Riffing on a Phrase with Wordsmith Scott Yanow

Scott Yanow book cover

Being a jazz journalist who started in the 1970s has afforded Scott Yanow some priceless opportunities and serendipitous encounters. Yanow is an oft-quoted jazz reviewer who plies his trade in magazines, program guides, liner notes and just about anywhere else that a readable font can fit.

An 11-time author and the creator of a jazz trivia quiz that spans the decades and tests even the most diehard music historians, Yanow also has a wry sense of humor about ten yards long, as seen in his testimonials from the VIPs of jazz like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Jelly Roll Morton (who knew he possessed such an enviable time machine?). Long live the imprint they made on jazz and long live the musical observations of Mr. Yanow.

What’s your earliest memory of writing about music?

I first became very interested in jazz in 1970 shortly before I turned 16. I noticed in the Los Angeles Times that there was a listing for a Dixieland radio show that was on Monday through Friday from 5-6 p.m. I thought I’d listen to it since it was happy music.

I soon became addicted and was taping songs off the radio. Within six months I discovered a swing radio show and then, when I went to college, I got into bebop. It was not long before I was listening to the most modern jazz of the period including Miles Davis’ Live/Evil and the avant-garde. I haven’t been bored since.

When I was 18, I remember looking in an issue of Downbeat and thinking, I can do better than that. I never took a journalism class or a serious jazz class. I mostly learned by not repeating the mistakes of others, and by keeping my mind open towards all types of creative music.

A friend of mine decided that he wanted to start a music magazine and I would be the jazz editor. I wrote my first review in 1972 for the trial issue of the magazine which was called Record Review. My second was written for the second trial issue of Record Review which was in 1975. The monthly magazine became a reality later in 1976 and lasted until 1984. Little did I know when I started that I would be reviewing over 20,000 recordings in my career (so far) which may be the record for the most ever in jazz.

Pre-internet, what kinds of sources did you use for research?

Books, liner notes and my own ears. In addition to always having an enthusiasm for jazz in general, one has to keep their ears open and always have a desire to learn more.

Do you remember your first interview and what was the hardest part of the experience?

I interviewed bassist Chubby Jackson back in 1975. He was a cheerful personality and sympathetic to my hesitant questions. The hardest part early on was keeping the conversation going and making the inevitable pauses seem meaningful rather than awkward, but I soon learned.  

Best time ever on an interview?

I interviewed Chick Corea around 1979. It was supposed to be 45 minutes but lasted over 2 hours. He was just so friendly and willing to answer anything that I asked, and I asked plenty of detailed questions about his life and the many musicians that he had already played with up to that point.

Other great interviews included Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, Maynard Ferguson and Dave Brubeck, four of the nicest jazz greats I’ve ever come in contact with.

Do you have a philosophy about reviewing music that you don’t like?

Be both fair and honest.  If it is a style that I just don’t care for, then I simply describe what it sounds like rather than dismissing it entirely. Now if the musician is just not that good, then I have to balance being sympathetic (at least he or she is trying) while keeping in mind that I’m writing for jazz collectors and fans who might be risking $15-20 on that particular CD.

The main goal in my reviews is that readers come away having a good idea whether they would like a particular recording or not. If they read my review and they do not have the slightest idea what the music sounds like, or if they feel that they have to use a dictionary to figure out what I’m talking about, then I’ve failed.

Are you being pitched constantly? How do you decide whom to review?

I’m being pitched every day, sometimes about ten different projects a day. I don’t mind; that’s the publicists doing their job and I’m happy that so much potentially rewarding jazz is being recorded. If I’m not familiar with the artist, then hopefully their new release has a plot of some sort, a specific reason for it existing.

I write regularly for six magazines and in some of them I get to pick whatever I would like to review. I balance the old and the new, veterans and newcomers, and write about a variety of styles including reissues.

What was your first festival program guide?

In the past I’ve written for the Playboy Jazz Festival program guide including the biographies of the performers. Since Playboy is a very eclectic festival that reaches far beyond jazz, that was always a challenge. I also wrote an often-humorous trivia quiz for the Monterey Jazz Festival.

What’s your Holy Grail of interviews?

Oh I don’t know. It was fun interviewing the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who entered the interview room at Columbia Records (in the mid-1980s) with an open bottle of gin in one hand and a lit joint in the other. He spent part of the time blasting Bob James for ruining his current record (which he was supposed to be promoting) but also told some good stories about Lee Morgan, Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollins, among others. He should have written his memoirs.

If I could interview anyone from jazz history it’d probably be Louis Armstrong, or perhaps Buddy Bolden around 1905. 

What do you feel are the most significant changes in how jazz was regarded decades ago versus the place it holds today?

It depends on what decades one is discussing. Before the mid-1950s, jazz was often regarded by the establishment as rebellious and drug-infested. Ever since the late 1950s, it has been thought of as an art form, sometimes to its detriment, particularly when it is treated as a museum piece without relevance to today’s world. The truth is that jazz is the most creative and fun music in the world. One does not need a music degree in order to enjoy it.

It has so many different approaches and covers such a wide area of music that virtually everyone, if properly exposed to it, will find some area that they will enjoy.

Does it depress you that there are fewer clubs and people can just stream music rather than hear it live?

Nothing about jazz depresses me; it’s the soundtrack of my life.

There are actually more jazz clubs in the U.S. today than there were a decade ago, although one would not know that due to it being ignored by the mass media. Although in many places jazz is underground music, the music continues to flourish artistically.

When people talk about jazz’s “golden age,” I say that jazz entered its golden age around 1920 when recordings became widely available and it is still in its golden age. There is so much talent and a countless number of potentially brilliant young players from all over the world.

As regards streaming, musicians are being exploited once again, essentially giving away their recordings and hard work for free or, at best, for pennies. To fix the situation, I offer one word: Stop! Use streaming as a teaser, offering one or two songs as an introduction to your music, but do not have your entire project online for people to download for free, unless the music is truly worthless. And as far as downloads go, if the music is to be taken seriously, have it available as a CD too, with decent packaging and liner notes. Fans will buy it from you at shows, and no one will ever ask you to interview a download. Except in very rare cases, I don’t review downloads; they are the cassette tapes of this era.

The thing that excites you most about jazz is…?

The spontaneity. Musicians go on stage and, although they often have a framework for what they will play, surprises constantly occur. I love the individual sounds that jazz musicians create, the way that they play off of each other, and the surprised looks that they get when the music goes in unexpected areas. Unlike in pop music where musicians often try to recreate their recordings, jazz is about taking chances, often in front of audiences. That is why to me it is the most exciting type of music.

Upcoming projects?

I write regularly for six magazines, have assignments for liner notes, artist biographies and press releases, and am open to anything having to do with jazz. I have also written 11 books on jazz and have plenty of ideas for a 12th one. I look forward to whatever tomorrow brings.

For more information visit www.scottyanow.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mr. Yanow. Top photo credit: Jazz on the Tube
© Debbie Burke 2019

purple gliss

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