A Twist Of Doc: The Dangers Of Writing About Jazz

February 25, 2014

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

In my head I can hear Billie Holiday singing “There Is Music Everywhere.” She sang it with such glee as opposed to her better known and more tortured melancholy recordings. And she was right. It’s all around us at any time.

Devon Wendell

Devon Wendell

Since I became a music journalist several years ago, I’ve tried to write about it all, or most of what has surrounded me and crossed my path. Writing about rock n’ roll, folk, blues, and all forms of music that fits into the beloved boom era- nostalgia soundtrack seems to be the safest route when writing about music, especially today, so I’ve learned. I’ve written pieces on Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Richie Havens and everyone rejoiced.

Whenever “Purple Haze,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or “Hey Jude” has been mentioned with “positive vibes” or enthusiasm (a better choice of wording), I got a lot of readers and no hate mail.

Jazz, on the other hand is a different story. There’s danger and risk involved in writing about jazz just as there is danger and risk in playing the music.

The jazz community seems to love my jazz pieces, especially the musicians and fellow jazz writers. A lot of them can tell I’m a musician writing from a musician’s perspective.

But for some reason unknown to me, I’ve gotten more than a fair share of bitterness, disdain and even bullying threats from a few writers. It seems to come from those writers obsessed with the “counter culture” rock music of the ‘60s. I’d like to make it crystal clear that I love good rock n’ roll. Ike And Tina Turner, Jackie Breston, early Elvis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, these artists have been an integral part of my being and musicianship. There have been times in which I’ve criticized the rock ‘n’ roll industry and its dominating power over all genres of music and how dismissive they can be towards jazz and blues unless those genres give into some of the not so clever clichés of rock music to please some of the not so cultured rock fans.

The fact that Led Zeppelin has billions of dollars paid to the band for their versions of songs written by other artists, many of whom died in poverty, also irks me.  But this has more to do with dishonest business practices than the music. And let’s face it, those running The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame could use a few courses in music history. John Coltrane is not rock and Muddy Waters was great in his own right, regardless of who he has influenced in the rock n’ roll world. I don’t subscribe to that precious brand of narcissism.

My criticisms have been misconstrued by a clannish bunch of old hippies who do anything but practice “peace and love.” I didn’t have images of flower children in my head when one of these writers verbally harassed me for not writing the ten thousand and third article on the 50th anniversary of The Beatles arriving in America. This guy couldn’t help but throw how much money he got for his piece and how little I make.

That week I chose to write an educational piece on the jazz tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley instead. I have nothing against the Beatles but I wanted to write about Hank Mobley. Too many have asked “Who is Hank Mobley?” No one has asked me who The Beatles are. They need more publicity like Jay-Z or Beyonce need it. Come on people! The media had already been overly saturated with Beatles articles and memorabilia, making the actual event seem Warholian in its abundance of repetitive images, robbing it of any true meaning and dignity.

After receiving several emails of; “You think you’re so smart don’t you asshole snob?” and “Only a handful of folks give a shit about jazz!” “jazz is dead, long live rock!” and “We changed the world back then man! Write about The Doors!” I knew it was time to break all contact with these psychopaths stuck in a time warp. They’re gone for now and I can breathe easier.

The other danger of jazz writing is a good kind. I remember reviewing Kenny Burrell at Catalina’s in Hollywood. After I wrote my review, the late Mike Melvoin (who was on piano that night) blasted me for not noticing that he had quoted Horace Silver’s “Room 608” during one of his solos. I loved it because although he was a little pissed off, his love of the music came through in his comments. He knew I was younger than a lot of jazz writers and wanted to make sure I really listened to every nuance in a performance. I was upset with myself for missing the damn quote! This also meant he was reading my work and paying attention.

I like that sense of risk which keeps me on my toes. That’s positive criticism, which I can work with. As for the other kind, I’m glad to say it’s quieted down for now and I feel for those rock writers who keep their musical worlds so small and follow the herd for a quick buck. The anger has passed, so there’s been some growth.

So I’ll just keep doing what I do and write not only about jazz, but rock, cumbia, maybe some hip-hop, even klezmer music if the mood should strike me. And I’ll enjoy and learn from the risks. “There Is Music Everywhere.”  Indeed.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

Thoughts: Arts Stimulate More Than The Senses

February 3, 2009

By Michael J. Katz

As President Obama pushes his economic recovery act through Congress, Republicans, with little discouragement from the media, predictably scoff at the inclusion of arts funding in the stimulus package. We hear barely veiled sneers describing them as “wasteful” and “unproductive.” Listen to the rhetoric and you’d think appropriating money to the arts rates up there with sodding the mall and planned parenting.

It is easy to understand how such arguments resonate to the shrinking faithful of the far right. But they couldn’t be farther from the truth.


The Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall

Take, for example, a symphony orchestra. The Los  Angeles Philharmonic has a roster of over a hundred musicians. Each of them plays a carefully crafted musical instrument, supporting hundreds of jobs in that industry. Each of them has had many, many years of music lessons. They play compositions, some written by contemporary composers, all distributed by music publishing companies. They perform at venues like Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl that provided construction jobs for hundreds and continue to provide jobs in maintenance. The concerts are supported by a base of employment that includes public relations firms, concessions sales, ushers, advertisers, shuttle buses, parking lot attendants and the occasional scalper. They record albums which generate jobs for sound engineers, music distributors and more.

Furthermore, there is a ripple effect. The success of the LA Phil inspires children to learn music, which means more kids taking more lessons, buying more musical instruments and attending more concerts. And that is only one orchestra, in one city; multiply that times every decent sized municipality in our country that supports an orchestra.

While a symphony may be the best example, it is far from the only one. Jazz orchestras, dance troupes, musical and dramatic theatre, all support a hierarchy of industry. Even an individual painter, sculptor or photographer supports economies that work their way upwards to every public and private place with a bare wall.

The truth is, if aid to the arts was judged solely by its contribution to jobs and the economy, the return, based on the meager percentage of GNP so grudgingly contributed, would be more than enough to justify the expense.
That, of course, does not even mention the richness to our lives and our society that is the primary reason for the NEA.

So why do so-called conservatives howl in terror at endowments for the arts? Mostly it is political expediency. The radical right can always find some portion of an endowment that went to an artist that offended their sensibilities. Nothing makes them happier than a tatted, pierced performance artist uttering or drawing something offensive or heretical. If they didn’t exist, these folks would happily create them. And, let’s face it; the recipients of arts grants as a group do not exactly fit the profile of today’s GOP, or what’s left of it. Ironically, these are the very people who protest the loudest at lyrics to rap songs or preponderance of graffiti. But try and get them to fund art and music in the schools, so kids can get a taste of classical or jazz, or musical theatre, or any branch of the visual arts, and they are the ones prattling about waste and abuse.

So let’s stop all this nonsense about arts grants being non-productive. Instead, let’s ask our legislative geniuses to make the executives at Citibank as accountable to the public as your local arts administrator.


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