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Confessions of a Mad Journalist

Jack Bowers By

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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, 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).

As the headline above this essay mentions "confessions," I have one to make: although I have loved music, and especially jazz, all my life, I am not a musician. Never have been, never will be. So how do I manage to write about music? Your guess is as good as mine. I simply face a blank sheet of paper (or computer screen) and the words seem to flow (not always easily, but eventually). Truth is, I've always been able to write fairly well. It's a gift—and thank goodness for that, as I can't honestly say I've ever worked hard at it. Like most people, I have opinions, even about things I don't really understand; unlike many others, however, I am somehow able to express my thoughts in writing in a way that leads at least some readers to believe that I know what I'm talking about. The recipe has worked pretty well so far, and I intend to keep on winging it until the phrases no longer flow. And if you were expecting timeless words of wisdom about how to become a "jazz writer / reviewer," I'm sorry that I haven't any to offer. In this instance, it was nothing more than bad luck followed by good . . .

Speaking of Cadence magazine . . .

After 36 years, Cadence, which shrank from monthly to quarterly a couple of years ago, is ceasing publication at the end of this year (2011), yet another victim of our precarious economy. Unlike some other magazines, Cadence has always been fiercely independent, accepting no paid advertising and relying mainly on subscription revenue and record sales to keep it afloat. With the economy in the toilet and many people scrambling to make ends meet, that was no longer enough. I've always been grateful to Bob Rusch for having given me the chance to start reviewing, and wish him and the "Cadence crew" the best in whatever they may choose to do. Many of them, as it turns out, won't be going anywhere. Rusch says other facets of the Cadence / North Country business will remain intact including sales of LPs, CDs and books through Cadence Music Sales (and online at a new web site, www.klompfoot.com). Cadence Jazz Records, CIMP and CIMPoL will remain active labels. What this means is that many Crew members with whom you are used to talking and dealing will be on hand to help with orders. As Cadence rides into the sunset, that's at least something for which we can be thankful.

Out and About

Trumpeter Bobby Shew returned Thursday, April 14, to The Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque, leading a sextet whose other front-liners were saxophonist Glenn Kostur and trombonist Ben Finberg. While Shew was his usual eloquent self on trumpet and flugel, a highlight of the extended one-set performance came on Swedish pianist Bengt Hallberg's lively original, "Bi-Lingual," on which he unsheathed the double-belled Shew horn, an instrument Shew said he hadn't played for more than 15 years. He played with the top bell open, the bottom muted, trading lightning-quick four- and two-bar ad libs with himself and showing he hadn't lost a step since setting the horn aside. Shew and his teammates (the first-class rhythm section was comprised of pianist Stu MacAskie, bassist Michael Glynn and drummer Cal Haines) were strong and steady throughout a program that opened with the standard "You and the Night and the Music" and included three numbers by pianist Bill Mays alongside a couple by Shew ("The Red Snapper," "Blue"), another ("Olveira Street") by Gordon Brisker, a "Surprise Samba" and the engaging closer, "K's Abyss" (I'm not sure about the name of that one, but it's somewhere close to that; it was named for Shew's daughter, Kelly). In sum, another masterful performance by Albuquerque's resident legend, the peerless Bobby Shew.

There was one other outing in April, the following evening, for a Spanish zarzuela cabaret at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. As noted here before, zarzuela is colloquial for Spanish musical theatre or light opera. It was created in the 1640s and reached its zenith of popularity in the 1930s during the short-lived Socialist Republic. The plots are typically lightweight but the voices, at least the ones Betty and I have heard, are world-class. In this case they included, on the distaff side, Ashli Hargrave, Andrea Kiesling, Virginia Herrera Grilly, Nelly Maria Kirmer and director Salome Martinez Lutz; male vocalists Javier Gonzalez, Jose Daniel Apodaca and our special favorite, baritone Armando Mora, with maestro Pablo Zinger as pianist and narrator (scenes from more than a dozen or so zarzuelas were performed). The zarzuelas at NHCC were underwritten for five years (2004-09) by Patty Disney; since then the sponsoring group, Teatro Nuevo Mexico, has been scuffling to find new benefactors. Sadly, it seems that unless that happens soon, April's performance could be the last, and that would be a shame. Zarzuela is unlike any other theatre being presented today, and deserves to be seen, heard and appreciated by a wider audience, not cast aside by lack of knowledge, interest or funding. Let's hope someone steps forward to help save it.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin' . . . !

New and Noteworthy

1. DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Johnny Mandel: The Man and His Music (Arbors)

2. Rick Holland—Evan Dobbins Little Big Band, Trilby (Self Published)

3. George Stone, The Real Deal (No label)

4. Empire Jazz Orchestra, Symphonies in Riffs (EJO)

5. Andy Farber Orchestra, This Could Be the Start of Something Big (Black Warrior Records)

6. Paul Read Orchestra, Arc-en-Ciel (Addo Records)

7. Fatum Brothers Jazz Orchestra, Here to Say! (No Label)

8. Either / Orchestra, Mood Music for Time Travellers (Accurate Records)

9. Cuesta College Jazz 2010, Hear and Now (No Label)

10. Harmonie Ensemble New York, Sketches of Spain (Sheffield Lab)

11. Madison Mellophonium Orchestra, Young at Heart (Blue Heron Music)

12. NYJO, For Dick Morrissey & Chris Dagley (Stanza Records)

13. Jazz Composers Workshop Orchestra, Detour! (Self Published)

14. Oster / Welker Jazz Alliance, Detour Ahead (Jazzed Media)

15. Purdue University Jazz Band, Jigsaw (Purdue Jazz)

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