Sometimes a life changing moment happens and you know it immediately. That’s what it was like one morning in April 2020, when I awoke to an email from an editor at NPR. He wanted to know if I’d like to write for their music section, NPR Music. To that point, I had been writing about jazz for the Wall Street Journal and Jazz Times and about other stuff for the Brooklyn College website. This generated essential money but seemed to do little to advance my career. There were artists that I written about often who when I saw them asked me rather straightforwardly, “do you still write.”
That was because WSJ has a paywall, and I can’t post my reviews here until 30 days after publication. My work at NPR would face no such barriers. I read the email one morning on my phone as I was persuading myself that the world beyond my bed wouldn’t kill me. By the time I was halfway through my first coffee, I had two assignments. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the week.
Those two assignments which thankfully haven’t run (they were advance obituaries) have led to numerous other articles. Coincidentally, as this is the day that NPR turns 50, I thought I’d share them in a Vertical Search.
The first piece that ran was a quick turnaround appreciation of the late trumpeter Eddie Gale.
That led to an appreciation of the great bassist Gary Peacock the afternoon his passing was confirmed. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/07/910054995/gary-peacock-a-jazz-bassist-always-ahead-of-his-time-dies-at-85
I asked to write about some musicians that were still with us, and following the most recent long hot summer, I offered them a piece on the revival of black owned jazz labels from the ’70s and this was the result. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/22/915323876/rediscovering-the-enormous-social-and-spiritual-legacy-of-black-jazz-records
Then I kind of fell out of touch for a coupla months. There were no deaths that required my attention, and my ideas about jazz couples enduring the pandemic (instead of never being together, suddenly these couples were always together) and an idea on vibes were pocket vetoed. But for their end of the year package, I was asked to write a short piece on Sonny Rollins. It was kind of a big deal.
2. Sonny Rollins
Rollins in Holland (1967, Resonance)
In a 1985 interview, the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins told me “the glory isn’t in grasping the ring, it’s in reaching for it.” Rollins in Holland, which gathers three separate Dutch settings by Rollins in 1967 with bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink, shows Sonny’s expansive ambitions and ardent pursuit with bandmates intent on pushing and hurtling cantankerously along with the leader. The late ’60s are an under-documented phase of his career, yet this is more than a welcome vintage, it’s a solid addition to the Rollins canon. –Martin Johnson
Then suddenly I was asked to write an appreciation of Jonas Gwangwa. This was becoming routine. https://www.npr.org/2021/01/23/959997781/jonas-gwangwa-south-african-musician-and-activist-dies-at-83
Recently, I was asked to write an appreciation of Sonny Simmons. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/13/986501724/sonny-simmons-fiercely-independent-alto-saxophonist-dies-at-87
This week, I wrote an appreciation of Curtis Fuller.