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Frank Kofsky letters - 1977

I don't know how many of you remember Frank Kofsky, but he wrote about jazz and other things, like politics, inevitably injecting (sometimes by force, it seemed) his Marxist beliefs into everything. He was of the sensationalist school of writers, people who make radical statements and espouse off-the-wall theories in order to attract the attention that their prose alone never could. Like Leonard Feather, he was a dishonest reporter who cared little for facts if they did not fit into his agenda. In the jazz world, Kofsky is probably best known for his 1971 book, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music,  which was later renamed John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960's) and a lengthy parking lot interview with a remarkably patient Coltrane. In 1997, when Kofsky died, he was an Associate Professor of History at California State University, in Sacramento. Isn't it amazing how many "historians" don't get along with the truth—well, he was one.

I never met Frank Kofsky, but he threw himself at me in 1977, when something I wrote in Stereo Review did not sit well with him. It was an innocuous review of an album by pianist Joel Shulman, whom I had not heard before, but liked. Now that I see the review, I am embarrassed by how shallow it is, but that was not what gave Kofsky a fit and made him put a fresh sheet in his typewriter. He was outraged because I was unfamiliar with bassist Don Thompson. Notice (on the envelope, above) that he tags me as "Writer-manque" (a term of 18th century origin, meaning "unfulfilled"). Well, here's my short review and the letter it prompted Kofsky to a Letter to the Editor:

Click on any image to enlarge it.

Stereo Review's Editor in Chief, Bill Anderson, responded with a short note—my reply was somewhat longer. I probably should have corrected Kofsky's spelling of Moe Koffman's name, but we were already getting close to overdosing on pettiness.

About three months later, Kofsky reacted, taking a stab at my editor and getting in a word about my "scandal-mongering 'biography' of Bessie Smith," a book from which he would eventually extract information for use in an attack on John Hammond.

Bill Anderson received a cc of the letter and sent me a copy with advice and opinion:

Bill did not reply to Kofsky, but I sent him a nasty little note, hoping—in my naïvité—that it would bring this exchange to a close. Of course, it didn't, but it inspired my favorite Kofsky response. In fact, I liked it so much that I sent it and the rest of them to CSUS's administration, with a question: Should I not be worried about the author of these letters teaching young people?

As you can see, Kofsky reaction was quick and sloppy. My Bessie Smith book now became a "ragbag of gossip" written by a person with a compulsive interest in drunkeness (sic), homosexuality, and gutter life in general."

Kofsky's Post Script indicates that he either did not read my book or that he read it with the same  inattention to detail that marks his own writing.  But, of course, he was trying to align me with John Hammond—two birds with one stone, as it were.

I decided not to respond directly to Kofsky, forwarding the material to his employers was enough, and we all know when enough is enough.

About a month later, I received an anonymous post card from Springfield, Illinois. Even if he hadn't addressed me as "Miserable worm" or misspelled despicable, I would have known that it came from my favorite Martian.... uh, Marxist.

                                                                                                           The moral of this experience is: Never admit in writing that you are unfamiliar with a musician who has made records. It can easily turn you into a worm or vermin.     End of story.


  1. It's ok to laugh right?

    As I was truly amused by your pin-pal.

    The greatest part is you seemed to have had an Editor with a great human quality, a sense of humor.

  2. Yes, please laugh. Bill Anderson was a pleasure to work with—in fact, Stereo Review had a great editorial staff during my 28 years of writing for the magazine. Civility and good taste went out in the late 90's when a new, less enlightened staff took over. And so it goes....

  3. Sounds like all parties concerned had a fairly large amount of free time on their hands back in '77. I can understand the Marxist with tenure at state university having plenty of free time but I figured a magazine editor would be too busy. Was Kofsky being entertained at such length because he was known in the world of jazz criticism thanks to his book?

    1. The fact that I spent a few minutes responding to his hateful mail had nothing to do with his book and everything to do with his idiotic attempt to dictate policy to Stereo Review's Editors. Kofsky never recognized that he was a minor, misguided figure in the field of jazz writing. He was not well respected by his colleagues, not because he was a Marxist, per se, but because he injected his personal political beliefs into his writing, often distorting fact to get a sensationalist point across. The "historian" label under which he operated was of the same disingenuous variety as that behind which Ken Burns hides.

  4. If it pleases you any, Kofsky actually wasn't that much better respected among historians- it took a campaign featuring outside intervention to get him tenure (at a university where tenure usually was automatic), and his academic writing had the same sins his jazz writing did, with the same effect- the folk for whom his conclusions justified his means praised it unduly, while other observers noted a tendency for him to be reductive, unwilling to acknowledge points that challenged his arguments, and as letting his Trotskyism run wild.

    1. Ah, yes—that roaming Trotskyism became an ideological earplug. Thank you for the clarity your comment adds.

  5. I certainly don't think that your books on Bessie were "scandal-mongering 'biography' of Bessie Smith." I think you tamed it down a lot for public consumption. Had you been like Ruby and "told it like it was" he probably would have had heart failure. What a jerk! Your editor had the right idea to just forget him. I have read both the Bessie books over and over again over the years and I certainly commend you for getting as much information gathered as you did and still continue to do. You were truthful, honest, correct and it was hilarious. That seriously was the lifestyle in that era. It still is. Show business lifestyles do not reflect the average businessman or housewife. It is its own unique breed. It is balls to the wall. Anything goes. You were able to reproduce that in a delightful way. I still say you need to put all of Ruby's interviews on CD. They are fantastic! I know I certainly would buy it!

    1. Thank you for the encouragement. I don't know if you heard about the HBO film "adaptation" of my book that is scheduled for viewing in 2015 (in post-production now), but ianyone who enjoyed reading what I wrote should be prepared for a shock. It is dreadful.

  6. Just a reminiscence: I'm 22, he's 39. We're talking when apparently I say something (I have no idea what) "offensive" that unleashes a fury, the likes of which I'd never experienced and never have since. End of date. I ask to be driven home. He complies but the screaming never ceases until I'm out of the suffering confines of his car. A week later he writes me a letter that is a justification, not an apology, for his behavior.
    I never had further contact with Frank Kofsky. But as I read his malignant letters to you 41 years later, I am both amused and saddened by their bullying tone. They reveal a man who sought out injuries where there were none so that he could revel in the attack.

    1. Thank you for sharing that experience and so concisely summing up Kofsky's apparent motive.