08/28/10

Howard Reich: Writing with a Wide Aperture

Chicago-based jazz critic talks about Let Freedom Swing, a collection of his jazz writing over the last three decades.

Howard Reich has been an arts critic and writer with the Chicago Tribune since 1983. He is the author of three books: I>The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir (2006); Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton (2003), which was written with William Gaines; and Van Cliburn (1993). His latest book is Let Freedom Swing, a collection of his writing from the Tribune, as well as a few articles from DownBeat.

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Howard Reich
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Howard Reich with Leon Slominski and Gordon Quinn on set of Prisoner of Her Past
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Sonia Reich, subject of Prisoner of her Past, in Northbrook, Illinois

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Reich discussed with JT his most recent book and his long career as a jazz critic.

What was the first piece you wrote about music or jazz?

I’ll never forget it: In 1975, I reviewed a double-bill of Tony Bennett and Lena Horne at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. Kind of hard to top that. The piece was not for publication but for an Independent Study I was doing at Northwestern University with Thomas Willis, who was then a faculty member at NU’s School of Music—and music critic for the Chicago Tribune.

Did you have any formal training in journalism or even music journalism?

Virtually none in journalism, except for that Independent Study with Willis. Almost all my formal training was in music: Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance, plus two years of graduate study in music theory and history, all at Northwestern.

You have been the jazz writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune for many years. That role can be a tough one over time. How do you deal with the inevitable backlash from locals for being an objective critic, rather than merely a champion of local artists?

Yes, indeed, I began writing about music for the Tribune in 1977 and joined the staff in 1983. I recently received a letter from a Chicago musician who said he’d been reading me since he was 8 years old! There have been times when musicians have been upset and have written emotional letters to my editors or demanded meetings with them. In one such confab—with me present—a well-known Chicago musician told the Features Editor that I had destroyed his career. When I pointed out that he was opening that Tuesday at the Jazz Showcase and playing the next week at the Green Mill, the editor smiled and began to bring the meeting to a close. But I do feel that if I dish it out, I ought to be able to take it.

How do you avoid burnout – say, reviewing Kurt Elling for the umpteenth time?

I think artists change too much over time for me to get tired of hearing them. Consider Elling: I may have been the first critic to review him, in 1994. He was stunningly original, artistically daring, technically brilliant. He’s less so today—at least judging by his most recent recordings and performances—and that unusual transformation has been fascinating to document. When artists do become too repetitive, I simply write less frequently about them.

What do you think is unique about the Chicago jazz and music scene? What do you enjoy most about covering the local scene?

For me, the single most thrilling aspect of music in Chicago is the city’s tendency to encourage fabulously eccentric artists. Von Freeman’s hysterical solos and weird intonation on tenor saxophone, Patricia Barber’s other-worldly contemplations as singer-pianist, Reginald Robinson’s fantastically ornate neo-ragtime piano compositions, the uncounted experiments of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—all this astonishing music has come from fearless Chicago iconoclasts. And they’ve built international followings precisely because of the fierce individuality of their work. The other joy of music in Chicago is the tight-knit quality of the scene, as we were reminded with the recent death of saxophonist-club owner Fred Anderson. For decades, musicians and others had donated their time to keep Anderson’s beloved Velvet Lounge alive, and I don’t know if you’d see that kind of communal effort in a lot of other places. All of which gives me plenty to write about.

This book is a collection of articles and columns you wrote mostly for the Tribune, plus a few for DownBeat. Over what span of time do the articles run?

All but three of the pieces in the collection appeared in the Tribune. The coverage stretches from the 1980s to the present, but I like to think that the geographical and cultural span is even greater. I’ve reported extensively from Cuba and Panama, as well as from most of America’s jazz capitals. More important, I’ve viewed music not strictly through a jazz lens but through the wider aperture of jazz, blues, gospel, ragtime, world music and related genres. What do they all have in common? To me, they’re all folk musics that have been taken to exalted artistic heights, thanks to the musicians who speak in these pages, from Havana’s Compay Segundo to Chicago’s Herbie Hancock (yes, he’s still ours—he just happens to live in L.A.).

You must have had a ton of material to choose from. How did you choose what went in and what didn’t?

That was the hard part: culling more than 33 years of writing! Yet, ultimately, the choices were obvious. I had to include a sprawling series on music in post-Katrina New Orleans; scene pieces from Paris’ jazz dens and San Francisco’s St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church; gospel portraits of Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church and a rollicking, all-star recording session in Alexandria, Ind. (everyone was there, including the Barrett Sisters, Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews); conversations with rule-breakers such as Ornette Coleman and Ken Vandermark, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne; centenary essays on Duke Ellington and George Gershwin; reportage on Louis Armstrong’s private diary recordings, which showed the previously unknown anger beneath the smile; revelations about the swing bands that emerged in Japanese internment camps during World War II. It seemed appropriate to close the book with farewells to musicians who shaped the 20th Century, from gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey to vibes virtuoso Lionel Hampton, whose send-off unfolded in a New Orleans-style funeral parade through the streets of Harlem.

How did you deal with the timely aspect of some of your pieces that were written with a daily in mind?

It’s often said that newspapers are the first draft of history, and that’s how I regard my Tribune coverage—it’s designed to capture the sound, the drama, the urgency of a particular musical moment. And if that moment is significant, I believe it’s worth reading about the next day—or 20 years later. In other words, we’ll never again see Miles Davis’ last concert in Chicago (which was also the next-to-last performance of his life) or the first Mardi Gras in New Orleans after Katrina or the first revival of Ellington’s previously lost stage musical “My People.” I was there for these historic occasions, and many others, and wrote about them. My hope is that anyone who loves this music as much as I do will value a detailed, evocative report from someone who witnessed these events first-hand.

Did you do any rewriting of pieces?

I did do some very minor tweaking: sharpened some word choices, refined some phrases—the kind of thing you don’t get to do under daily deadline pressure. Ultimately, though, the pieces are somewhere between 99 and 100 percent as they originally appeared. My goal was to stay true to what I wrote. Because of the passage of time, however, I added italicized codas to many of the pieces, updating readers on what has happened to my subjects since the original articles appeared – and how I feel about those developments.

What piece did you get a kick out of when you re-read it?

I chuckled when I revisited one of the lighter pieces in the book, “In the Home of Jazz, Swing Definitely Not the Thing.” The column ran when the Chicago Bulls were battling the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals, in 1997. Some Tribune editors decided that as long as Utah’s team dared to call itself the Jazz, why not send the Tribune jazz critic to see if he could find any jazz in the home of the Jazz? (Salt Lake City had never bothered to change the name of the team after New Orleans’ franchise moved to Utah, in 1979.) This meant I not only spent a week trying to find jazz in Salt Lake City (a virtually impossible task), but I faced the challenge of writing a Page One story for the Sunday paper about something that didn’t exist.

Who was your favorite or most memorable interview?

Perhaps the interview that moved me the most was the afternoon I spent with Ornette Coleman, in his New York apartment. Obviously, the breadth of his innovations, the lustrous beauty of his melodies and the heroism he showed in the face of harsh criticism for many decades made him a hero to me, and countless others. Yet, in person, I found him to be one of the most unpretentious, gentle, accessible, lovely human beings I’ve ever met. The softness of his voice was matched by the candor of his answers, and I felt that this was a moment in my life I never would forget. And I never have.

Can you say who was your least favorite and why?

That’s easy—I went to Cab Calloway’s house, in suburban New York, eager to meet another hero of mine. Having reviewed his maniacal performances many times, I knew he’d be brimming over with great stories and hilarious observations. Was I wrong. He gave me mostly one-sentence answers, and I got through all my questions in about 5 minutes! Disaster. Yet he couldn’t have been more friendly or gracious, insisting on driving my wife and me back to the train station when we were done. In fact, it was in the car when he loosened up and started talking a bit more. Unfortunately, as his car wove across the dividing line in the winding road, I was too ill to write down many notes. Needless to say, I did not include that interview in the book.

Do you prefer writing in short form structure? Is that your natural length as a longtime newspaper man?

Even since my freelance days at the Tribune, in the 1970s, I've alternated short articles with longer pieces for the Sunday Magazine or elsewhere in the paper. I think I would be frustrated to do one without the other. There’s a real thrill to going to a show, writing your thoughts that night and seeing it in the paper the next day – or, nowadays, seeing it online in the next five minutes. Yet there’s something deeply gratifying about working for months—or longer—in an in-depth piece or a series, then watching the outsized effect it can have on readers. I simply need both of those forms of expression.

Before publishing this anthology, you had written a memoir as well as musical biographies on Jelly Roll Morton and Van Cliburn. Can you see yourself returning to the long-form narrative in the future?

I’m sure my next book will return to the narrative form. I haven’t started on one yet because we just completed work on Prisoner of Her Past, a feature-length documentary film inspired by my last book, The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich: A Son’s Memoir. The film—about my mother’s secret Holocaust childhood—was several years in the making; it’s now traveling the world and will be broadcast nationally next year. With Prisoner of Her Past and Let Freedom Swing completed, I’m ready to start thinking about the next project.

Which jazz writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?

I’ve always admired the elegance of Whitney Balliett, the scholarship of Rudi Blesh, the passion of Nat Hentoff, the keen ear (and eye) of Benny Green and the analytical powers of Gunther Schuller. Above all, though, I’ve learned from the first jazz critic, Jelly Roll Morton. His ideas, articulated in the indispensable Alan Lomax interviews, form the intellectual template for all who came after, whether they realize it or not. Morton gave us the framework through which to perceive jazz as an art form.

Whom do you enjoy reading now?

Too many to name here, but the list would have to include (in no particular order) Gary Giddins, Will Friedwald, Ben Ratliff, Don Heckman, Doug Ramsey, Aaron Cohen, Stanley Crouch, Dan Morgenstern, Zan Stewart, David Hajdu, Jason Berry, Samuel Floyd—this could go on for days.

What non-fiction or biographies outside of the world of music do you admire and find yourself rereading?

I’m struck by the extraordinary research behind Nechama Tec’s Defiance, which outshone the recent Daniel Craig movie of the same name (I wish the filmmakers had simply told the shattering story Tec gave them). And I’m touched by Ned Sublette’s The Year Before the Flood.

What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on jazz and music criticism?

It’s inarguable that print is facing tough economic times, though I’m consoled that real criticism still appears in major newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times), that magazines such as JazzTimes and DownBeat keep the music in front of the public. To me, the question isn’t how criticism fares in print but how it survives regardless of format. It doesn’t matter whether people read about music online or in print (though I prefer print). What matters is that they receive top-notch reporting and informed opinion, regardless of the medium. I speak to college classes all the time, and I’m knocked out by how bright these students are. Their voices will be heard—the question is whether they will be paid. I sure hope so.

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