March 2009 By Lee Mergner
First Words on Last Words
What does it say about me that I enjoy putting together this issue with its tributes to those important figures who died during the past year? Call me morbid or, better yet, respectful, but this annual issue with its Farewells has been a great source of pride for me. Over the years, we’ve struggled to deal appropriately with deaths in the jazz world. Who gets a mention or obituary? Who gets a longer tribute? And what should that tribute consist of?
Honestly, we’ve never known if we’ve answered those questions correctly. And running lengthy obit tributes in issue after issue seemed like a concession to the old “jazz is dead” slur. I’d like to say that the idea of putting all of the tributes into one issue was an original one all my own, but it wasn’t. Publications like Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times Magazine have been doing it for years. My contribution has solely been to play matchmaker and find interesting eulogists who can speak from the heart with distinction. In fact, one of the surprising benefits of this section has been the discovery of rich new voices outside the general realm of jazz journalism. Artists like Branford Marsalis, Charlie Haden, Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves and Joe Lovano have shown themselves to be as articulate on paper as they are on their respective instruments.
Since we started this annual section back in 2006, many of the pieces have left indelible memories. Last year, Randy Brecker wrote beautifully about his brother Michael in a Farewell that not only cracks me up, but also makes me teary every time I read it. I suppose that comes from having two brothers of my own. And Sonny Rollins’ memories of his childhood friend Jackie McLean never fail to magically transport me to that special place and time of Harlem in the ’40s.
In a few cases over the years, the Farewells have formed a tragic chain. We had Oscar Peterson pay tribute to his longtime bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and now Benny Green does the honors for his mentor, who died at the end of 2007. We asked record producer Joel Dorn to salute Ed Bradley in 2007, only to have Joel pass away later that year and become the subject of one of the most touching tributes in this issue. Les McCann’s funny piece about lifelong pal Dorn offers a window into their very special friendship.
There is a longstanding tradition of eloquent eulogies in jazz. One of our former contributors, Stanley Dance, delivered the eulogy at Duke Ellington’s funeral in 1974. I remember talking about that occasion with Stanley and he counted that speech as one of the best things he ever wrote. He knew that his words in this case mattered a great deal and, if done properly, would live beyond his own years. Indeed they have: “It is Memorial Day, when those who died for the free world are properly remembered. Duke Ellington never lost faith in this country, and he served it well. His music will go on serving it for years to come.”
We in turn dedicate this issue to all of those who served the jazz community so well before they passed away in 2008.
Originally published in March 2009