JazzTimes editor Lee Mergner responds to the PREX critique of Downbeat and JazzTimes:
Objectively, I believe he’s overreacted to our cover choices, including most recently Return to Forever, Esperanza Spalding, Freddie Hubbard and David Sanborn. I’m not sure why he dropped the cover artist Rahsaan Roland Kirk; I suppose it didn’t fit his argument. Apparently, picking what we deem as the most commercial and accessible story for the cover makes me a corporate suit and the magazine a tool of publicity flacks. Besides the fact that these cover subjects are pretty damn worthy as artists, if you look at the depth and breadth of coverage in those issues, you see that we are serving the music and our readership quite well. Clearly, he doesn’t dig Sanborn and his heartfelt tribute to Hank Crawford and David Fathead Newman, but in that same issue were features or stories on Ari Hoenig, Bill Stewart, Corey Wilkes, Billy Cobham, Chico Hamilton, Alvin Queen, Tim Warfield, John McLaughlin and Chick Corea. The issue had a drum theme, as you might guess from that list, but in any case, that list is a nice representative sampling of the music – past, present and future. Also, if he had spoken directly with the jazz publicity folks, he’d find that their suggestions and pitches are rejected at an uncomfortably high rate, for various reasons including space and relevance. For the record, we solicited the cover stories on each of those artists. And in fact the piece on Spalding was about the machinery of hype. Finally, if we did these covers for advertising, as is commonly charged, then we really messed up because you won’t see many ads for releases from those artists.
For the record, I believe firmly that JazzTimes and Downbeat are much better magazines than most people in the jazz community realize. Are there comparably strong publications in other roots music niches, such as blues, bluegrass, reggae, Latin and world music? I don’t think so. And that nostalgia for the magazines of the past is something I’ve experienced myself, but then I went through the archives of Metronome and old issues of Downbeat, Musician and other publications and realized that the level of professionalism in contemporary magazines like JazzTimes and Downbeat is so much higher today in every aspect. I miss my old baseball glove, but my catcher’s mitt back then was more like a stiff throw pillow, hardly comparable to the flexible and durable gloves of today.
And calling our writers mediocre seems nearly insane. I would not use that word to describe Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff, Nate Chinen, Don Heckman, David R. Adler, Geoffrey Himes, Larry Appelbaum, George Varga, Marc Hopkins, Ashley Kahn, Mike Joyce, Josef Woodard, Laurel Gross, Steve Greenlee, Rebeca Mauleon and many other regular contributors. If anything, we have benefited from the unfortunate purging of daily and weekly newspapers’ newsrooms. Our next issue features a great column by K. Leander Williams, a longtime weekly vet. Hardly mediocre stuff.
Regarding his valuation of the editors, I’m cool with being called “mediocre,” or to paraphrase Stanley Crouch, “a minor man,” but our managing editor Evan Haga and associate editor Jeff Tamarkin are first-class editors and I feel lucky to be able to work with them. Mediocre they’re not. I can’t speak for Jason at Downbeat, but I’d have to think he feels the same way about his editors. It looked to me like the blogger could have used a bit of editing, mediocre or otherwise.
With the major newspapers cutting back on arts and jazz coverage, we all should appreciate any print media outlets paying close attention to this music, much less the ones who are doing it very well.
Honestly, I can take criticism pretty well, but what stung the most is the blogger’s thesis that we’re bad for jazz and that we don’t care about the music. As my teenaged daughter would say, “whatever.” Or, as stated in a quote often attributed to LBJ, “Any jackass can burn down a barn, but it takes a helluva carpenter to build one.”
Thanks for listening.
(Thanks to Lee Mergner for permission to post this response, which appeared earlier today on the Jazz Programmer Listserv.)