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JT Notes: The Passing of Don Heckman and Celebrating Our Wins

Mac Randall opens the April 2022 issue remembering the internationally respected jazz critic

Don Heckman
Don Heckman

I was all ready to spend the duration of this column politely crowing. I had good reason. In December 2021, jazztimes.com reached an unprecedented peak of readership, with more than 1.1 million page views. This was an achievement worth celebrating, and it offered an excellent opportunity to thank our staff, management, contributors, and readers; proudly review the improvements we’ve made to our online presence over the past three years or so; and note with pleasure that there’s more to come.

And then some other news came down the line, news that took this positive development and put it in perspective—“too much fucking perspective,” as Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins once famously said in front of Elvis’ grave. The news was that Don Heckman, an internationally respected critic (and a gifted musician) who contributed to many publications, including this one, and who wrote about jazz and world music in the Los Angeles Times for approximately two decades, had passed away in L.A. just five weeks shy of his 90th birthday.

This was sad enough in itself, but there was more to it. Heckman had died on November 14, … 2020. More than 14 months had elapsed since his passing, and no one outside of his immediate family and closest friends had known a thing about it. To be fair, the pandemic was a factor, making the public memorial service that would undoubtedly have happened in less abnormal times an impossibility. But still—no death notice, no obituary, not a word of tribute, not even in the paper he’d written for regularly over so many years. It was JazzTimes contributor Ken Franckling, writing for the Jazz Journalists Association’s website, who finally broke the news on January 24 of this year after catching wind of a rumor and following up with Heckman’s daughter Allegra.

Those of us who write about music for a living (or try to) can sometimes be comforted by the thought that our words will outlive us. And so they will. But are the words themselves all that really matter to us? Don’t we also want to be acknowledged as the author of those words? Wouldn’t we all like at least a little posthumous appreciation? The example of Don Heckman is a reminder that we have no control over such things, and that beyond the grave, recognition is never guaranteed.

So by all means, let’s celebrate our big wins when they happen. It’s only right that we should. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking they’re more than they are. When the daily deadlines are over and the metrics reports have been filed away, the most we can hope for is that our work enlightened and entertained its readers. That was certainly true in Don Heckman’s case. I hope the same goes for JazzTimes. 

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.