The Dearly Departed

We’re a small but dedicated group of writers and editors who bring you JT each month, but often we feel like morticians. Instead of formaldehyde and makeup, we arrange the use of hyperbole and half-remembered anecdotes to dress up our departed, ignoring their embarrassments and failures—like all respectful eulogizers—and sending them off into the annals of jazz history with legacies grossly overstated or, in the case of cover subject Max Roach, hopelessly undefined, even with huge-hearted efforts made by men like the superb drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts (see page 44). Max’s influence outshines words, and the only truly fitting homage I can imagine would be one of his own hi-hat recitals, during which he proved it’s possible to define jazz by swing and swing alone. To be sure, perhaps until Roy Haynes or Tain nods to Max as Max did to Papa Jo, that’s a road we’ll never have the joy of traversing again.

Face it: In a century-old art form, especially one once defined by hard living, its players are going to pass away in droves. And pass they do, so much so that I wince when I open my e-mail account each morning. I’ve joked, in questionable taste, that our Web site, JazzTimes.com, should change its slogan from “...more than a magazine” to “keeping jazz alive, one obituary at a time.”

Still, our efforts rarely seem great enough to satiate JT’s readers. Each month we’re greeted with a lion’s share of indignant e-mails and letters, ranging from the completely warranted (a helpful voicemail informed me we’d dropped the ball on noting the death of pianist Sal Mosca, one of Lennie Tristano’s brightest disciples, some issues back) to the extremely unreasonable (usually something like, “How could you not include a retrospective article on the late So-and-So? He was a pinnacle of the Scranton, Pa., free-improv scene from spring 1967 through winter 1968!”).

In interests of deadlines, we can’t possibly react to each and every death as it occurs with a timely full-length piece; even if we could, you’d probably find that much deifying exhausting and depressing, and jazz’s present and future are too vital to be sidelined anyway. So that’s why we designate March our “Farewells” issue, and thoroughly bum you out with one big gooey, nostalgic rag. Actually, the pieces we rounded up from celebrity contributors ranging from producer Bob Belden to critic Francis Davis and detective novelist Michael Connelly are utterly inspirational, surprisingly candid, and totally worth your time.

You should read them for the same reason the divine literary critic Harold Bloom has argued human beings should read at all: because you can’t possibly know enough people. I’m guessing Andrew Hill didn’t phone you regularly to lovingly weigh you down with expectations and constructively criticize your career. But he did call Greg Osby, who remembers those conversations on page 37. Death is brought to life by intimate memories.

As I write this, I’m taking short breaks watching YouTube footage of Oscar Peterson—who died too late in 2007 to be included in the Farewells feature—deconstruct “Soft Winds” with the elegant adrenaline that was his trademark (he’s sweating through his tuxedo, and I can’t imagine a better visual analogy for such a fiery traditionalist). It’s a splendid way to pay respects, but it’s not enough for empathy.

Originally published in March 2008

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