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How reliable is the jazz press?

The other day I was checking out some jazz blogs when I came across an interesting entry, Subject(ive) to Criticism, on Chris Kelsey's excellent blog. He brings up the subject of integrity in jazz writing, and it started my head wheels rolling. How much are jazz writers influenced by their friendship with performers and others in the business? Do editors put pressure on their writers? You get the picture.

Although I submitted an article to a Copenhagen newspaper in the mid-Fifties, and they published it, I did not have any ambition to become a writer—that article, I thought, was a one-time experience. I wanted more than anything to be a radio presenter, as they were called in Europe. I wanted to play jazz records on the air and talk about them. As a teenager, I even rigged up something that looked like a microphone and pretended to be broadcasting, and when B&O came out with a wire recorder, I bought one on installment and continued my fantasies with a real microphone. Not long after that, I was able to trade my wire recorder in for the tape machine I mentioned in a previously post. That, as I will explain in a future post, proved to be my ticket to becoming a broadcaster—a dream come true.

To fast-forward, I had by 1959 become a disc jockey in Philadelphia http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-find-racism-in-city-of-brotherly-love.html and that' is what led me to a writing career. One way for record promoters to get the attention of jazz dj's was to engage them as album annotators. Record companies and distributors were always pushing their product so it behooved them to befriend the dj. We were taken to lunch and dinner, given tickets to shows, etc. Eventually, money started changing hands, but I am happy to say that I never gave in to the payola temptation. Liner notes assignments were always good for airplay and I did get my share of them, but having disc jockeys write them was not always a good idea. I'm sure you have seen some of the clueless notes that are found on 1950s and 60s albums and written by guys who often knew little about the music beyond that which they had read on the backs of LPs, which, in turn, may well have been written by people who themselves hadn't a clue. The guys I worked with at WHAT were like that: amazingly uninformed, to put it kindly.

So, this is really where I began writing, and my notes were as dumb as anybody's. I knew more about the music, its history and players than my colleagues did, but my command of the English language was pathetic and I slipped all too readily into the "He was born in Pascagoula, of a musical family..." school of liner note writing. I truly cringe when I see some of my early attempts, so much so that I volunteered to rewrite notes gratis when I saw that labels were reducing the old ones to fine print and sticking them into CD "jewel boxes." My offers were never accepted, because that would entail the extra cost of resetting type. Never mind that these companies were reissuing material that had already paid for itself, the industry was becoming one in which the bottom line overshadowed any artistic considerations.

Churning out hopelessly ill-conceived notes cheated the consumer, but it gave me needed experience (not to mention $50 or $75 a pop). When Time-Life Records gave me $4,000 assignments, I realized that I had to start taking myself more seriously as a writer, revised thinking that
Down Beat and, later, Saturday Review, also contributed to. I was working on my first book when Stereo Review offered me a monthly gig that lasted 28 years. I was contributing about 12 reviews plus features every month, so my writing was improving by default, but there is more to writing a good piece than having a way with words and knowing proper punctuation. I still don't know the rules of grammar, but I did develop my creative approach and break away from the shackles of that trite dj formula.

Getting back to integrity, I think most jazz writers, if not all, start out with that intact, but sometimes things happen along the way and even the best of writers find noble priorities slipping away from them. I won't mention his name, but I saw that happen to one of our most respected contemporary jazz scene observers. It became increasingly clear that his reviews were shaped by monetary interests and a career agenda—it did boost his career, but it also dented his reputation.

The late Orde Coombs did not write about jazz, but once told me that any writer must attract attention in order to succeed, even if it calls for sacrificing integrity. We had a long discussion about that, but I did not find his arguments compelling. Not long after that, we both found ourselves at a loft party where most of the guest were African-Americans (Orde was from the Caribbean) and many were of a light complexion. This was the late 60s, a time when black power and radical chic often were subjects of cocktail conversation, and dashikis were political statements. Gesturing with his eyes and a tilt of his head towards a group of light-skinned, afro'ed guests, who were having a heated discussion about Black Muslims, Orde winked at me and said: "Mulatto power."

The thought obviously stayed with him, for he soon had a cover story with that title in New York magazine. I read it, of course, and saw how he had turned a perfectly innocuous cocktail sip into a radical conspiracy. He later wrote a piece for the NY Times in which he spoke of a rise in black street crime and advocated the establishment of remotely located camps to which these young criminals could be sent. Not surprisingly, both articles brought Orde into the spotlight and even garnered him a TV talk show. Mission accomplished, but not for long. Orde died at the age of 45.

Leonard Feather was someone I looked up to when I lived in Europe and my admiration continued during my first years in the U.S. Lured by a passion for jazz, Leonard had arrived in the U.S. when the music was hot and Harlem—as young Duke Ellington put it—was like Arabian nights. Struggling at first, he soon became a part of the inner circle and worked hard to built up a good reputation, to the point where his was a household name and some called him the "Dean of Jazz". I believed that, but as I myself ceased to be on the outside, looking in, my vision sharpened and I began to notice how Leonard manipulated things. A few examples of the sort of thing that made me see him in a new light:

Camden, a budget-priced RCA subsidiary label, asked him to produce a blues reissue, which—considering the wealth of blues material found on the company's Bluebird label—should have been a dream assignment. But Leonard's focus was not on the Bluebird treasures, it was on his own work, for many of the tracks he selected were either produced by him or had him credited as composer. Next I saw Columbia reissue a critic's choice compilation for which some of the top jazz writers each had picked a plumb from the past, and all but one was a classic performance. The odd track was Leonard's choice, a selection from his own gimmick-ridden "One World Jazz" album! Now I was really getting the picture and understanding how Leonard Feather had achieved such prominence and why he was the only jazz critic with a house and swimming pool in Beverly Hills: the man was an unscrupulous self-promoter.

I could cite other instances of Leonard's warped priorities, but the following letter exchange says it all, I think. It came about when Verve asked me to compile and annotate a 2-CD set of Dinah Washington material. The result was an album released in 1993, and my notes made Leonard fuming mad. It wasn't something I said, it was what I didn't say:

Here is my response to Leonard, dated July 19, 1993:

Dear Leonard,

If my Dinah Washington notes “Utterly amazed” you, imagine bow I felt when I read the extraordinary letter with which you responded to them. My notes, you say, have “so many errors” that you “hardly know where to start.” Well, you obviously did figure out where to start and, not surprisingly, chose Leonard Feather--or shall we say the absence of Leonard Feather. Dear me, you are a little man to be so preoccupied with your trifling self. Methinks you overestimate your own importance in the scheme of things, but you can give your paranoia a rest, because the omission was not deliberate--I was writing about Dinah Washington, a lady whose artistry I have long admired, I saw no reason to bring you into my notes. As you know, I have had close, long-term personal relationships with a number of jazz artists, and even played a small role in their careers, but I certainly don’t expect to be mentioned whenever they are written about. Your over-reaction to my notes is both unwarranted and silly, and you can rest assured that while you may find the omission “glaringly obvious,” the record-buying public will neither notice the absence of your name nor give a tinker's dam.

You make far too much of the songs for which you have taken composer’s credit, but let’s face it, Leonard, Dinah Washington’s talent is what made them worth repeating, not the tunes, which are run-of-the-mill blues with pedestrian lyrics; and it is because Dinah sang Evil Gal and turned it into a hit that others--Aretha, Helen Humes, et al--have made recordings of it. So far, at least, no one has seen fit to record “The Leonard Feather Song Book,” and I wouldn’t bold my breath.

As for your other complaints, you cite several “errors” in my notes, but I think you had better take a refresher course in jazz history, for you happen to be wrong on all counts:

• That Dinah recorded a few Decca sides with Hampton is not a “misstatement.” She recorded Million Dollar Smile on October 16, 1944 (Decca 18719), Evil Gal Blues on April 15, 1945 (Decca DL 8088), and Blow Top Blues on May 21, 1945 (Decca 23792). The Evil Gal performance is taken from the Carnegie Hall concert to which you refer, but it was released on Decca. So, if three sides is something less than “a few,” I stand corrected, but I don’t think so.

• Dinah was indeed appearing at places like Kelly’s Stable by 1945, or are the owners of these establishments guilty of false advertising?

• Perhaps you weren’t paying attention, but Lionel Hampton played both drums and (two-fingered) piano on some of the Keynote sides.
Your conclusion that I must be “lying” (an odd choice of words), because I resent any role you might have played in Dinah’s career, is as laughable as it is revealing. What an ego you have! Do you really think that you are to be so envied that I--or, for that matter, anyone else--would distort facts and cast integrity to the wind as a punishment? How could I possibly envy you? A man so without principle, so consumed by greed and self-aggrandizement, is to be pitied rather than envied. No, Leonard, if such were my wont, I could not hope to do as good a job of bringing you down as you yourself have done over the years. You may have spent a lifetime successfully establishing your name, but you have failed to give it meaning.

No, you did not write anything about me at which I took offense. On the contrary, you overwhelmed me with your high praise for my Bessie Smith biography. Only later did I realize that you were simply playing politics and trying to get Sol Stein to publish one of your books.

So you see, the content of my Dinah Washington notes was not dictated by any underlying, vengeful motive--it may surprise you to learn that many of us don’t operate in that manner. Perhaps you failed to notice that I also selected the tracks for the album, including the ones in which you have a vested interest. Were I all that envious and mean-spirited, I rather think that I might have omitted them altogether.

You end your letter by saying that you don’t expect a truthful answer from me, so I shall end mine with a relevant Shavian observation: “The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.”


Chris Albertson


  1. Wow, Chris. Just ... wow. I've never heard it put it on the line exactly like that. Thanks. (I say that without ulterior motive, though I'm extremely gratified by your praise.)

    For better or worse, I think we might actually be living in a new era, where (soon) integrity might not be simply its own reward. The decline of the Jazz Press (Print Division) is giving way to the ascendance of a type where unfiltered truth might actually become the dominant paradigm. I'd go on, but you've inspired me to write another piece on the subject!

    Thx again!

    Chris Kelsey

  2. Thank you Chris, for the kind words and for maintaining such an interesting blog. I look forward to your next piece.

  3. Leonard Feather's letter reminds me of the famous quote from Henry Kissinger on university politics, "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

  4. I'd like to echo the WOW emitted from my former online colleague Chris Kelsey. My own WOW, however, is one of dismay at how trivial this subject is. Am I the only one who read Ted Gioia's blog last July laying out the summary findings of the National Endowment for the Arts' study on arts participation in the United States? (http://www.jazz.com/jazz-blog/2009/7/7/ugly-news-on-the-jazz-audience) The statistics are hair-raising. The jazz audience isn't getting bigger, it's getting older. And, as Ted points out, that's a dismal dynamic. But instead of writing about either the music or its ever-dwindling audience, you devote yourself to resurrecting some petty, ancient dispute between yourself and Leonard Feather! Frankly, all this self-indulgent talk about critical "integrity" is just plain tiresome. If critics wrote not about themselves but about the art form they're ostensibly covering . . . now THAT would be integrity! But of course it won't happen. Nothing compares with the Self as a subject for writing.

  5. Re Alan Kurtz's comment: Obviously, Alan, you haven't been reading Chris's blog closely if at all -- he HAS been writing about the music! And if shouting online at other jazz writers about what they are doing wrong would bring back the jazz audience, I would applaud your most recent shout. But I fear it is just as petty and tiresome as what you accuse Chris of. Michael Steinman

  6. I don't know who you are, Alan, or what you have done to promote the music, but I have spent over fifty years writing about and actively engaged in jazz and blues. If Leonard had not been so highly placed on the jazz scene, his pettiness would, indeed, be just that, but this was a man whom people looked up to for insight and enlightenment. Was he the last of the mis-motivated jazz writers? I'm afraid not, so I took a cue from Chris Kelsey and pursued the subject. Sorry that it so bothers you to face a sad fact. Fortunately for all of us, the jazz press is still balanced in the favor of integrity. Let that be a comfort to you.

  7. Mr. Albertson, I don't know who you are, either. This is the first of your blogs that I've read. Evidently you want us to pat you on the back for being more ethical than Leonard Feather. The problem is that Mr. Feather, having died in 1994, is unavailable for comment, and I am ill equipped to defend him from your one-sided attack. Under the circumstances, then, I am not about to pat you on the back. What does impress me, though, is your statement that Leonard "was a man whom people looked up to for insight and enlightenment." And you base that on what? It's my impression that jazz writers have an inflated view of their own importance, and understandably transfer their delusion onto other jazz writers as well. After all, if you were to concede that Leonard Feather had little or no influence in his lifetime (writing for Down Beat, the L.A. Times, etc., being no guarantee of clout), you might be forced to question whether or not you yourself have any sway. And that's where it gets hairy, no?

  8. It matters little whether you, Kurtz, know or don't know who I am. You may be right about the inflated importance virus that strikes jazz writers and—according to you—is contagious. How fortunate that you yourself were immunized.

    As for your other assumptions, I do not ask for a pat on the back, but I did solicit comments, positive or negative, so I welcome yours, I just wish they had been more enlightened and that you had gone beyond a cursory Google of Leonard Feather before unleashing your outrage.

    If I am wrong about your seemingly shallow knowledge of this subject, I am also prepared to stand corrected.

  9. My 'favorite' Leonard Feather liner notes are contained in the booklet he did for a 5 LP box set of Glenn Miller sides from the 1920s up to 1938 - the sides controlled by Columbia.

    He was a known non-fan of Glenn Miller, so I don't know why he took the gig, but he seemed to feel compelled not to bash Miller too much, so he wrote these very elyptical set of notes that focused as much away from the music as possible.

    OTOH - worse liner notes of all time - "The Saga History of Jazz" for the UK Saga LP label read like a high school b/s term paper on Jazz. Truly hilarious references to convicts in jail playing Jazz records and roses growing on dung-heaps and "Charlie Parker, the faceless man, because almost no photograph of him is known to exist".

    I must find these again!

    1. That Miller set contained some errors regarding the identity of vocalists.

  10. Here's Alan Kurtz - Are there enough Z's on the keyboard for - zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    June 11, 2008
    Smooth Jazz Obits Are Premature

    Editor's Note: Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon, is our fledgling site’s most widely read and fiercely debated blogger. Wherever he goes, he kicks up a storm, and we feel the reverberations around here for days afterward. Say what you will about Alan, you can’t accuse him of not taking his curmudgeonly responsibilities seriously.

    Thank goodness, Mr. Kurtz has finally found something he loves and admires. We can now show jazz.com visitors his warm and fuzzy side, as Alan sings the praises of . . . Smooth Jazz. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments or emailing them to editor@jazz.com. But please . . . no correspondence from the afterlife. It gives me the spooks. T.G.

  11. That letter from Leonard Feather is amazing! I knew he was kinda into himself, but my goodness!
    As I'm slowly becoming a part of the "jazz press" (writing about jazz as much as I am playing it, if not more, these days) it has brought a lot of these thoughts to mind. In fact, your post helped to inspire my most recent post at Lubricity: http://wp.me/pwbPQ-5x

  12. Chris ,

    Given the fact that the Internet has become the source for much of the documented History that is referenced on a daily basis. It truly is important for clarification in what is truth & what is the propagated BS in an attempt at self aggrandizement.

    Any progress Leonard Feather made in his lifetime promoting his achievements & abilities, he basically shot himself in the foot with that personal letter. Please continue to post these type documents for they help give a more balanced and true perspective in what really did happen in the past. The digitial History books of tomorrow will collect these views right along with the illusions previously created.

    You were definitely on your "A Game" with your response to him. Word verification "Cookin", yeah your words were Cookin.