Archive for the ‘Jazz Journalists Association’ Category

Jazz Blogathon: Upper West Side, NYC

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

The following post is one of many being featured in the Jazz Journalists Association’s 2012 Jazz Day Blogathon, with a focus on jazz in local communities.

Sometimes I tell friends that a key benefit of living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is the ease of subway travel. A couple of blocks to the 1-2-3 train and I can zip down to the Village Vanguard or the Jazz Gallery, or perhaps further out to Brooklyn, or for that matter uptown to Harlem. But jazz is very much present on the UWS, and there are times when I need not go far at all.

Cleopatra’s Needle books music every night, including open mics and jam sessions. But far bigger names, and more consequential music, can be found about 10 blocks north at Smoke: look for visits from luminaries such as Frank Wess, George Coleman and Buster Williams, or more frequent appearances by respected vocalists Gregory Porter and Allan Harris. Smoke is also home to a coterie of young-ish expert hard-boppers including saxophonists Eric Alexander and John Farnsworth, pianist David Hazeltine and organist Mike LeDonne. I have fond memories of bracing performances at Smoke by David Berkman, Wayne Escoffery (with Joe Locke), Orrin Evans and others.

My next neighborhood stop, on April 21, will be at Symphony Space, for Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano. I’ve been devouring Sondheim for the last year and can’t wait to hear interpretations from a roster of artists including Derek Bermel, Ethan Iverson, Fred Hersch, Gabriel Kahane and others from various corners of the jazz and new music worlds. Symphony Space covers a lot of ground, from theater to film to music and more, but jazz has always been a major component. My last visit was on January 21 to hear Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Tremendous night. They’re back in mid-May.

Jazz exists on the UWS in other ways. Strolling up Riverside Drive, just up from the Firefighters Memorial on 100th Street, I always take a moment to appreciate Duke Ellington Boulevard (106th). Billy Strayhorn lived in the area too (it’s richly detailed in David Hajdu’s Strayhorn biography Lush Life). So did George Gershwin. It’s also worth noting that Columbia University, dominating the landscape of Broadway above 110th Street, is home to the Center for Jazz Studies — a vital institution with strong leadership over the years from Robert O’Meally, George Lewis and our own JJA colleague John Szwed.

The Riverside Park Fund hosts outdoor jazz concerts in the warmer seasons. Right on the grass one very sunny July 4th, I stumbled on a strong quartet set by bassist Ron McClure with tenor saxophonist Jed Levy — a really nice surprise. I’ve also discovered that Jay Leonhart, John Pizzarelli and Uri Caine are among the top-tier jazz musicians who make their homes in this vicinity. If they’re like me, they’re not leaving anytime soon.

Best of 2011

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

The JJA has started posting Best-Of lists for the year 2011 — my entry here.

2011 Winners: JJA Jazz Awards

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

The list is up. Great event yesterday! Congrats to all.

2011 JJA Jazz Awards

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Details are shaping up nicely for the Jazz Awards on June 11th – Randy Weston, Wallace Roney and other top players are set to perform. Plus a special slate of “Jazz Heroes” awards. View the nominees and get your tickets!

Departing JJA News

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I’ve posted this on Twitter and Facebook but I neglected to do so in this space: After close to a decade serving as editor of the Jazz Journalists Association’s publication Jazz Notes, which was reborn in early 2010 as the website JJA News, I have opted to step aside. The reasons are straightforward: increased teaching responsibilities, the demands of full-time freelance writing and practically full-time parenting — all the things laid out in this official announcement. I’ll remain on hand with JJA News as an editorial advisor and volunteer, in a much-reduced role. Big thank you to the JJA for giving me the opportunity and the forum all these years. I’ve learned much and I’ve greatly enjoyed interacting with the JJA membership in every capacity.

The 2011 JJA Jazz Awards

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Winners to be revealed on June 11 at City Winery. Congrats to all the nominees!

Randy Sandke and the critics, continued

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Soon after my first post on Randy Sandke’s book Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet, Ethan Iverson posted a far more detailed two-part critique (here and here) at Do the Math. As always with Ethan, it’s a must-read. He’s also announced that he’ll be publishing a guest post by Sandke in reply.

At the risk of spending too much time on this, I want to note another instance of misleading quotation from Sandke, because it’s indicative of his bias throughout. Once again the subject is Bix Beiderbecke, on page 101:

Beiderbecke’s reputation has indeed suffered during the current era of political correctness. Stanley Crouch feels that “Bix is not worthy of inclusion in the pantheon.” Ben Ratliff, jazz critic for the New York Times, stated that Beiderbecke “could swing a bit,” but “there is little funk in Bix’s style.” Also in the New York Times, Rob Gibson, then the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, wrote: “The great white historians can’t understand why Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman aren’t in there [JALC concert programs]. My point is, what did they write?”

The Crouch quote is footnoted “Conversation between Stanley Crouch and the author, 1994,” so we can only take Sandke’s word for it. The Ratliff quotes are from Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (2002) — and the book title already makes clear that Ratliff seeks to include Beiderbecke in the pantheon, not banish him as Sandke implies.

Here is a fuller look at the Ratliff passage:

Why was Beiderbecke so much more important [than Frank Trumbauer]? Because the 1920s were an age for trumpets, not saxophones; because he was a multi-instrumental (piano as well as cornet) talent; because he could swing a bit, whereas Trumbauer’s notes didn’t have that rhythmic orientation….

And toward the end of the next paragraph, after Ratliff has praised Bix’s “pure, consistent beauty”:

There is little funk in Bix’s style (listen to his long solo in “I’m Coming, Virginia” and imagine how differently, with how much more vigor, Armstrong would have phrased it), but there is a coherent lyricism.

Some points to argue with, perhaps. But is this evidence of “political correctness,” of Ratliff’s desire to write Bix out of the canon? The charge is utterly without foundation. What’s more, “little funk in Bix’s style” is meant solely as a contrast with Armstrong, and one that many would agree is well-founded.

Earlier in his Beiderbecke section, Ratliff gives examples of black musicians (Benny Carter, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges, others) who unashamedly claimed white musicians — specifically Bix and Trumbauer — as influences. Then Ratliff observes:

In fact, Trumbauer was actually part Indian. But that’s the least of the issue’s complexities. Jazz is primarily a black American music. Yet all jazz musicians, especially in the early days, were hungry to use anything at their disposal. […] Black and white were not always in conflict in America at the time — and especially not in jazz….

Whoa, hold on. “Black and white were not always in conflict” — this is one of the main arguments of Sandke’s book. Yet here we have Ben Ratliff, chided by Sandke as just another politically correct, ideology-driven jazz critic, making precisely Sandke’s point — the very point that critics supposedly go out of their way to obscure. Better, Ratliff says this in the very section of his book from which Sandke is quoting. Of course, Sandke doesn’t quote that part.

As for Rob Gibson’s comment, no, he didn’t write it in The New York Times — as Sandke’s footnote makes clear, he was quoted in the Times by Theodore Rosengarten back in 1997:

“The great white historians of jazz can’t understand why Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman can’t be in there,” [Gibson] said. “My point is, what did they write? Bix Beiderbecke was great, but he wasn’t greater than Louis Armstrong. Benny Goodman was a great clarinetist, and if he was alive he would be playing clarinet in our orchestra. The fact is, he didn’t write any music….”

Beiderbecke did write music, and it was sloppy of Gibson to omit that fact. However, this quote occurs right below Rosengarten’s claim “that commissions to write new works have not gone to whites since [Jazz at Lincoln Center] began in 1987.” Note the correction appended at the bottom, stating that Rosengarten “referred incorrectly to commissions by the Jazz at Lincoln Center program since its beginning in 1987. Eight works — not none — have been commissioned from white musicians.” Oops. So Gibson’s quote might have been sloppy, but Rosengarten’s framing of the quote was even sloppier. Once again, you wouldn’t know any of this from Sandke’s account.

Randy Sandke’s book and its critics (including me)

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

There’s been some heated discussion since Howard Mandel published his thumbs-down review of Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz by Randy Sandke. I’ve remained mum, largely because I edited the review. It appeared in December in JJA News.

Sandke is a talented trumpeter and composer as well as an opinionated author. I granted him a 500-word reply to Mandel in JJA News, and he published a fuller reply at Chris Kelsey’s blog. Chris had posted two earlier favorable reactions to the book, here and here, in which he tore into Mandel for alleged inaccuracies and ulterior motives.

At this point, having already defended Mandel’s integrity in the comments thread, I feel the need to leave my editor’s role and point out some of the substantial flaws in Sandke’s book, as interesting as much of it is.

Sandke covers a number of topics, but his main thesis is that jazz critics, for decades, have taken on the role of liberal or radical activists, putting ideology above clear and honest evaluation of the music. One result: a tendency to define jazz narrowly as “black music” and ignore or devalue white jazz musicians.

Chris Kelsey rightly notes a similarity to the late Richard Sudhalter’s 2001 book Lost Chords, although Sudhalter focused in depth on white musicians, while Sandke aims his polemic at critics, white and black.

For the sake of space I’ll cite only a few telling instances where Sandke marshals evidence in misleading ways.

“In [Martin Williams’s] influential book The Jazz Tradition,” Sandke asserts, “only one chapter of twenty devoted to individual musicians profiles a white player, Bix Beiderbecke.” This is incorrect: Williams devotes a chapter to Bill Evans. Leaving that aside, the goal of The Jazz Tradition, as Williams wrote in his introduction, was to present “fitting tributes” to the very greatest jazz musicians. It is not a reference work or a comprehensive study by any stretch. My copy of the second edition runs to just 267 pages.

As Sandke himself admits, “[T]he overwhelming majority of [jazz’s] greatest exponents have been African-American.” So what is the problem with Williams limiting The Jazz Tradition to King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Count Basie (and Lester Young), Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and just a few others (including Bix and Bill Evans)? If this is evidence of Williams’s political-ideological bias, the evidence couldn’t be thinner.

Sandke also takes issue with Williams’s opinion that “Beiderbecke had rhythmic problems.” (“I strongly believe there are none to be found,” Sandke retorts.) But this comment of Williams’s appears during an assessment of Bix’s early work with the Wolverines. Williams goes on to describe Bix’s improvement over time and ultimately declares: “I think that Beiderbecke’s work has affected the whole of jazz.” Certainly not faint praise.

Turning his attention to Gary Giddins, Sandke gives an even more partial and inaccurate account: “[T]hroughout Giddins’s books, one is struck by the sheer number of prominent white players from all over the jazz spectrum who are merely mentioned in passing, if not omitted entirely.” (Full disclosure: Giddins serves with me on the JJA board of directors.)

For his prime example, Sandke chooses the late saxophone master Michael Brecker. “In his 1981 book Riding On a Blue Note,” Sandke objects, “Giddins describes Brecker as a ‘journeyman musician.’”

Now consider the relevant passage from Riding On a Blue Note, about Charles Mingus and his various sidemen:

Still, the evidence adds up in Mingus’s favor — many journeyman musicians, including Jerome Richardson, Richard Williams, Dick Hafer, J. R. Montrose, Wade Legge, Bobby Jones, Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, and Michael Brecker, achieved their best playing with him. [Riding On a Blue Note, p. 173]

As you can see, Brecker’s name appears among a long list of others. And yet Sandke gives the impression that Giddins singled out Brecker for a casual put-down. Also, take care to note that Giddins published the above words in 1981. Brecker did not release his debut as a leader until 1987. Before rising to become (arguably) the most influential tenor player of modern times, he played lots of great jazz but also pop sessions with Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Steely Dan and others. In 1981, “journeyman” was a perfectly reasonable description.

Sandke goes on: “Brecker is nowhere to be found in Giddins’s Visions of Jazz: The First Century from 1998, nor is his highly acclaimed brother, the trumpeter and composer Randy Brecker.” Not true: Michael Brecker appears on page 448, and lo and behold, it’s an updated version of that old 1981 essay. Brecker is no longer a “journeyman” — in Visions of Jazz he’s a “major personality.” Giddins, in short, has revised his earlier assessment to reflect the times. Sandke fails to take note of it. (Randy Brecker, too, appears on page 455, hailed as part of a “stellar cast” of trumpeters on a 1988 Mingus tribute album.)

Of course, no book can weigh in substantively on every musician, and books that try are seldom useful. As Giddins offers in his introduction to Visions of Jazz: “George Russell is not in this book. He’s in good company.” And then we’re given a long list of important names, “glaring absences” Giddins calls them, “major figures in jazz and personal favorites of mine” that are also not in the book. From the outset, Giddins concedes that his book is deliberately and unavoidably incomplete. And yet Sandke cherry-picks in order to hang the charge of anti-white bias and lefty ideology around Giddins’s neck.

It’s worth noting that one of the white players Giddins has taken the time to praise is Randy Sandke. In Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century, Giddins lists Sandke’s The Music of Bob Haggart (Arbors) as one of the top 20 jazz albums of 2002. There are other mentions of Sandke as well; check the index.


In his follow-up blog post, Sandke lays into “Mandel and his ilk: those beholden not to the music, but the industry surrounding it through selling books, articles, liner notes, and pandering to the dinosaurs of the jazz print and recording business.” As someone who sells articles and liner notes and depends on the jazz print and recording business, I can tell you that I sleep pretty well at night. I tend not to care when I read critic-bashing from various quarters, because it’s old hat, although in the best instances it can certainly prompt useful reflection. We should all be our own worst critics.

To contrarian anti-critics like Chris Kelsey, however, we jazz writers are simply “defending our turf” whenever we open our mouths. I can’t do much to change Chris’s view and I don’t see a need to try. But I will go out of my way to defend the likes of Williams and Giddins from misrepresentation, after all their enormous and valuable effort on behalf of this music.

If the response to all this is that I too am politically biased, readers of Lerterland already know the score: I am a staunch liberal and an arch critic of the Chomskyite wing of the left. I have absolutely no aversion to pointed critiques of “my” side, and I’ve written a fair number of them myself. That said, I do not share Sandke’s opinions on racism and liberalism in the U.S., and I’ll do my best to comment soon on this aspect of Sandke’s book, in a separate post.

JJA Conference, January 7-11

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Check the schedule and location details, and register! I’ll be speaking on a panel January 8, 2-4 p.m.

JJA year in review and more

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

The Jazz Journalists Association has begun posting members’ top picks for 2010. If you’re a member, log in and post your own! My list is here.

Secondly, the JJA has launched a video-journalism initiative called “eyeJAZZ,” with support from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Details are here — and read about the first eyeJAZZ video entries here.