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Confessions of a Mad Journalist

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The headline above this column has almost nothing to do with its contents; it was designed simply to grab your attention. That's what we writers do: offer a modest prize with one hand while concealing a more desirable treasure in the other. It's what we have in common with magicians. Actually, as last month marked the 13th anniversary of my having started writing for All About Jazz, I wanted to say a few words about that; hence the overblown caption. There are times (not often) when I'll hand someone my business card and he (or she) will say, "Jazz writer / reviewer. That sounds interesting. How do you become a jazz writer?" An intriguing question, one that probably has as many answers as there are jazz writers.

Speaking only for myself, the words "jazz writer"—more than that, an entire career in journalism—came about solely by accident. Not figuratively but literally: an accident that happened in the early morning hours of June 23, 1963, and neatly divided my life in twain. One moment I was an announcer driving home after working the midnight shift at WGAC Radio in Augusta, Georgia. The next moment I was as close to dead as one can be without actually crossing that divide. A drunk driver, traveling at a speed estimated at more than 100mph, had broadsided my car at an intersection and left me bleeding and unconscious by the side of the road. When I awoke in the hospital a day or so later, I was unable to speak; in fact, unable to do much of anything including eating. That would come much later. The tongue, as it turns out, was partly and permanently paralyzed, thus ending forever my dream of becoming a celebrated sportscaster.

At age 28, with a wife, two children and a high school education, I was an unemployed former radio announcer with no voice and no prospects. Time to suck it up and look for alternatives, one of which was going back to school to earn a college degree. After enrolling at Augusta College I became sports editor of the school paper, a position I'd held in high school. That led to a job at The Augusta Chronicle, the first of several in a career as newspaper writer / editor that spanned nearly 35 years. During that time I wrote about almost everything—except jazz. It took another "accident" to help make that happen.

While editing a newspaper in Illinois I'd seen a quarterly Canadian magazine, The Jazz Report, that included brief columns from various cities reporting on jazz performances and coming events. I thought that might be fun to do, so I asked if they'd like a column from Chicago. Yes, they replied, and so I started writing one. That would have been as far as it went save for an unexpected phone call from London, England, of all places. For some reason I'll never understand, Bill Ashton
Bill Ashton
Bill Ashton
b.1936
, the founder and director of the UK's National Youth Jazz Orchestra, phoned to ask if I would review the orchestra's latest CD. After I explained that I'd never before reviewed anything, he said that's okay, give it a try. So I wrote the review and sent it to Cadence magazine, which promptly turned it down, explaining that they didn't accept freelance reviews. Well, so much for that career, I thought, and tossed the review in the nearest round file.

About a month later I phoned Cadence to order some CDs (the magazine boasted an extensive catalog in each issue) and was told that the managing editor, Bob Rusch, wished to speak to me. In brief, he said he'd been impressed by the review I'd submitted and asked if I would like to become one of the magazine's regular writers. And that is how a near-fatal auto accident more than 30 years before led my becoming a "jazz writer / reviewer." Besides Cadence, I started reviewing for Marge Hofacre's Jazz News and other magazines including Jazz Improv and, in March 1998, All About Jazz, for whom I've been writing ever since (I stopped reviewing for magazines about two years ago).

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