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Final Chorus: Conventional Unwisdom About Jazz

A doomsday statistic I hear often-and, I confess, have used myself-is that jazz record sales are only three percent of the total in this country, proving the very limited popularity of the music. I have now been disabused of that misleading factoid by a letter from Bill Kirchner in Gene Lee’s invaluable Jazzletter (P.O. Box 240, Ojai, California 93024, $70 for 12 issues a year). Said Kirchner: “As Dan Morgenstern has pointed out, the oft-cited figure applies to only major labels. It doesn’t include independent labels, or imports, or bootlegs, or sales of used records.” And, I would add, it doesn’t include musician’s increasing use of the Internet to sell their self-produced recordings.

I called Dan Morgenstern, who made the tellingly visual point: “You go into Tower Records, or others of the major record stores, and you see oceans of jazz releases. It would make no sense for these stores to give so much space to jazz to fit if it doesn’t sell.”

Another alleged fact is that “jazz books don’t sell.” As I can attest, this is an increasing reaction from book editors, including some of those who used to be more welcoming to jazz proposals but now go back to their in-house committees for approval and are told to offer minimal advances if any. My response, out of my own frustrating experiences with some of my published books, is that jazz books indeed don’t sell if they’re not promoted with knowledgeable skill and determination as others of mine have proved.

An illuminating case history of how to promote a jazz book is the current odyssey of Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way by Peter Levinson (Da Capo Press) the first book on Dorsey in 32 years. (In the February JazzTimes, Christopher Loudon called it a “thoroughly enlightening and entertaining biography [which] will help push the deserving Dorsey back into the spotlight.”)

I first knew Peter Levinson decades ago as a remarkably resourceful public relations professional, which he still is. Over the past 30 years, his clients have included an abundance of jazz creators from Count Basie to Benny Carter, Artie Shaw, and Phil Woods. His previous books are Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James and September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, both of which will be essential for researchers and surprised readers into the future.

In detailing how Peter Levinson has planned and executed a model of how to promote his new jazz book, I first have to note that some publishing houses have able publicity personnel, but they need the support of their employers to spend the time and effort to bring a book into the spotlight. But some of their bosses restrain them with the shop-worn mantra, “Let’s first see what kind of word-of-mouth the book will get.”

Levinson, knowing that his publication date was November 1, 2005- and that the date of Tommy Dorsey’s 100th birthday was 18 days later, began his campaign over a year before the book would hit the stores.

He called Jeff Jones, a senior vice president of Sony Music, and the result is a 3-CD Tommy Dorsey, The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing- The Tommy Dorsey Centennial Collection, orchestrated by the legendary discographer-historian Michael Brooks. As a bonus, Jeff Jones added “The Essential Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.” Meanwhile, Lisa Warren, Da Capo Press’ publicity director was at work, setting up an interview, with music, on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition.” Levinson parlayed that into a spot on CBS-TV’s “Entertainment Tonight,” which designated the Dorsey book an essential Christmas gift.

Tuning in CBS’s “Sunday Morning” on New Year’s Day, I saw Peter, along with Tommy Dorsey clips, in an interview he had set up. Along with book signings around the country, many of which Levinson arranged, he also was responsible for a week of Tommy Dorsey’s music at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with the Julliard Jazz Orchestra; and Tommy Dorsey’s 100th Birthday Cruise Line in November with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra directed by Buddy Murrow. In addition, Levinson arranged for five Tommy Dorsey film musicals to be shown in March 2006, on Turner Classic Movies, in the course of which his book would be prominently cited. There has also been a range of radio interviews; and through Levinson contacting many major newspapers, reviews of the book on those pages.

As of this writing, the publicity beat for the book will go on. Obviously, Levinson’s many contacts over many years in the music business have had a lot to do with this aurora borealis of publicity. But it’s important to document what can be done with a book on jazz, including a book about a musician, however masterful and influential a trombonist and leader he was, whose music is otherwise exceedingly hard to find on the air these days, or mentioned in jazz publications.

The NPR interview with Levinson which I heard, began with Linda Wertheimer: “You’re listening to Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra .. He influenced a generation of performers. With his brother, Jimmy, he defined American popular music from the ’20s all the way to the ’50s…Mr. Levinson, welcome.”

Well, Dorsey surely helped define popular music all those years, but how many listeners-except those of a certain age-suddenly discovered these unexpected pleasures that Saturday morning? The book also brought back the surprises for me back then of the volcanic Bunny Berigan with Dorsey, and the band’s “Milenberg Joys,” one of the hottest jazz records of all time.

Milt Jackson once told me jazz could be more popular if only more people know about it. And that takes promotion!

Originally Published
Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

Over more than 60 years, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) wrote about music, politics, and many other subjects for a variety of publications, including DownBeat (which he edited from 1953 to 1957), the Village Voice (where he was a weekly columnist from 1958 to 2009), the Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes, to which he regularly contributed the Final Chorus column from 1998 to 2012. Of the 32 books that he wrote, co-wrote, or edited, 10 focus on jazz. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.