One does not set out to be a jazz writer like one would to be a doctor or a lawyer. It just seems to happen. I was born on October 4, 1954, in the Bronx, New York. From the time I was two until I was 11, I lived in Long Island, New York, and then I spent the next five years living in the wastelands of Thousand Oaks and Newbury Park, 30-40 miles outside of Los Angeles. I spent my junior high and high school years very interested in sports history (particularly baseball) and I loved memorizing baseball statistics.
My first significant memory of jazz was watching The Five Pennies, a 1959 movie starring Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong that had Kaye playing the role of cornetist Red Nichols. The screenplay was mostly all fiction but there are some memorable scenes and plenty of music. The love and joy of the music is emphasized and difficult to resist. I knew that I wanted to play trumpet after seeing the film; pity I can't get a decent note out of the horn!
I really discovered jazz shortly before I turned 16. I saw in the Los Angeles Times that there was a Dixieland radio show (Strictly from Dixie, which was hosted by Benson Curtis) on Mondays through Fridays, 5-6 p.m. I figured it would be happy music, so I started listening to it on a regular basis, was quickly hooked, and was soon taping songs off the radio. A few months later I started listening to Chuck Cecil's Swinging Years on the radio, which introduced me to swing.
The next year when I started attending Cal State University at Northridge (as an accounting major), I was lucky enough to be placed in a wing of a dormitory that housed musicians. While they listened to Don Ellis and Buddy Rich, I was playing Dukes of Dixieland records; the musicians knew for sure that I was crazy! I was basically only into pre-1945 jazz (stylistically), essentially Dixieland and swing, but I had an open mind. I read about such musicians as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk and was curious about how their music differed from the earlier forms of jazz.
One day while perusing a used record store, I ran across a $1.99 Charlie Parker LP that, among other songs, included "White Christmas." At least I knew that melody (even if I had not heard of "Groovin' High" and "'Round Midnight") so I bought the album and played it two or three times each day for a week. At first I could not appreciate the music, but by the end of the week the gates had opened and I became quite hungry to learn about and hear all eras of jazz, a desire that has still not been fully satisfied! Within a month I was listening to Miles Davis' Live Evil and John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard Again (featuring the screaming tenor of Pharoah Sanders). My musician friends, whom I quickly passed evolution-wise, now knew for sure that I was nuts!
I started college in September 1971, moving to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University from January 1974 to June 1975 and then returning to Los Angeles to finish up at Northridge, graduating in January 1977 with a B.S. degree in accounting. Although I did not take any significant jazz classes during this time, I was always learning more about the music, exploring all of the different eras on records and starting to go to concerts. One of the first events I went to was at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972 and it had quite a lineup: the Count Basie Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and Oscar Peterson (playing solo)! While in San Francisco I was a regular at Keystone Korner, where one could buy ten tickets (usable at different times) for $20! Seeing Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Woody Shaw, and Miles Davis' three-guitar fusion band were thrills.
I returned to Los Angeles in mid-1975 because a college friend of mine, Brian Ashley, had plans to start a music magazine called Record Review. The idea was for the publication to feature all kinds of music, particularly rock, jazz, classical, and country. I was to be the jazz editor (essentially starting at the top). Although I also worked most of the time full-time as an accountant (a career in which I had indifferent success due to my general lack of interest!), I was the jazz editor of Record Review during its entire life, which resulted in 33 issues between January 1977 and June 1984. Due to the classical section eventually folding and the rock department choosing to focus on heavy metal, by 1983 Record Review was the world's only heavy metal and jazz magazine!
I wrote exclusively for Record Review into 1983 and then, when it was obvious that the magazine (which rarely did better financially than breaking even) might expire eventually, I began sending clips out to other publications and started freelancing. I began writing for Cadence in 1983 (an association that is still strong) and made it on to the masthead of Jazziz by its sixth issue. By the time Record Review finally ceased operations, I was also writing for Downbeat and soon I would be contributing to Coda and Jazz Forum (out of Poland). For a long period I did a humorous jazz trivia quiz (called Syncopation) for Jazz Times along with occasional reviews and interviews.
From then on it was my philosophy to not only write for one magazine but to help jazz in any way I could. It has resulted in some jealousy between a few of the magazines (I ended up choosing Jazziz, where I write regular reissue and book columns, over Jazz Times and Downbeat), but the more secure editors have never had a problem with my prolific nature. Besides, none of the jazz magazines pay enough to have a writer be exclusive!
These days I'm a regular contributor to Jazziz, Cadence, the L.A. Jazz Scene, Coda, the Jazz Report, Jazz Now, Strictly Jazz, the Mississippi Rag, and two new publications: Planet Jazz and Bird. In addition, I've written over 150 liner notes, occasionally do special projects for labels (such as telling them what they own!), and write press biographies.
I first discovered the All Music Guide while (to drop a name) I was at Leonard Feather's townhouse one day. I was impressed by how large the jazz section was in the general guide and I wanted to become involved. Ron Wynn (the jazz editor at the time) and Michael Erlewine were enthusiastic about my participation and some of my reviews made into the first edition of the All Music Guide to Jazz. By the time the second edition came out in 1996, I was the jazz editor and helped organize the giant work. I believe that the third edition is the greatest jazz reference book ever or, at least (at over 1,400 pages), certainly the heaviest!
I was asked to submit a list of my specialty areas and my "desert island list." Basically I listen to all kinds of music, as long as it's jazz! My interests stretch very far within the idiom, from 1920s jazz, swing, Dixieland, and bebop to cool, hard bop, soul-jazz, all types of avant-garde and free jazz, fusion, and the many styles that exist today. Also bordering on jazz, I listen to blues of all eras, Western swing, and early R&B. If the music emphasizes improvisation, has creativity and originality as two of its main goals, and is colorful and full of chance-taking, it interests me!
When asked what records I would take to a desert island, I usually respond that I'd take a few dozen records that I'd never heard before! There'd be no point bringing along Miles Davis' Kind of Blue when one knows every note by heart, and there are few greater thrills than discovering exciting new jazz. But if forced to come up with a dream list of music that I've heard and really love, here's a few of the thousands of items that I cannot do without (limiting, in most cases, the choices to no more than one or two from any specific leader although cheating with a few boxed sets):
Desert Island Picks
Louis Armstrong, Vols. 1-4, Hot Fives & Sevens, Columbia
Charlie Christian, The Genius of the Electric Guitar, Columbia
Nat King Cole, The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, Mosaic (18 CDs)
Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz, Atlantic
Charlie Parker, And Stars of Modern Jazz at Carnegie Hall, Jass
And as a punch line:
The Complete Keynote Collection, Polygram, (21 LPs)
The Complete Commodore Jazz Recordings Vols. I-III, Mosaic (67 LPs!)