Newspapers everywhere were retrenching even before the world financial crisis tetered on the edge of recession and finally fell into it. Declining readership and shriveling advertising revenue demanded cost-cutting. To no one’s surprise, staff and space reductions claimed arts coverage early. When newsroom budgets start to shrink, cultural journalism is among the first targets because editors know that there will be relatively few complaints. In a world of minuscule and increasingly fragmented attention spans focused (ha) on hip-hop, Britney Spears and movies about high school musicals, jazz is even more a minority interest than string quartets, modern dance and bagpipe solos.
Jazz writers still appear sporadically in The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Seattle Times and a few other major papers. Few of them are full-time staff employees. Free lance contributors who once covered live jazz and reviewed recordings regularly show up in print less and less often. Call it the Heckman phenomenon.
Until recently, Don Heckman, the jazz critic of The Los Angeles Times, wrote fairly often about jazz in and around the second largest city in the United States. At the beginning of his career at the Times, Heckman worked in tandem with Leonard Feather to provide readers with some of the most complete daily jazz coverage in the world. Like Feather, he was never a staff member. After Feather died in 1994 Heckman, an experienced musician, careful listener and talented writer, became the Times’ chief jazz contributor. He still is, but the contributions are declining to the point of disappearance. Around the turn of the century, jazz coverage was put under the supervision of the Pop Music editor at the Times. What eventually happened is typical of the fate of jazz coverage at most American newspapers. Here is a little of what Heckman wrote recently on his blog about the current situation.
Several months ago, a new editor took over the reins of the Pop Music department from the acting editor. I was told, almost immediately, by her that jazz reviews would be reduced in number, and would essentially have to be pitched to her for approval That represented an immediate and significant change, since — as one who is deeply aware of developments in jazz, here and elsewhere — I had generally done my own scheduling of reviews, with oversight from the acting editor. In addition, the Sunday jazz record review spotlight disappeared.
In scheduling my reviews — of both live concerts and recordings — I tried to balance the major name programs with as much coverage as possible for the Southland’s huge array of world class jazz talent. That approach became virtually impossible when the reviews were cut back to one a week. Within a month or two, they were cut to one every ten days. After that it became a matter of submitting events I thought were important, and hoping that coverage would be permitted. It usually wasn’t.
About two or more months ago, I was advised that the free lance budget for Pop had run out for the year, and that I should contact my editor in late December to consider what could be covered when the new budget came into effect in January. Basically that meant that I could do no reviews for the last 3 1/2 months of the year.
Considering the concentration and frequency of jazz in Los Angeles and Orange counties, that dictum is an absurdity, but L.A. is far from the only place where jazz coverage is drying up. To see all of Heckman’s posting and learn what besides music he heard when he covered the recent Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, go here.
Not by the way, Mr. Heckman is devoting a substantial share of his time, energy and perceptiveness to a web log. That decision seems somehow familiar. I am adding a link to Here, There and Everywhere under Other Places in the center column.
How is the jazz coverage in your newspaper? Use the comment link below to reply. In your brief paragraph describing the situation, please include the names of your city and your paper.