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Cicily Janus: The Human Connection

Lee Mergner interviews author Cicily Janus about her new book, The New Face of Jazz

The New Face of Jazz book cover

During the course of her short career as a professional author, Cicily Janus has already conducted over four hundred interviews within the arts and entertainment industry. Her work has been featured in Huffington Post, All About Jazz, Westword/Village Voice, the UK’s Aesthetica Magazine and Art Nouveau as well as over two dozen literary journals both in print and online. Cicily is also the founder/owner of Writing Away Retreats which offers access and critique to and from the top pros in the industry for writers of any level. She also offers private editing services, master-classes on writing about the arts industry and workshops for students on jazz history and its place in the modern world.

Her first book, The New Face of Jazz, is an oral history that highlights the voices of over 225 interviews with artists from around the country.

You were a musician first and a writer second. Why did you decide to get into the writing profession?

I was a musician, a jazz studies major at University of North Florida, and I played trumpet. I got really burned out on it. I had a profession before writing. I was a nurse for ten years. I needed to tap into a creative well. I started to write novels and they were all terrible. An editor from Harper Collins said to me, “You know, you should write what you know.” We talked about the decline of the jazz scene at least in more popular areas and I told him about this idea I had for a coffee table book of just photos of the new cats, called The New Face of Jazz. He said, “Now that’s something that should be done.” And it developed over time to what you see now.

Had you had any formal training as a writer or music journalist?

Not at all. I just started doing it. I went to some writing conferences trying to sell my novels. I got encouragement but no formal training at all.

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

I started out doing CD reviews for a small indie magazine online, called Art Nouveau. When I had the idea for this book, I started out thinking it would be a guide book or a coffee table book. I didn’t know exactly what form it was going to be. I just knew that I had to get the names that are out there now out. When I started talking to people in the jazz community, I realized that the story was right there with them and what made them want to be artists, and how they were inspired and what kept them going, despite the hard times.

The book in many ways seems like a response to all the “jazz is dead” or “the jazz is audience is dying” talk. How do you react to all of that?

The hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I get upset about that because through eighteen months of research and interviews and traveling across this country to find jazz and to find who was who, I found that jazz is very much alive. It’s just a matter of whoever is criticizing

Explain the structure of the book.

What I wanted to introduce each musician based on their accomplishments and what they sound like that, not who they sound like. I think doing comparisons is almost a disservice to the musicians, because if I tell you a musician sounds like John Coltrane, then you’re going to expect that from him. Who am I to compare them? They sound like themselves. I wanted to give the reader that idea of what they’ve done in their career and where they’re going and what they sound like. And, instead of giving you 300 pages of my thoughts on these musicians, which nobody wants to hear, I wanted to give it to readers in their words. I thought their words told the real story and it makes it much more personal. Jazz is a very very personal art form. I thought, what better way to introduce it to readers. At the top of each section is a line that says Got Music. I asked each musician to think of an album that they’re on whether it’s their solo album or one they’ve appeared on, but give me the name of an album they’re on that best represents their career to date.

Just one?

Yes, just one. Because first we had to save space. And second, if they wanted the listener to start with one of their albums, which one would they start with, instead of, say, listening to the critics or listening to the Top 100 jazz albums. Instead, this is what they thought represented their career to date. Of course, that’s always going to be evolving and changing, but I think it’s a good start for people who either don’t know jazz or don’t know those artists.

How many artists are covered in the book?

There are a little less than 200 artists in the book. I talked to over 400, but unfortunately, we had to cut space. I originally asked Random House for 1,000 pages, but that’s a rare thing these days, especially in a jazz book. So over time, musicians were cut for space purposes and not for any other reason, unfortunately. But I do have some of the interviews that were cut on the web site and I’ll be posting more as time goes on, if Random House does not offer a second edition.

How did you choose the subjects? I just now opened the book randomly to a page and got Jason Jackson and Nat Janoff. Why did Nat Janoff make it and some other musician didn’t?

Some of them were kept for the size of the interview or the size of their piece. This one fits on this page better than another. Some of them were kept because they weren’t as repetitive as what someone else said, which is unfortunate because I think you can have a theme that goes on over and over again. They were editorial choices or those of the editor, not mine. It was like throwing your babies out with the bathwater. It was very difficult. It was very very difficult for me to contact musicians and say, “I’m sorry, you didn’t make the cut.” There were even a few cuts that were made at the very last minute before it went to print that I found out about later. It was hard. Nat Janoff, by the way, is an amazing guitarist. I met him at the 55 Bar in New York and saw him play with his group and was just completely and utterly blown away.

The title says New Face of Jazz but it also includes veterans such as Arturo Sandoval and George Benson. Why were veteran artists like those included right next to the very new artists?

I wanted to include some of the veterans, a lot of whom I term living legends, in the book, because I think the contrast between what they say and what the newbies say speaks volumes. I also wanted to cover a broader scope than what most jazz books do cover because the diverse voices across generational lines adds a lot to the project as whole. Also, I wanted to get some of these people on paper before they’re gone. Having the chance to speak with Sonny Rollins, having the chance to speak with McCoy Tyner and people like George Benson, it’s not often that you get to hear their voice and what they have to say.

Really? Are you serious? We must have done dozens of interviews with each of those guys over the years.

More on the specific question of their lives and who they are as people. Not the career aspect. I also wanted them to provide a platform of advice for the new faces. I thought it was important to contrast the new vs. the old. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know who McCoy Tyner is and don’t now who some of these legends are. There is quite a bit of it too that is similar to what the younger generations are saying that makes its own statement.

Is there one statement, theme or idea that recurred throughout the artist interviews?

I think so. It’s about wanting that human connection, wanting people to listen. Not just going for mass market media. And also arts in the schools was talked about over and over again and how we are going to lose this art form if we continue to diminish the arts in our children’s lives. The other theme I found is that most of the jazz musicians are doing well. They’re extremely happy people on the whole. Despite what Hollywood and the mass market area would portray as being miserable without millions of dollars, most of them are broke, especially if they live in New York, but most of them are very happy individuals, creating their art, hoping others will listen and take a chance on them.

The title of the book is not The New Faces of Jazz, but rather the singular The New Face of Jazz. Why?

Just because I wanted it to represent a collective group and a collective statement of how jazz is always had to face down its reputation that it’s dying and I wanted to put a new face on it.

How long did it take to do all the research and interviews?

A total of two years from start to finish.

There is also a web site. Is that to keep the information current or just something to promote the book?

I’m going to be keeping it up. I’m going to be doing CD reviews on there. Eventually, my wish is that when you click on names that were included in the book and that weren’t included, I’d like to have it that it not only pulls up their web site, but you can listen to their music and you can also listen to part of the MP3 of their interview. We’re working hard to make it a revolving site where people will want to visit and will want to check out artists. And hopefully, we’ll add new people to it over the years.

What do you hope the effect of this book will be?

I really hope that it will change people’s mind about jazz. Even if it only changes one mind about jazz is or was, then my job is done. My true hope is that people will read it and be inspired, because I think anywhere in the book if you took at the word jazz or put in whatever it is you’re passionate about – writing, plumbing, basket-weaving, painting, maybe even classical musicians – you’ll find that no matter what you’re passionate about in life, if you work hard and you really believe in your art and have faith in your art, then you’ll succeed at it. A lot of our country is missing that passion.

Who was your favorite or most memorable interview?

E.J. Strickland, hands down. Why? I didn’t expect the content. It ended up going into a very spiritual discussion, not necessarily about Christianity or anything, but just about how jazz had really touched him and how the music was way more than just notes on the page or rhythm coming out of his sticks. It spoke to me in many ways…he got through to me. And it was like, this is why I’m doing this book, because these aren’t just guys on the bandstand playing for $25-100 a night. These are people who believe that there is something bigger than themselves.

I would guess that most jazz musicians were thrilled to be interviewed about what they do.

Most musicians were very thrilled. I did have trouble getting some of the musicians I reached out to. Some of them didn’t respond or their managers said they were too busy. That was slightly heartbreaking, especially because I would see interviews with them on All About Jazz and all kinds of other jazz web sites. I was going this alone. Random House didn’t come on board until the very end. When you’re doing something like this alone, it’s much more difficult than you would think it would be. These are busy people. I didn’t get the chance to talk to many whom I really wanted to. Still, I’m pleased with how it turned out in the end.

What jazz writers, whether living or dead, influenced you as you were coming up in the world of jazz journalism?

I would say Nat Hentoff, of course. Studs Terkel’s first book was on jazz and I was a huge Studs Terkel fan, ever since my 20th Century history classes, where I started learning about him. I was just overtaken by him. That’s why I did this book in this style. I read a lot of Gary Giddins and I got to know his style over the last few years. Anything in the jazz magazines, I read thoroughly. Bob Blumenthal I came to late. I really enjoy his writing as well. Through this process, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of writers. Scott DeVeaux has become sort of a mentor of mine.

What non-fiction or fiction do you admire and find yourself rereading? Not just about jazz.

I’m an avid reader of Chuck Polahniuk and also Barbara Kingsolver. I’m also a huge fan of Jonathon Eig, the biographer who just put out a book on Al Capone, that I fell in love with. Also, Brad Meltzer is one of my favorites. David Corbett is also one of my absolute favorite writers. He uses musicians as characters in his books. He’s a major jazz fan and he weaves it quite well into his stories.

Care to comment on the future on print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on jazz and music criticism?

I’m actually very very worried about it. I think too many people are immersed in the ADD (Attention-Deficit-Disorder) society, where they want instant gratification. They want things to appear right now. I think that’s going to hurt print media, because, yes, you do have to wait a month between magazines or a couple of years between book releases. Instead, now you can read somebody’s blog, and they’ll say they’re an expert or writer in this or that, and it becomes a real problem. Who are the real writers and who aren’t the real writers? That really bothers me. With Kindles or downloads of books, I’m really worried that that’s going to go the same way as music did, where all of a sudden you can download a book for free from some site. And all of a sudden you don’t have to buy them any more. I’m seeing independent bookstores close, which is really upsetting me, because I support them with what I do. I’m very worried about the whole book business and the whole print media business.

What’s next as far as book projects?

I’m working on an autobiography with Diane Schurr. And I’m also working with Nat King Cole’s widow on their love story.

When do you expect to get those done?

I’m five months pregnant right now, so I hope to get them done before the end of the pregnancy. My agent and I are looking for buyers for them.

Originally Published