March 2007

Sheldon Meyer

(6.8.26 – 10.9.06)

Writers in many disciplines are mourning the passing of Sheldon Meyer, the Oxford University Press editor who died Oct. 9, 2006, at 80. He published more prize-winning histories than any other editor ever, single-handedly turned the world’s oldest and stodgiest press into the leading resource for American studies, and spearheaded a revolution in black studies. His influence on jazz literature is hard to overstate.

He wasn’t the type to mind a desk and wait for writers and agents to offer ideas. Sheldon generated most of his most influential books, matching writers and subjects, nurturing them to the finish line even when it meant drawing blood from a stone. His publishing reflected his enthusiasms, which were many and constant: He was an habitué of cabarets, concerts, opera, ballet, theater, movies and sporting events, and loved nothing better than to discuss them—chuckling in recollection of especially glowing moments—and find writers to memorialize them. Few readers knew his name, yet he changed the way we think, redefining the discourse on popular culture, on the interface between the aggressive American style and the conventions of high art.

A few examples: Contemporary jazz criticism found its template in Martin Williams’s The Jazz Tradition. The truisms with which we speak of the American songbook and pantheon songwriters have their genesis in Alec Wilder and James Maher’s American Popular Song. The musicological approach to jazz and art, now universally adopted in college curricula, hardly existed before Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz. The cottage industry of books about minstrelsy as a source of 20th-century tropes begins with Robert Toll’s Blacking Up. The countless investigations of slave culture as a foundation for African-American art begin with Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness. Reconsiderations of the Harlem Renaissance were launched by Nathan Huggins’ book of that name. The growing shelf of jazz companions has an unbeatable paradigm in Mark Tucker’s The Duke Ellington Reader. These titles scarcely crack the surface of Sheldon’s achievement (a jaw-dropping assemblage of his books fills up an entire wall of his living room), which is attested to by their continuing stature as indispensable works.

Sheldon made certain that Whitney Balliett’s profiles were promptly collected, ensured that Ira Gitler would preserve the primary value of Leonard Feather’s groundbreaking research in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, and encouraged Stanley Crouch to collect his early essays in Notes of a Hanging Judge. After decades of vainly trying to get Dan Morgenstern to stand still long enough to write a book, he took it upon himself to edit Dan’s masterly Living with Jazz for another publishing house. At a time when jazz record sales were plummeting, Oxford jazz proliferated: biographies, academic treatises, reference works, memoirs, polemics, essay collections—other publishers cringed at the latter, but Sheldon admired the essay form and recruited anthologies. As writers, we will no longer have so loyal an advocate and friend; as readers, we will always rely on books he brought to fruition.

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