Hey, New Yorker: When it comes to jazz, do you do more than sneer?

new yorker jazzAt first glance, the chief crime of The New Yorker‘s latest “humor” column is that it’s not funny, and that it struggles to reach even the low bar of “mildly amusing.” (Read it for yourself, and let me know what you think).

Except that the biggest offense is this: The New Yorker, based in the city that remains the jazz center of the world, once offered loads of smart, literate, entertaining, insightful coverage of the music. Now, the magazine almost never covers jazz, aside from a steadily decreasing footprint in the listings section.

And when it does deign to offer jazz coverage, a column that sneers at the music is the best The New Yorker can do? Seriously?

Remember the last time The New Yorker made a splash with a jazz piece? It was another largely unfunny “humor” bit, a fake interview with Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist who remains alive and, at that point, may even have still been performing. The obvious question: Why not do a legit piece on Rollins? That column (poorly labeled as humor) did an even more troubling disservice by leading some to believe that Rollins, a great and gentle spirit in addition to being an enormously creative artist, said some of the drivel the “fake” Rollins was quoted as saying.

Maybe I should make a direct plea to Bob Sauerberg, president/CEO of Conde Nast, which owns The New Yorker. Bob happens to be a schoolmate of mine, from the Lakeland (Florida) High School class of ’79.

—————-

Hi, Bob.
As a longtime jazz journalist and musician, and your old Lakeland acquaintance, take it from me: New York remains JAZZ HQ, a place where on any given night you can see a huge range of artists in a wide variety of venues practicing America’s great musical art form. As you may (or may not) know, you won’t find that volume of high- caliber jazz in any other city in the world.

The New Yorker, given its long, fabled history and identity as a purveyor of serious arts and entertainment criticism (among other content), and, of course, its location in NYC, has a unique opportunity to be an important and influential voice for jazz.

I’d call it an awesome responsibility, one that’s even more pressing now that the New York Times seems to be in no hurry to fill the gaps in jazz coverage left by the departures of first-rate music writers Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff.

So … will you consider beefing up the jazz coverage in The New Yorker? I’d happily point you in the direction of jazz writers, New York-based and otherwise, who could support the cause. Heck, I’d be glad to help edit/coordinate such coverage. Or contribute some pieces.
It would be great to hear from you, Bob.

Sincerely,
Philip

(jphilipbooth@hotmail.com)

 

Newport 1959: Listen Now!

The Newport Jazz Festival in 1959: The “New Testament” Count Basie Band. Thelonious Monk (in photo). Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley. Dizzy Gillespie. The Ahmad Jamal Trio. The Horace Silver Quintet. Dizzy Gillespie. The Jimmy Smith Trio. The Oscar Peterson Trio.

Now THAT was a real, artistically significant jazz festival, unlike too many of the overtly commercial events masquerading as jazz fests around my home state in recent years.

Thanks to NPR music,  I just came across fantastic audio from the fest – just listening to Atomic Basie playing “The Deacon,” spiked with a gritty, rambunctious solo by plunger-mute trombone wizard Al Grey. mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=122007665&m=122004714

A sampler of recordings from the fest is available here via NPR music, which offers five tracks — Basie, Blakey, Jamal,  Silver, Dakota Staton — discussed by New York Times critic Ben Ratliff and jazz announcer Josh Jackson on the latter’s Dec. 30 edition of “The Checkout” show on WBGO.

Amazingly enough, 27 sets from the festival can be heard online at Wolfgang’s Vault. The best part: There’s absolutely no admission charge.

The vault isn’t just about jazz. It also offers free-admission access to tons of great concerts by everyone from The Allman Brothers (Hollywood Bowl, Aug. 6, 1972) to Bob Marley (London, 1975) to Neil Young (Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 1975).

How’d I not know about this great resource?

NY Times Critic Ben Ratliff Talks To Readers

Want to ask a question of a New York Times music critic, actually get a response, and perhaps see the exchange published?

Now's the time.
 
Ben Ratliff, who writes about jazz, rock and pop for the Times, and penned
last year's acclaimed The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, a collection
of interviews with jazz greats, this week is making a point of responding
to readers' questions.
 
Below is the announcement of the feature, and an initial q&a.
 
Ratliff offers a quite sound response to a question regarding the relatively small
audience for jazz. To that, I would add:
 
1)The if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods truth: If the average music listener/consumer
doesn't read or hear about jazz (or, for that matter, blues or world music or
altcountry), then how does he or she know that that music exists? There is often
 -- but not always -- a direct correlation between the music that gets the most
hype, and the Billboard charts. This is related to the below:
 
2)FAR too many music "critics" spend the bulk of their time/energy
chasing celebrity culture, rather than writing actual music. Case in point:
The acres of forests giving their lives this week for oodles of stories on
the allegedly new and improved "American Idol." What's that abomination
of a "reality" show have to do with music that matters?
Nothing.
 
Related to the above is an irony: The folks who continue to be loyal to
newspapers, in print, are generally older readers. Within that group are
those who cite arts and entertainment coverage as a primary reason for
continuing to purchase newspapers. Many of those older readers have
little use for coverage of '"American Idol" and the likes of Miley Cyrus
and the Jonas Brothers, etc. 
 
Here's the irony: The younger audiences (Teens? Tweens?) who are interested
in that kind of stuff have already abandoned print papers for online sources, so
they're not being served when that coverage appears in print. And the readers
still loyal to print newspapers are simply annoyed when papers emphasize
teen/pop celebrity coverage at the expense of arts/music of substance. So -- to 
clarify -- they're catering to an audience that's already gone and in the process
pissing off regular readers. 
 
Smart thinking, huh? 
 
Here's the link to the ask-the-readers feature. And below is the announcement
published in the Times:
 
January 12, 2009 
Talk to the Newsroom: 
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic 
 
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 
2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com. 
 
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996. 
 
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, 
N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of 
"Jazz: A Critic¹s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings" (2002), 
"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" (2007) and "The Jazz Ear: Conversations 
Over Music" (2008). 
 
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, 
he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival 
Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, 
Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo 
Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community 
singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High 
Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else. 
 
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and 
reporters. 
 
Why Isn't Jazz Audience Bigger? 
 
Q. Why isn't there more of an audience for "straight-ahead" jazz? Or put in 
a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active 
since the '50s or early '60s are given only niche status (or no visibility 
at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy 
regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry 
Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public 
have no awareness or appreciation of this genre? 
-- Paul Loubriel 
 
A. Paul: This is a big question. I'll try to hit some parts of it but I 
probably won't answer it to your satisfaction. 
 
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and 
far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to 
do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When 
you dance to music (in all ways -- partner dancing, stepping, headbanging -- 
just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. 
A lot of people born since 1960 don't feel that they own jazz. 
 
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn't know 
who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media -- obviously we're not 
talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the 
cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you're talking about) 
-- doesn't, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream 
jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements. 
 
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what's 
new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger 
issue about the shallowness of the general perception of "news.") With 
classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new 
compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new 
compositions. One has to sniff out what's interesting, however it presents 
itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run. 
 
As for the general public, they're not buying albums as much anymore, and as 
much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it's still an album art. 
 
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), 
because it's still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 
2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard. 
 
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in 
reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad. 

Jazz Legends: New Dual Biography of Miles and Coltrane

What defines a musical legend?

Tricky question to answer.

When it comes to jazz, my list of legendary artists, those whose playing, compositions and band leadership had a significant and unique impact on the music would have to include — d’oh! — Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The musical careers, and lives, of both, are examined in a recently published dual biography, Clawing at the Limits of Cool.

My review of the book was published in today’s St. Petersburg Times. Click here to go directly to the story, or read it below:

—–

There’s no shortage of books addressing the work of jazz giants Miles Davis and John Coltrane, either individually or as separate chapters in larger histories. Two top-shelf recent examples are Howard Mandel’s Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz and Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, both penned by music journalists and published last year.

Unlike its predecessors, Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever goes for something new: a dual biography. It’s an entirely sensible approach, given the titular musicians’ collaboration on trumpeter Davis’ blockbuster album Kind of Blue, released in 1959, and the impact these players had on each other, as instrumentalists, composers and bandleaders.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University literature professor, and saxophonist and Brooklyn College music professor Salim Washington mostly fulfill expectations, capably weaving together the story lines of these artists’ remarkable lives, offering valuable insight into how and why they connected, and sizing up the seismic results.

The co-authors also turn in generally well-informed musical analysis, some of which is sure to go over the heads of nonmusicians; readers would have been well served if the publisher had opted to include a CD or offer free downloads of a few key tunes — Milestones, Straight, No Chaser, Flamenco Sketches discussed here.

In a recording age marked by digital downloads of instantly disposable hip-hop, tween pop and country hat acts, it’s easy to forget the centrality once held by jazz art and commerce, particularly in the black community. Davis, born the son of a dentist in a Chicago suburb in May 1926 and raised middle class in East St. Louis, Ill., and saxophonist Coltrane, born four months later, son of a tailor in small-town North Carolina, were creative artists who made jazz their professional and spiritual home.

They spent their lives pursuing their art. In doing so, Davis and Coltrane changed the music’s architecture, as Griffin and Washington point out, although critics and other listeners might argue with their first-page suggestion that the two “were the last major innovators in jazz.”

Few serious jazz trumpeters or saxophonists alive can honestly say that they haven’t been influenced by Davis’ use of space in his solos or his muted playing on ballads, or by Coltrane’s note-spraying sheets of sound. Their contrasting personality types — the trumpeter brash, flashy and sometimes arrogant, the saxophonist quiet, unassuming and usually gentle — have also been emulated by subsequent generations of musicians.

The authors touch on a related irony: “However, these qualities are reversed in their playing. When the two men came together in the mid ’50s, Coltrane’s style already displayed a ferocity not evident in his personality, whereas Miles possessed an extraordinarily tender, lyrical approach to his instrument.”

Still, trumping their work as instrumentalists were their achievements as bandleaders, redefining the limits to which groups could take jazz-rooted ensemble work — variously, bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion.

Griffin and Washington, of course, focus on the musicians’ work together, in the Miles Davis Quintet and later, from 1958 to 1961, the Miles Davis Sextet. The latter group, which Coltrane joined after quitting heroin cold turkey and playing and studying with pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, was responsible for the groundbreaking Milestones album and, with a different lineup, the vastly influential Kind of Blue.

Davis, and Coltrane on tenor saxophone, proved ideal foils for one another on such now-standard pieces as Freddie Freeloader and All Blues. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb added indelibly to an understated but subtly intense album cited as the bestselling jazz recording of all time. It’s an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible if the paths of these two “cultural icons,” as the co-authors call them, had not crossed.

Times correspondent Philip Booth writes about music for Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and other publications, and plays bass with Tampa jazz group Trio Vibe. He played with ”Kind of Blue” drummer Jimmy Cobb in a Nat Adderley tribute concert in 2000.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever

By Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

Thomas Dunne Books, 294 pages, $24.95