Sunday, May 24, 2009

Beware the Jazzerwhack

My time at has ended with a sorry thud. I resigned a few days ago. Here's why:

For the first several months whatever I wrote was carefully read and occasionally improved by an editor named Alan Kurtz, one of those gents who works to better the writer's submission by asking questions, suggesting slight rewrites, finally polishing a bit if still necessary--shaping a better Ed-piece, as it were.

A month ago I was reassigned to a person I will now call Frumious Bandersnatch. He is the opposite sort of editor--the sort who slashes and rewrites to make the piece fit a prescribed length and sound more like the editor than the source writer. He asks no questions, gives no information, edits to suit himself, and then submits the finished product without allowing the writer a chance to read or object. Frumious has mangled eight or ten of my reviews now, and I finally got tired of bitching and getting nowhere, either with him or with mainman Ted Gioia, who quickly tired of my complaints.

So I quit. No loss to the website; a small, proud-but-useless gesture on my part. Too bad. I liked what was and is doing, just not what they were doing to me.

Probably only another writer will appreciate the rest of this story, but I have stubbornly now decided to post several of my last efforts in the original versions, here at my blog, along with links to the reviews as rewritten by Frumious. Readers are welcome to compare and decide for themselves if I am just oversensitive and egocentric, or maybe actually justified.

First exhibit is Gil Scott-Heron's "Winter in America," one of 12 Americana Jazz pieces I was compiling for a feature called The Dozens. (Ironically, this is the one review Frumious actually wrote me about, asking me to lengthen my original by 50 words or so, which I did. He then proceeded to cut the whole thing!) Here's the version I submitted:

Poet, vocalist, and proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron has experienced something of a career revival during the last decade. Eclipsed in the Eighties and early Nineties, he is now acknowledged as a major influence on several developments in Black Music and today's soul jazz as well. (It's easy to imagine that Cassandra Wilson, for one, considered Gil and the Midnight Band before finding her own path.) One of Scott-Heron's finest statements is "Winter in America," an image-driven portrait of the icy stasis gripping the nation in the early Seventies--after the assassinations and riots, after Watergate and Vietnam.

First there was an album of that name on Strata-East but no song (Scott-Heron considered the three words simply an evocative image, not a subject for music), then he composed an actual "Winter in America" for his Arista debut, The First Minute of a New Day. But this studio effort didn't really jell until tour performances (and some live recordings) crystalized its powerful message. Still, one version looms distinct. A bonus track on the New Day CD reissue, the "Winter" of 1978 is both cooler and stronger as Gil works alone, his voice and electric piano only. The keyboard work is basic, the rhythm mostly staccato, the melody slightly flattened out, yet a cold beauty and several hard truths obtain: "...a nation that just can't stand much more... democracy is rag-time on the corner, hopin' for some rain... peace signs that melted in our dreams... all of our healers have been killed or betrayed... ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

The picture is bleak but the music haunts and compels, and the verbal tropes still resound today, 30 years farther (or maybe no farther) on...

And here is the link:

Next is the final entry in the Americana Dozens, which I wrote carefully to end a certain way (the unnecessary rewrite adds poor grammer there instead):

After the sturm und drang of 80 chaotic years--wars and demonstrations, riots and space walks, Depression and recession and more, all of them reflected (and sometimes rejected) in the sound of jazz and the souls of musicians of each era--it's a momentary grace to come upon Charlie Haden's "American Dreams." In the Liberation Music Orchestra albums his political activism remains a resolute force. But here the statement is simply peaceful, a piano trio performance by Haden, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade, embraced by a 34-piece string orchestra. (Co-billed tenor man Michael Brecker lays out on this track.)

Low strings announce the heartbeat thuds of Haden's stately lift-and-settle-back melody, then the strings fall away and in a light 4/4 Mehldau plays lovely variants of the theme, Charlie staying quiet and Blade flicking and switching around Brad's resonating notes, till the bass and strings resume their calm, earth-coming-to-rest pulse. Both rise then in a slow crescendo... followed by a swift dying fall and Haden's deep time going silent. His song-without-words has conjured images of the shifting clouds and colors of a sunset under Western skies, and somehow an America once more worthy of the dreams of its people.

And the Bandersnatched revise:

Now the opening of a planned new Dozens devoted to New Orleans piano masters over the century of Jazz:

New Orleans piano didn't start with Jelly Roll Morton, who paid his own respects to such earlier Storyville habitues as Sammy Davis and Tony Jackson, but the self-styled "Inventor of Jazz" was first to record, and his subsequent decades of success probably helped inspire other Creole pianists like Joe Robicheaux and Armand Hug. Meanwhile, Morton's 1940 Library of Congress recordings (filling seven CDs) make for fascinating listening as he plays and sings and recounts the long and winin'-boy history of NOLA music.

The track titled "New Orleans Blues" serves double duty. It's a syncopated number with traces of ragtime and the sporting parlor amidst a flowing series of variations that eventually lead to a restrained stomp-it-off finish. Jelly Roll states that he pulled the tune together about 1902 (helped by older players Joe Jordan and Frank Richards), but on this recording he uses it to introduce a multi-part dissection of "the Spanish tinge" in jazz, that taste of tango/habanera rhythm that may actually date back to pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Yes or no, the "tinge" has been the bed-rocking foundation of New Orleans music ever since. Morton talks and plays, demonstrating how the semi-Latin beat needed to move from the right hand to the left, to create a solid base/bass for jazz (as the new music would come to be named), which would then allow the piano in the right hands to be brisk or bluesy or ballad slow.

As Jelly rolls on, we get to hear him interpret "La Paloma" as well as his own Spanish-tinged tunes "Creepy Feeling" and "The Crave." He may have been a braggart, but Morton was also a brilliant pianist (and singer) and prolific composer who lived his life con brio, and the LoC tapes are proof positive.

The Frumious link:

And finally the second piano review, this one of boxer-turned-bluesman Jack Dupree:

A New Orleans favorite since never-recorded pianist "Drive 'Em Down" (Willie Hall) played it in the streets in the Twenties, "Junker's Blues" was finally put on disc in 1941 by Hall's two-fisted protege, Champion Jack Dupree. Jack's rough barrelhouse style fit the down-and-dirty, drug-user lyrics to a T, and NOLA musicians have been casually borrowing lines or tune ever since that first 78 was issued (Fats Domino's debut single "The Fat Man," Lloyd Price singing "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," even "Tipitina" by Professor Longhair, plus umpteen versions reworked as "Junco Partner"). But the Dupree cut is still rawest and best.

"They call me a junco, 'cause I'm loaded all the time"--that's his cheerful opening line, and Jack keeps up the bouncy, pounding, percolating blues piano while he namechecks wine, reefer, needles, cocaine, and other junk, not to mention jail time. Your mom's melody and words this isn't, but the lines eventually find Jack's mother and father, even his grandma, trying to warn him off the stuff...

There's no happy ending, just some final flinty barrelhouse chords, and a blues song that became a hit and a template. The irony is that Dupree supposedly never used anything stronger than liquor, and not much of that. He just loved to clown and play the boogie and make "the peoples" smile. Startling as the subject still may be, "Junker's Blues" does just that.

And the rewrite that broke the camel's back (and notice the word and sentence deletions--why scrap "two-fisted," for instance, a perfect adjective for boxer/barrelhouser Dupree?):

So there's the stuff. One might argue that the revised versions still keep the meat and potatoes of each review. But the gravy is gone; that's how I see it--"It is a poor thing, but mine own." No doubt I over-reacted, but I just don't think any editor should treat a writer like chattel, some pest to be ignored. And I don't back down until persuaded of some error or ineptitude.

Editors...can't work with 'em, can't delete 'em.

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