I was deeply honored this month to receive a message from the legendary jazz writer, editor, archivist, and producer Dan Morgenstern, who offered his kind praise for this publication. (His letter may be read here.) In it, however, he says, “You have no Letters to the Editor, which I, as a very old member of the tribe, consider a mistake—it’s a very good way to encourage your readers to express their opinion and it can lead to interesting connections and corrections. And it can cause lively exchanges.”
I sense that others share that assessment. I decided to consider the point here, where I could offer a fuller explanation of (or apology for) my editorial idiosyncrasies. Before doing so, I must assert that I love getting letters even if it turns out that I am the World’s Worst Correspondent. I approach each potential personal response as if I am about to begin an oil painting. It might, in fact, take me an hour to write a brief email response. I am in mortal fear of blurting something unfortunate—because it is so natural for me to do so. If I have Tourette’s Syndrome (and I strongly suspect I do), it’s creeping into my fingers.
I’ve blurted my whole life and when I was a kid I got punished for it. And yet, in speech or writing, when I’ve taken off the emergency brake it’s been a load of fun. I’d love to stand on a cliff and hurl scurrilous invective at a mountain. I’m constantly torn between not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings and needing to Let it All Out. I suppose if I wanted to discover what real solitude is like I would publicly say the first thing that popped into my head. Banishment would ensue.
Also, in my personal responses to physical mail, I’m never sure whether to clumsily block letter my thoughts or issue them forth in my idiotic illegible scrawl, a handwriting marked by a lack of sense and rhythm. I can possibly write two sentences that others might conceivably be able to decipher. Or I can roll a piece of paper into one of the many old typewriters I own. Anything I produce by those means seems menacing and weird rather than friendly. Or I can write a note on this computer—which looks impersonal and sterile—and therefore still not that friendly.
Getting back from my long detour (presumably around the mountain I want to swear at), I actually do run Letters to the Editor. I just don’t run every single one I get. My predecessor did print all his correspondence, much to the delight of those who wrote. There was a lot of praise, a lot of nostalgia, some points of contention—and it filled pages. Lots of pages.
My rationale, misguided as it may be, for not following suit may be itemized under several headings:
Firstly, I am often hard-pressed to find space for the pieces that I’ve actually commissioned for inclusion in any particular issue. I don’t have endless pages yawning at me—unless it’s the page on which my own writing is destined to appear. (That would be, specifically, this very essay.)
Secondly, notwithstanding the lavish outpouring of acclaim and affection this issue features on the occasion of our fifth anniversary in print, I am mortified by excessive praise. I am even embarrassed by the notion that, in suggesting I have been granted such generous bouquets, I am being self-serving. No, this is all hypothetical—nothing to see here!
(I am profoundly grateful to Larry Melton and Bryan Wright for assembling the tribute pages at the center of this paper, and to those who sent greetings and applause. I don’t feel worthy—but I thank you!)
Thirdly, a little nostalgia goes a long way. “Yes, wasn’t it great that we all enjoyed that wonderful festival that no longer exists. And we got to see so-and-so and what’s-his-name who are no longer with us.” You’re making me weep. This is supposed to be a happy little jazz newspaper. After ten months of social isolation (and counting), this sort of talk is enough to prod one over the edge. (And by “one,” I mean “me.”) We have to look forward-ish.
Fourthly, I’ve gotten bleary-eyed in my middle age. Typing up someone’s handwritten letter is an activity I save for when the decks are clear. You’d be amazed at how rarely that happens. A reader recently inquired whether we had his handwritten manuscript. I do have it—and it would have made it into this issue if time had not conspired to have me writing copy at three o’ clock in the morning before my printer’s deadline. I’ll make every effort to prepare it for inclusion in the March issue.
Lastly, I have declined to print letters that were critical if I thought they would hurt someone’s feelings or were unfairly negative. If people want to pick fights and dish dirt, there’s always Facebook. Polite and reasonable criticism is fine.
Not, of course, that I have always been reasonable and polite when writing my own Letters to the Editor. I used to say such outrageous things, proudly and openly—and most of them would be printed. I’d say it was karmic retribution, except that none of my correspondents here is as vituperative and Rabelaisian as I was in my contributions. I was a devil—and yet you are all so nice!
I’d have to say for that, as well as for all your own kind words, I am deeply thankful.