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Open Letter to Jazz Journalists of New Orleans

Back in 1986 when my book The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide was released, music journalism was an entirely different phenomenon than it is today. Jazz critics had built a firewall around themselves, perhaps in self-defense as what was once America’s popular music faded into demographic marginality, and those who wrote about it found themselves writing to a disappearing audience. One of the reviews of the Jazz Record Guide in a major jazz publication complained that the editor of the Guide “isn’t even a jazz critic.”  Having written about jazz among other subjects for 15 years at that point and just finished a project which required me to listen to 10,000 vinyl jazz albums (the book came out just as the now-defunct CD era was dawning) and give them star ratings I had to wonder what kind of exclusive club it was that guarded such sacrosanct gates.

Jazz (via Bigstock)

Thankfully things have changed since then, and jazz has fully embraced its interaction with a multiplicity of other music forms; those who write about jazz are now a lot more open-minded. By 2000 when I edited the jazze.com website for the Knitting Factory’s media outlet, our motto was the question “What Is Jazz?” It was a question with a potentially unlimited number of answers. The very word “jazz” can still stimulate lively and thoughtful conversation as Nicholas Payton has proven recently with his hotly debated web thread on the legitimacy of the term itself.

Today jazz is its own international language, and of course, the argument rages as our own Jazz and Heritage Festival features headliners like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, while the Montreal Jazz Festival (which I’m currently attending) presents pop figures Liza Minelli and James Taylor alongside such venerable jazz icons as Cedar Walton and Wayne Shorter. The debate about bringing pop figures to jazz festivals has been going on for decades now, especially in New Orleans where the heritage is so closely guarded, but I think we’ve reached the point where the Bon Jovi’s of the music world no longer pose a threat to jazz in any of its myriad forms—they instead bring a potentially larger audience of listeners. Music listeners probably care less about categories now than they ever did.

Where does this leave jazz journalism? In a better place than it was in 1986, at least. Every publication in New Orleans features some kind of writing about jazz. OffBeat‘s jazz coverage over the course of the last 25 years has been an essential element in supporting the music’s vitality and documenting its progress. If only such a cultural entity existed 100 years ago, the gestation of America’s musical contribution to civilization would be much better understood. The music is accepted as a core element of this city’s cultural identity, having transcended well beyond the cliches of “revival” into full archetype status. Young musicians of many disciplines embrace improvisational music and traditional New Orleans jazz as part of the same process. A generation ago only Steve Lacy and a few others acknowledged such continuity.

Last month the Jazz Journalists Association held its annual awards show in New York. Sonny Rollins, whose memorable performance at Jazz Fest last year still resonates in my mind’s ear, was honored with multiple awards. Larry Blumenfeld, a writer who has graced the pages of this publication, was named Jazz Writer of the Year. The event was mirrored with satellite celebrations in other cities. I suggested to the organization’s president Howard Mandel that the JJA should come to New Orleans and hold one of its celebrations here in the birthplace of jazz. He wrote back that he would love to do so, then pointed out that not only do we not have a chapter, not a single New Orleans-based writer is a member of the JJA.

Perhaps we’ve gone past the point of pigeonholing ourselves as writing about any specific kind of music. Or maybe it’s just the $75 annual dues the organization requires. But it strikes me that the many, many writers contributing to New Orleans publications who love jazz for its past, present and future should consider either joining the JJA or starting our own organization.

We should have a New Orleans chapter of the JJA. It’s up to us as individuals to do it. To find out details go to www.JJANews.org. Here’s what Mandel wrote back to me: “We can talk about how the JJA can establish some beachhead in NO. We’re planning to do a lot of online webinars about pertinent journalistic topics and we want to find and help new journalists develop as well as upgrade veterans’ skills and points-of-view. We’re a membership organization, not huge and/or well-financed, but get some good things done and NO is a fertile place, where we should be, want to be active. Our benefits of membership, etc. can be seen at: members.jazzjournalists.org.”