leads to marijuana. Same argument.
How anyone can listen to the rhythms and solos on Bitches Brew and arrive at Kenny G boggles the mind. Talk about a true WTF moment!
Now I don’t know if Robert Parker should be considered the Miles Davis of the wine world, but given his influence and the amount of misplaced crap that gets laid at his feet I’d submit that he is as close as it gets. While both men certainly have/had their share of flaws, and mythologies surrounding them make for excellent targets, I am of the opinion that they should be ultimately judged by whether they made their respective worlds of wine and music better.
When Parker began reviewing wine the most influential critics were typically English and based their reviews on how many cases the Chateau provided. Even if everything negative written about Robert M. Parker Jr. is true, that he ended that system is reason enough to cut the guy some slack. But add in the fact that without any form of legitimate criticism wine makers had no real reason to worry about quality. It is dangerous to let fruit hang long enough to fully ripen, particularly in many of France’s best growing regions, due to the violent weather changes that can occur near the end of the growing season. It was much safer to pick early and send a few extra cases to a critic than it was to risk hail taking out your entire crop. As a result there were a lot of green, vegetal wines being produced by wine makers who were allowed to keep their reputations intact.
Nearly all of the musicians that played with Miles on Bitches Brew went on to become leading lights in the Jazz world themselves, many taking the music they had produced on that recording and running with it. In the same way, many of Parker’s associates have spread through the wine regions of the world and the results can be tasted everywhere from Bordeaux to Mendoza to Walla Walla. Some argue that this is leading to the homogenization of wine, or that all subtlety is being lost, or that winemakers only make wine for King Bob. This is known as “Parkerization.”
With all due respect to Alice Feiring, this word should be banished from the lexicon of all wine writers forever unless it is redefined. Many of the changes brought on by Parker have been positive, so the term is utterly useless unless it also reflects that. No one should be able to deride some overblown wine with the word unless they can also point to another wine and say, “This wine used to be weak and green tasting, but now it has been wonderfully Parkerized! I love it!”
Truth be told, Parker makes for a fairly easy target for those of us who have in many ways followed in his footsteps. He’s getting old, and many of the myths that have grown up around him, including some he created himself, have been busted. A case could be made that he was the world’s first wine blogger, yet he has lashed out at bloggers. And, yes, he has way too much influence in some areas. All those things are certainly true. Want to know what else is true? A great number of the people who derogatorily use the term Parkerization will stand in line for as long as it takes at a tasting to get a splash of the latest cult wine. There is a word for that too: Hypocrite.
I make no bones about the fact that I love big, bold, juicy wines. Hell, I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone wouldn’t like them, but to each their own. I also love subtle nuanced wines too. Just because it takes a little more education and experience to discern and enjoy those types of wine does not make them superior, and if you have the ability it damn sure doesn’t give you any claim to superiority either. If you are one of the people that thinks that it does you are a snob and should cease and desist immediately, especially if you are a writer. These are rotten grapes we’re talking about, not rocket science. I know this to be fact, as I work with rocket scientists but definitely prefer discussing and drinking wine.
Maybe it’s time for all wine writers, bloggers, critics, drinkers, and anyone else who loves to bag on Parker, to take another look at what he did as a whole for the world of wine. Maybe like Lester Bangs often did, we can be brave enough to change our minds in public. If you consider yourself a writer or a critic and the previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you, do not write another word until it does. Seriously.
In the end we have to weigh what we have gained and what has been lost when a revolutionary soul introduces some chaos into the status quo. Especially once the chaotic dust settles and we see that a new order has taken its place. Despite seeing that order through through the prism of clarity and stability that it seems to exhibit, we can’t forget the seed of chaos that exists at the core.
If Miles Davis did indeed give us Kenny G, and Robert Parker does actually cause some wine makers to try and craft wines specifically to gain his approval, is it really their fault? More importantly, was it worth it? With Miles Runs the Voodoo Down playing as I type this, the answer seems pretty clear to me.
“There can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.”
—Robert M. Parker, Jr.