Giant Steps- Jan/Feb. Part 1

A. Jazz Conversations

We are quite fortunate for our latest interview subject to get longtime prolific music journalist Howard Mandel. He is a writer, radio producer, educator, lecturer, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, and board member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Born and raised in Chicago, he lived and worked for more than 30 years in New York City, moving back to his hometown in 2014. 

He’s traveled for jazz in Cuba, Senegal and Gambia, Armenia, Kiev, St. Petersburg and Moscow, Leeds, Porta Delgado and Jordan, besides colleges and festivals in the U.S. His books are “Future Jazz” (Oxford University Press, 1999) and “Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz” (Routledge, 2008), and he served as senior editor of the “Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz and Blues” (Flame Tree Press, 2005).

He has contributed for more than 40 years to publications including the Chicago Daily News, DownBeat, Musician, Ear, Jazziz, Signal To Noise, Swing Journal, The Wire, Musical America, The Village Voice, New York Times and the Washington Post, and has annotated dozens of record albums. He plays a little bit of piano, flutes, alto sax and Kong Minilogue, and is an enthusiast of hard-boiled as well as comic and so-called literary fiction, mythology, movies and theater. He’s working on new book projects, radio pieces and whatever comes his way, assignment-wise. He blogs at jazzbeyondjazz.

Howard took some time from a very busy schedule to promptly respond to our questions via e-mail.

What got you interested in jazz?

“I was attracted to music as a child, liked the idea of making music spontaneously, and was drawn to jazz by the rhythmic momentum, tunefulness that could become complicated or challenging, and the intense expressionism of players even as they were working somehow together. The more jazz I heard, the more I liked it and found depths as well as questions in the sounds.” 

Did you or have you also had musical training and did you ever consider a professional musical career before going into journalism?

“I had piano lessons as a kid, including a year’s study with a gent who taught me how to construct chords, write a simple lead sheet, and some basic theory (eternal thanks, Mr. McManis!) I took some flute lessons in high school, alto sax in college and also took a course in electronic music at the Syracuse U Moog studio.”

“By that time I was jamming with friends, and aware I was not disciplined enough to understand and practice as would have been required to go on. Being a musician seems to me too hard, and other people did it better. I was clearly a writer – also from a very young age. My ego was connected to that work, and I could keep my mind on the understanding and manipulations of words and stories. I felt, much better than focusing in performing music.” 

Who are some of the people you would consider influences and/or important figures in the world of jazz journalism?

“To me, Leroy Jones/ Amiri Baraka with “Blues People” was most important, providing a comprehensive, historical/sociological perspective that explained the racial aspects of conflict and collaboration I was hearing and seeing. I was moved by Nat Hentoff’s liner notes for Coltrane albums – he identified the humanity I heard in that music. His oral history book (with Nat Shapiro) “ Hear Me Talkin’ to You” was significant to me, too, and Gunther Schuller’s “Early Jazz”. I also enjoyed Robert Palmer’s magazine and newspaper writing, the book on New Orleans’ founders “Jazzmen,” Valerie Wilmer’s “As Serious As Your Life”, A.B. Spellman’s “Four Lives in the Bebop Business,” and Mezz Mezzrow’s “Really the Blues.” But I read everything in “DownBeat” from ‘67 on, local critics in Chicago including Sam Lesner, and picked up information as well as stylistic influences from everyone, even if they sometimes provided negative models.”

Do you view yourself as more a critic than an advocate or both?

“I hope I can be an inviter, an enlightened, and a guide. I don’t think there’s much space in contemporary publications for serious jazz criticism, and while I advocate that jazz is an enriching art form, I don’t like to think of myself as an advocate-cheerleader, but for a very few artists. I prefer to think of my work as reporting, storytelling and interpretation.”

Who are some of your favorite artists?

“Miles, Ornette and Cecil, of course. Betty Carter, Jimmy Hendrix, Otis Redding, Otis Spann, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Skip James. Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Earl Hines, Gonzalo Rubalcaba,  Sun Ra, Bob Wills, King Sunny Ade, Don Cherry, Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley. Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins.”

“Bobby Hutcherson, Gil Evans, ‘60s era Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Steve Coleman, Chick Corea, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Erwin Helfer, Mama Stella Yancey, Butch Morris, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, John Scofield, Myra Melford, Greg “Organ Monk” Lewis, Chicago improviser Jim Baker. The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Andrew Hill, Don Pullen, Muhal Richard Abrams. Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Fred Astaire, Joe Derise, Dave Holland, Robert Dick, Nicole Mitchell, Michel Edelin, Jack DeJohnette, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Carla Bley, Bob Dylan, Bismillah Khan, Harisprasad Chaurasia, Captain Beefheart, Andrew Cyrille. Many more. I’m embarrassed by leaving out so many I admire.”

What are some of your favorite recordings?

Miles’ Quartet “In the Beginning,” “In a Silent Way” and “On the Corner.” Solo Monk and “Monk’s Music.” “The Complete Africa Brass Sessions,” “Impressions,” “Meditations” and “Interstellar Space.” “Out to Lunch,” “Escalator Over the Hill,” “Science Fiction,” “Friends and Neighbors” and “In All Languages.”

 “Unit Structures” and “Air Above Mountains,”  “The Liberation Music Orchestra,” “Mingus Presents Mingus,” “Mingus, Mingus, Mingus” and “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion”; “Conference of the Birds”, Jelly Roll’s Red Hot Peppers and his solos from 1923, Sun Ra’s “Secrets of the Sun,” Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Out of the Cool, Braxton’s Three Compositions of the New Jazz, Kalaparusha’s Humility in “The Light of the Creator”, “The Inner Mounting Flame,” “Live at the Half Note,” “Maiden Voyage”, “Crossings,” “Sextant” and “Gershwin’s World,” “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” “After Bathing at Baxter’s,” “Inside Betty Carter,” “Silver Apples of the Moon,” :”ainbow In Curved Air,” “Levels and Degrees of Light,” “Hoodoo Man Blues,” “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” Herbie Nichols’ Blue Note trios with Blakey, “Native Dancer,” “Money Jungle,” “Axis Bold as Love,” Otis Redding at Monterey Pop, “Spaces” (Corea, McLaughlin and Coryell).

 Which artists have you enjoyed interviewing or interacting with most

“Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Haden, Edward Blackwell, Dewey Redman and the harmolodic crew, including Denardo Coleman, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Kenny Wessel, Dave Bryant, and the great Jayne Cortez. Betty Carter, Gil Evans, Myra Melford, Andrew Hill and Don Pullen. I’m so glad I’ve been able to meet and talk with and sometimes befriend these folks.”

When did the Jazz Journalists Association begin and why was it formed?

“The JJA grew out of a meeting convened in Chicago by Willard Jenkins in 1986. First, it was a matter of socializing with colleagues, and discussing business- related issues. It took a few years to come together as an organization and eventually gain 501 (c) 3 status as a nonprofit professional association. We exist to promote the interests of journalists involved with jazz, including networking, raising professional profiles, asserting the journalism is key to sustaining jazz’s public profile, providing consultations on biz issues, recognizing excellence in jazz artistry, journalism, and altruistic advocacy ( our annual Jazz Heroes).”

JJA now has its own awards program. Has any thought ever been given to trying to start some sort of televised jazz awards program?

“Thought , yes – and some attempts, including two years when we streamed the entire programs live from City Winery in NYC. But we don’t have the sponsorship or staff to make this happen on the level that people imagine is possible. We’re not the Monk Institute backed by UNESCO or the Motion Picture Academy or NARAS. We’ve been able to have excellent videos compressing the Awards ceremonies for several years directed by Ms. Michal Shapiro. They’re all accessible for free on YouTube.”

 Do you also enjoy blues or other idioms?

“Oh yes, as mentioned above. I’m particularly interested in blues piano, Chicago electric blues, and the Delta/acoustic guitarist-singers. I like Western Swing, Afro-Caribbean music, African music (especially West African and Congolese rumba), “classical” modernists from Bartok and Ives to Cage and Fernyhough, for instance. I like a lot of rock pre 1984 or so, too, especially the Jefferson Airplane.”

 Arts coverage seems to be dwindling in newspapers and magazines. Do you think that the proliferation of websites and/or blogs sufficiently address this change?

“No, I don’t. I’m afraid blogs and websites reach only those who are looking for the info, not putting the news out there for people who might not know it interests them, but then they stumble on it and it sparks something they follow up on. I don’t see the blogs and websites paying usually, and thus they can’t sustain a journalist’s efforts. I worry about their permanence, too. Will people read five-year-old blog posts? Or 30-year-old ones?”

What are things that you advise for newcomers getting into this field?

“Be imaginative, flexible and innovative about how you address the current media landscape. Listen to a LOT of music, and ask musicians your questions about it whenever possible. Remember that your “client” is the reader/listener, who you must reach through editors (unless you’re promoting your own platforms), and NOT the musicians, though they deserve respectful and serious listening. Keep doing the coverage of music you’re drawn to, for whatever reason. Take yourself seriously as someone who deserves to be adequately paid. Read, writer, photograph, make videos and podcasts. Don’t stop – if you don’t like some music, make sure you know why.”

Do you also do radio or a podcast?

“I’ve been an arts reporter for National Public Radio since 1985. Before that, I produced a radio show called Jazz, Chicago under the auspices of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Some of those shows, from 1978 to ‘82, will be aired in 2019 on WDCB as part of the celebration of the Jazz Institute’s 50th year.” 

Who are some emerging or lesser known musicians that you feel are going to become bigger over the next 5-10 years in regards to jazz?

“Tyshawn Sorey, Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara, Taylor Ho Bynum, Peter Evans, Mike Reed, Tomeka Reid, Libert Ellman, Junius Paul, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Jazzmeia Horn, Jon Irabagon, Elio Villafranca, Jonathan Finlayson.”

What is your stance on the continuing controversy over whether the term jazz is outdated or inaccurate from a cultural perspective?

“I love the word jazz. I believe it has emerged and endured because people respond to it as a description of propulsive, far-flung, exciting, edgy and often sexy music rooted in real life (rather than commercial imperatives), and the term covers the greatest music of a century, made by distinctive individuals against great odds. I don’t think the word devalues the music, and I’ve heard of no alternatives that fit headlines and encompass the breadth of music that “jazz” does.”

 Do you still rely on CDs and/or vinyl albums for review purposes, or do you now mostly rely on downloads and streaming?

“I prefer to get CDs to review, but sometimes review downloads.”

 What’s your view on streaming services like Spotify and Apple in terms of positive or negative impact on jazz?

“I find Spotify useful if I need to hear something immediately – but no, it does not have “all music” and I’m afraid what it doesn’t have may become even further obscure. I don’t much like other entities projecting my playlists, though have enjoyed Pandora from time to time. I still like owning and sequencing my own music, sans commercials.”

Do you feel there’s too much emphasis on reissues in jazz circles to the detriment of newer music?

“No, that hasn’t occurred to me. I like hearing Dolphy, Cannonball Adderley, Larry Young and Coltrane music that’s newly discovered. I guess I’ve been collecting albums long enough that some of the reissues I have in original editions. But for the really old music – from the 1920s through the early ‘50s, before my time – I like reissues making it available, sometimes with superior sound quality.”

In your view has the rise of jazz in academic circles been a good or bad thing?

“Well, I taught courses in jazz appreciation for 27 years at New York University, so in that sense I think it’s a good thing! But academic study and research isn’t my particular bag. I think the historical work by academics is important and glad it’s being done. The teaching of instrumental and vocal techniques has clearly led to extraordinary levels of competence by a couple generations of musicians, so that’s good. Removing the music from its popular roots is problematic, but not caused by academic jazz programs – I see that instead as the results of myriad societal forces, to which the academization is one response.”

Finally, would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist as regards the future of jazz?

“An optimist. There’s an enormous amount of vitality in the creative music coming out now. There are new channels of global communications and influence. Technology is making things like real-time intercontinental improvisation possible. Jazz musicians are among the artists privileged to be able to go their own ways, as long as they can support themselves or find a community of listeners. I’m more optimistic about the future of jazz than almost anything else.”