A Twist Of Doc: The Dangers Of Writing About Jazz

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.

3 thoughts on “A Twist Of Doc: The Dangers Of Writing About Jazz

  1. Actually, I think POP music’s supremacy has just about ruined jazz, rock, blues et al. It’s music for the unthinking and uninformed (and probably the uneducated). So don’t blame rock n’ roll. It’s having its problems too.

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    1. To Anonymous: I didn’t blame rock at all. I spoke of some rock writers and some very obvious problems with the rock industry which when you look at who runs the major labels, A&R people, etc you’ll see that they are the same as the pop music industry. I’ve been on the inside. Sadly the same can be said about jazz. Don Was is the president of Blue Note Records which explains why there’s far less actual jazz on the label.

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