By Don Heckman
When I attended the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition events this past weekend, reviewing for Jazz Times magazine, I ran into many friends from the jazz community. Since the Competition is an international event, there were folks from L.A., as well as many other parts of the country and the world.
Every one asked me about the diminishing presence of jazz coverage in the Los Angeles Times. Knowing that I have been covering jazz, and other musics, at the paper for more than twenty years — as the principal jazz critic and jazz writer since Leonard Feather died in 1994 — they all expressed concern about whether they would continue to read my commentaries in the LAT.
Today I’ve received a flurry of emails, as well as copies of letters sent to the Times inquiring about the cutback in jazz coverage. Some have distorted or misunderstood the situation, as I discussed it with my friends and colleagues at the Monk gathering. So I thought it would be useful to simply explain what I know about it.
The reduction in jazz coverage at the Times actually began 7 or 8 years ago when jazz was moved into the Pop Music area. Prior to that I frequently did three or four reviews a week, as well as a Sunday record review column and a Friday Jazz column. Under Pop Music, the coverage was reduced to two reviews a week, the Sundy jazz record review section to once a month, and the Friday column was discontinued.
Several months ago, a new editor took over the reins of the Pop Music department from the acting editor. I was told, almost immediately, by her that jazz reviews would be reduced in number, and would essentially have to be pitched to her for approval That represented an immediate and significant change, since — as one who is deeply aware of developments in jazz, here and elsewhere — I had generally done my own scheduling of reviews, with oversight from the acting editor. In addition, the Sunday jazz record review spotlight disappeared.
In scheduling my reviews — of both live concerts and recordings — I tried to balance the major name programs with as much coverage as possible for the Southland’s huge array of world class jazz talent. That approach became virtually impossible when the reviews were cut back to one a week. Within a month or two, they were cut to one every ten days. After that it became a matter of submitting events I thought were important, and hoping that coverage would be permitted. It usually wasn’t.
About two or more months ago, I was advised that the free lance budget for Pop had run out for the year, and that I should contact my editor in late December to consider what could be covered when the new budget came into effect in January. Basically that meant that I could do no reviews for the last 3 1/2 months of the year.
Let me add a little background here. Despite my 22 years and over 5,000 bylined reviews, articles and stories in the LA Times, I am still nominally a free-lancer, since I’ve always refused offers to go on staff. What this means, of course, is that — if there is no free-lance budget — a staff writer could be assigned to cover jazz reviews, despite the fact that there is no one on the staff who is qualified to do so.
Starting about a month ago, I began emailing my editor, pointing out that — if only one jazz event could be covered before the end of the year, it should be the Monk Competition event at the Kodak this past weekend. My request was refused several times. I informed the Monk folks of the situation, and they began to contact my editor to urge coverage. Eventually, she apparently agreed to do so, assigning a staff writer to do the review. It will appear in the paper tomorrow.
It may well be that the letters that are being sent to the LAT, expressing concern about the reduction of jazz coverage, will be responded to with some minimal coverage of jazz by staff writers with little knowledge of the music. And tomorrow’s review of the Monk event will no doubt be cited as evidence of the paper’s continuing interest in jazz. This, despite the fact that it will be the first review of a jazz event in the paper since August 1. (And, even so, it’s labeled as “Pop Music.”)
But I can only wonder why the Music department seems to have a budget to employ a free-lance reviewer one or two times a week to write about European classical music, while similar funds cannot be allocated to the Pop department to allow me to continue the coverage — however modest in numbers it may have to be — that jazz needs and deserves.
I have no inside source of information at the paper, although it’s apparent to everyone that the problems seem to be multiplying rather than diminishing. (I’ve heard that 75 more people were fired today.) But my real concern is simply for the knowledgable representation — in one of the country’s largest urban centers — of the music that is America’s greatest cultural achievement.