a site by John Cobley

a coppice gate

The Jazz Review: Why So Short-Lived?

by John Cobley

Friday Apr 29th, 2016


“Most people who publish a little magazine do so with big intentions.” J.C. TLS, May 8, 2015



One of the most interesting jazz magazines ever published has now appeared on the Internet in a PDF version. The Jazz Review (TJR) began publication in 1958 and ceased just 23 monthly issues later in 1961. Co-edited by two young but already respected jazz writers, Martin Williams and Nat Hentoff, TJR seemed likely to succeed; its serious approach was timely as younger university-trained jazz musicians were seeking artistic recognition and jazz had evolved from dance music to serious music for listening. However, TJR was soon embroiled in controversy because of its strong opinions. Musicians were particularly offended by some of its judgments, and I suspect there was some kind of unofficial jazz-musician boycott of the magazine.


The story of TJR is a good parable on idealism. Williams and Hentoff were intent on establishing the essence of true jazz, and although they claimed that they did not influence their contributors, there is strong evidence that they did. Without explicitly stating an idealistic plan in its manifesto, TJR worked to establish a jazz canon, sometimes severely censuring those who in their opinion did not belong. In order to sort the wheat from the chaff, TJR often practiced exclusion rather than definition by ignoring established jazz musicians who did not meet requirements. As well, it attacked commercially successful jazz musicians. Attacks were not made that often, but there were enough to upset the jazz fraternity. Meanwhile, no concept of true jazz was ever clearly defined.


I thought it would be interesting to look into how TJR’s idealism was expressed and how the jazz world reacted. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that editorial idealism was the main cause of the magazine’s demise. 



 Both highly educated, Martin Williams (Columbia) and Nat Hentoff  (Harvard) wanted to raise jazz to a higher level so that it would be taken as seriously as classical music. TJR, they asserted in a manifesto (1:2), would deal with jazz “on a level other than that of a ‘fan’ or news magazine.” Down Beat and Esquire were two such magazines that they openly criticised. To augment their editorial seriousness, Williams and Hentoff  made two good moves. First, they enlisted several respected jazz musicians to write record reviews: Bill Crow, Julian Adderley, Chuck Israels, Quincy Jones, and Bob Brookmeyer. This use of musician reviewers was innovative and was generally praised by readers. Second, they took on Gunther Schuller as Contributing Editor. Schuller was a classical composer who promoted the integration of jazz and classical music into “Third Stream” music.  


The format of TJR was consistent from the start. Following a “Letters” section, each issue had five to six major articles that although predominantly dealing with contemporary jazz, always had at least one historical article and sometimes a blues article. These major articles were followed by approximately 15 record reviews and four book reviews. Next came a regular blues feature that printed the lyrics of a celebrated blues recording.  Finally, Hentoff’s “Jazz in Print” finished the editorial material with an encyclopedic, worldwide coverage of all the current writing on jazz; this substantial column usually ran to about three pages. Overall, each issue of the magazine, which had a few record-label ads, totaled some 50 pages.


TJR was topical (“Jazz in Print” and “Reviews: Recordings”) as well as historical. It was careful to honor the history of jazz (the blues and early recordings), but it pointedly ignored the commercial bands of the Big Band Era. Thus the jazz canon was strongly implied by the choice of musicians and bands in the major articles. The main areas of direct criticism and evaluation came in the record reviews and “Jazz in Print.” 


Here are some examples of the harsh criticism in TJR: “Yet [Cannonball Adderley] produces a sound that seems calculated to irritate.” (Crow, 2:6) “Most of us have been bored by the monotony of [Oscar] Peterson’s mechanical posturings, but it is hard to convey their meaninglessness in words.” (Max Harrison, 3:1) “He [Edmond Hall] has nothing that could be properly called an idea, much less an extended, cohesive series of thoughts.” (Guy Waterman, 2:9) “His [Paul Bley’s] attack is brutal. His musical imagination is at the mercy of his ego. He resorts to pianistic "emoting," much in the manner that an energetic but tasteless actor will indicate wrath to an audience by stamping and shouting.” (Crow, 2:2)  Perhaps the cruelest comment was a joke at the expense of violinist Stuff Smith by Chuck Israels, who ended his review of Smith’s album with praise for all the other musicians and a final “the rest is Stuff and nonsense.” (3:4)



Leonard Feather


As if some of the record-review comments weren’t vindictive enough, there were also some notable attacks in Nat Hentoff’s regular “Jazz in Print” column. Early on there was a noticeable venom in his writing; he enjoyed making fun of other writers on jazz, especially non-specialists like Louella Parsons. He started a “Department of Utter Overgeneralization” that included Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker, and a satirical  “Liner Notes to Live By.” He had no time for Life magazine, which at the time was featuring a lot of jazz, calling it “the Stan Kenton of the field.” (Bandleader Kenton was one of the bêtes noires of TJR) Once, he condescendingly called critic Dan Morgenstern “quite perceptive.” Jazz musicians were also treated with disdain:  Errol Garner used “safe formulas”; George Shearing “emasculated modern jazz”; Lionel Hampton displayed  “sweaty showmanship.”


Of course, much of the writing and reviewing did not sink to this level. Some of it was of the highest quality. Nevertheless, there was enough harsh criticism to deeply offend. For example,  Quincy Jones, in a review of an Ellington recording, started by stating explicitly that Cat Anderson is not “a jazz musician” and has “never played jazz.” The closest Jones gets to explaining what a jazz musician is (and what Anderson is not) comes when he praises another trumpeter in Ellington’s orchestra: Clark Terry. Terry is called “a natural musician” and is said to have “never sounded like anyone else.” In the early issues of TJR, several other prominent musicians were attacked fairly consistently: Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Glenn Miller, George Shearing, Dakota Staton, Stan Kenton. Since all these musicians were highly successful commercially, it must be deduced that commercial success was an important reason for exclusion from the jazz canon.


Today, over 50 years later, it is difficult to find evidence of negative reaction to the early issues of TJR. However, the editors did admit to being discouraged at not being able to enlist and keep musician-reviewers. (3:3) The clearest evidence of dissatisfaction can be seen in the “Letters” section of TJR, which of course the editors controlled. Two letters stand out, both written by musicians too prominent to ignore and both stressing that harsh criticism can damage working jazz musicians. The first was from pianist Bill Evans: “I found in the guise of a musical review a personal, perhaps vicious, attack directed at Tony Scott.” After defending Scott, Evans wrote, “The careless handling of journalistic responsibility…can affect the lives of those exposed thereby.” (2:7) A much longer and more general complaint came from Dan Morgenstern (3:3). After setting up an excerpt from a review, he describes a noticeable general attitude in TJR “which could be described as pseudo-Olympian: snobbish, smugly omniscient and oddly reminiscent of Time, the magazine devoid of respect for anything or anyone.” He then admonishes the editors: “But you are becoming so concerned with problems of abstract critical and artistic ideals that you are rapidly losing sight of the essential factor in jazz: the living, breathing working musician who earns his bread by performing jazz music, all kinds of music, under all kinds of conditions.”



Martin Williams


The respected status of Morgenstern in the jazz world led to responses from both editors. Williams answers obliquely, virtually agreeing with Morgenstern that judging can be achieved without being “morally superior.” He then goes on to attack the “fan” enthusiasm in criticism that was rampant in the 1930s and 1940s, while claiming that TJR is enthusiastic in a positive way, “complemented by musical ears, human intelligence and critical perception.” Williams doesn’t deal with Morgenstern’s point about the working musician, but Hentoff does. While admitting that TJR can be “occasionally inconsistent” when it comes to “dehumanized abstractions,” he responds aggressively: “I also think Dan Morgenstern is, in his letter, inconsistent.” He goes on to challenge Morgenstern on several specific points. Then Hentoff gets to his main point: “The essential misunderstanding of the criticism in Morgenstern’s letter is the appalling sentence: ‘Such pronouncements may have an effect on a musician’s livelihood.’” Hentoff argues that a musician’s livelihood should have “absolutely no bearing on how a critic should function.” After more disagreement with Morgenstern’s specifics, Hentoff finishes with an admission that “love” should be a part of criticism, but not infatuation: “It is usually those who are in love with love in the abstract who regard themselves as ‘servants’ of the beloved.” (3:3)


Although Williams and Hentoff seemed reluctant to accept Morgenstern’s criticism, his letter did have an effect. Much of the harshness subsequently disappeared from TJR. But it seems that the damage was done; after this exchange with Morgenstern, TJR survived only another seven issues. Many jazz musicians clearly distanced themselves from TJR; this can be deduced from the fact that in later issues there were no longer any musicians reviewing recordings. Jazz Monthly, a British magazine, reported that TJR was known in New York jazz circles as The Hostility Rag.


Of course, there could have been other reasons for the magazine’s disappearance. The original publishers had bailed out after six issues and Hsio Wen Shih, the early Art Editor, had taken over as publisher. So money may have been an issue. But I feel that deep down the fundamental reason for the demise of TJR was the missionary idealism of the two editors.

Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.